It Takes More Than Bluster to Brexit

Posted By: December 24, 2017

Susan McKay.New York Times. Tuesday, December  19, 2017

DUBLIN — This month, as Arctic winds have swept down through Britain, Brexit has led the government of Prime Minister Theresa May into a blizzard of humiliations.

It is two weeks since the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up Mrs. May’s minority government, made a show of her. She was in Brussels for a working lunch, about to smile her way through the carefully choreographed announcement of a deal that guaranteed “regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

But Mrs. May was called offstage to take a call from the leader of the D.U.P., Arlene Foster, who told her that the party would not tolerate a deal that distinguished Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain. Ms. Foster’s concern was that the deal would effectively move the border to the Irish Sea, creating the illusion that Ireland was united and separate from “the mainland.” That would be anathema to unionists, for whom the border that winds across the island of Ireland is the last frontier of the empire. (The D.U.P. has loved the way that Brexit, with its strutting nationalism, has brought out in the rest of Britain the Union Jacks that festoon the parts of Northern Ireland that are loyal to the queen.)

Four intense days after the D.U.P.’s intervention, the European Union and Britain reached a new deal that weakened the British Brexiters’ position, strengthened that of the Irish government and had the support of the rest of the bloc. This time it spelled out that there would be “full alignment” between Britain and Ireland in relation to the rules of the single market and the customs union; and that Northern Ireland’s peace deal, known as the Good Friday Agreement, would be honored.

But Brexit Secretary David Davis promptly and breezily confided on a British television show that this hard-won deal was “much more a statement of intent than it was a legally enforceable thing.”

The European Union’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, shot back that there would be no final deal unless Britain respected the agreements it had made. Rubbing it in, the European Commission reminded Mrs. May that she had “shaken hands” on a “gentleman’s agreement.”

At a working dinner in Brussels on Thursday night, Mrs. May had to tolerate being slapped on the wrist by one European leader after another: All agreements entered into in the first phase, which covers financial arrangements, the Irish border and citizens’ rights, were to be “translated faithfully into legal terms.” Otherwise, phase two, which will deal with Britain’s transition toward Brexit and future trading arrangements with the common market, would not proceed. Thus admonished, Mrs. May was ushered out from the dinner like an 18th-century lady banished to the drawing room, while the leaders of the other 27 states stayed behind at the table to smoke cigars and drink port — or at any rate to discuss the future of Europe.

The Brexit that is taking shape around the hapless Mrs. May is not the one hard-line Brexiters promised when they vowed to “take back control.” Locking the door on migrants and free trade with purveyors of chlorinated chickens look increasingly unlikely. To avoid making a special case of Northern Ireland, Britain has been forced already to concede a “soft Brexit.” In effect, it is going to be stuck with European Union rules — it just won’t have any say in making them.

A Conservative rebellion last week that saw Mrs. May defeated in the House of Commons means that any final Brexit deal she reaches with the European Union must be submitted to Parliament for debate before it is signed into law. The government had hoped to rely on a constitutional precedent established by that old British bulldog, King Henry VIII, to avoid this scrutiny. A government spokesman hastily issued a statement that said, “We are as clear as ever …”

But there has been nothing clear about this government’s strategies for leaving the European Union. It may not even have any. Earlier in this month of mortification, Mr. Davis was forced to admit that he had actually carried out no assessments on how Brexit would impact the British economy, despite having claimed on multiple occasions that he and his officials had carried out from 50 to over 100 such assessments, which he said went into all aspects in “excruciating detail.” He escaped indictment for misleading Parliament with the support of the D.U.P.

Faced now with the requirement of stating its plans in the language capable of being turned into laws and protocols, the government looks more and more foolish. Mrs. May’s attempts to stride purposefully on the international stage look increasingly like someone floundering, lost, through the snow.

There were a few emollient words for the prime minister before she was sent home across the English Channel on Thursday, but they just sounded patronizing. Any embarrassment over a debacle authored entirely by Britain is looked upon coldly. If the country makes a fool of itself, all the better — an unedifying spectacle is sure to discourage other restless member states down the road.

After their summit, European Union leaders sent a message to London: The government must urgently “provide further clarity” on its plans. Mrs. May, who has never been a convincing advocate for the cause she must champion, now has three months to put together a coherent set of proposals to bring back to the European Union while getting on with the legally fraught task of implementing the first phase.

If Mrs. May and her blustering crew represent the best of British diplomacy, then post-Brexit Britain will be a sorry state.

Susan McKay (@SusanMcKay15) is writing a book about the Irish border.