Theresa May has faced heavy criticism at home and in Europe for her handling of Brexit talks. From the start, her government was accused of treating EU citizens like a bargaining chip to win new trade deals. There’s good reason why this has stuck.
May has introduced so many red lines and conditions on EU negotiations it’s little surprise they have not progressed much. We know far more what Brexit is not than what it means. For example, the Prime Minister has vetoed staying in the single market, remaining in a customs union, having a points based immigration system or allowing continued free movement of EU citizens.
The new joke doing the rounds much better than May’s plans was summed up by German Chancellor Angela Merkel commenting that Theresa May says she wants Brexit, but doesn’t say what Brexit might be like. When asked what Britain wants, May asks Merkel to make her an offer – which clearly puts the horse before the cart. Cue belly laughs from Brussels. It’s like ending a relationship to start seeing other people but asking your ex-lover for advice on remaining better than friends. No wonder Eurocrats are confused.
May’s government repeatedly denies using EU citizens like a political football – giving them a kicking as they play the game of Brexit in Europe – claiming that no guarantees should be afford for EU citizens here until there is certainty for UK nationals there. Only problem with that denial is the EU made clear its support for permanent rights for UK nationals. So the issue isn’t the failure of the EU to secure rights of UK nationals, but of May’s government to extend the reciprocal agreement to EU citizens in the UK. Like a football player blaming the opposing team for unfair play while trying to foul their players when they think the referee isn’t watching.
Now we learn that May’s tough talk is more soundbite than reality. She might want registration schemes to cover EU nationals already here and for those coming during the transition, but it turns out persistent lack of resources and understaffing – much of it on her watch as then Home Secretary – has left the Home Office unable to cope with high expectations set for it. Nor does it help there is no clear idea on how many EU nationals are here either.
These dire straits are a shambles. The decision to pull the trigger on Article 50 was clearly done before there was any substantive plans for what kind of Brexit would be delivered and how to do it. More a cynical gimmick to win quick favour with right-wing tabloids in a surprise attack on Labour through a snap election. Yet the Prime Minister who declared only she could deliver “strong and stable leadership” has only done the opposite as her plot backfired spectacularly in what was called the worst manifesto launch and campaign in living memory.
The problem here is – to quote May during the campaign – “nothing has changed”. She says much, but delivers so little. Not even phase one of the Brexit talks has actually been completed. The proof? Continuing confusion on how May’s red line on leaving any form of a customs union with her pledge to keep an open border in Northern Ireland – not to mention her view that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So each phase of the talks incomplete until it’s all approved. It doesn’t stop her ministers from saying phase one is complete, but this is only another example of their saying one thing and the reality being different.
This is not simply a problem of Brexit talks going much slower than government politicians say although time is running out and it is increasingly alarming how much remains to settle. The elephant in the room is the damage to our democracy such empty promises made repeatedly will have in perhaps Brexit’s most bitter legacy. Not a good scorecard.
Leaving the EU was fuelled by many things from a desire to reassert British sovereignty to concerns about immigration, but a key driver was a sense of alienation and distrust of the political classes. Voters who felt left behind by globalisation made their voices heard unmistakably. Pro-Brexit politicians made promises their critics said they couldn’t keep. Now this is being tested and looks increasingly certain that any Brexit we get will be far from what was promised.
If talks do not improve soon – or if there is no new option on the table that is deliverable and has public support, the damage done will be much more than to Theresa May’s personal fortunes (she’s already on borrowed time) but to the system overall that risks harming all sides at a critically important time.
As Brexit talks inch closer to full-time, May is betting on a high stakes gamble taking on the EU in a penalty shoot-out like situation. We all know how well this usually turns out. The risk to all parties is not only that May might miss the goal and leave Britain worse off, but the public will want some new national game. Politics as we know it may change whether or not those in power want it to with consequences yet to be seen.