‘Brexit Means Brexit:’ The Opaque Future of UK-EU Relations

It’s been more than two months since the UK voted to leave the EU, and yet we still know very little about the long-term implications for EU-UK relations. Since taking office, new British Prime Minister Theresa May’s position on the issue has been summed up by the somewhat vacuous statement that ‘Brexit means Brexit.’ This week, May finally sought to flesh out what this position actually means. However, her attempt to do so has exposed the contradictions in the UK position, and the deep internal divisions within the UK government as to precisely what Brexit should mean. Meanwhile, even if the UK is able to resolve itself into a clear negotiating position, securing desired outcomes depends on the consent of EU leaders, which is far from guaranteed. Thus the future of UK-EU relations remains deeply uncertain.

The central thrust of the UK government position as it stands is that there can be no attempt to avert a British exit from the EU, or, as May somewhat perplexingly put it this week ‘there can be no attempt to stay through the back door.’ This is a direct response to efforts of committed remainers, including Labour leadership candidate Owen Smith, to push for a second referendum on the terms of a Brexit deal, as well as to efforts to stall the triggering of Article 50 in Parliament. There have been reports that May will seek to bypass Parliament entirely in triggering Article 50, in order to prevent this. But beyond this, little has been made clear of the PM’s position.

At the heart of this failure to disclose is an enduring tension between the government’s desire to control immigration from the EU and the prevailing economic view that it is in the British interest to remain within the single market. As Francois Hollande spelled out explicitly and publicly in his first meeting with May, this is not possible. This week, we have begun to see signs that May will lean towards controlling immigration in this trade-off. In this, she is supported by some in the UK government, notably the Brexiteers David Davis and Liam Fox, ministers for Brexit and International Trade respectively. But there have also been indications that other senior government figures, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, will push to retain single market access. An aggressive battle over this question could risk disrupting the fragile unity in the Conservative Party over which May has presided since taking office. Nonetheless, May must face this battle, however damaging it may be.

Meanwhile, at the European end, there is increasing frustration with the slowness of Britain to present its position, and a sense that UK politicians are trying to have their cake and eat it. This week, Commission VP Frans Timmermans called on British leaders to ‘get their act together and tell us what they really want.’ This frustration could see European goodwill eroded, and the EU position harden. From Germany, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel argued that Britain must not be allowed to just ‘keep the nice things.’ Instead, in his view, a clear message must be sent out to discourage others from following the British path. However, as of yet European leaders have not indicated they will seek a punitive settlement. But what is clear is that Britain will not be allowed to cherry pick its future relationship with the EU; rather, it will be the product of mutual agreement.

Thus the stage is set for prolonged and difficult Brexit negotiations, with both negotiating sides suffering from division, and a potentially wide disparity between the deal Britain seeks and that which it can realistically hope to achieve. The final outcome, and the long-term settlement of EU-UK relations therefore remains obscured by several layers of uncertainty. Only time will tell what Brexit really means.