A softening of attitudes towards a hard Brexit

Theresa May should now realise that without a deal on migration, Britain’s divorce from the European Union will be a messy one

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 1:24am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 1:24am

The first European Union summit since British Prime Minister Theresa May lost the mandate of an outright parliamentary majority reflected a weakening in her Brexit negotiating position, highlighted by the migration question. Immigration was a potent issue in last year’s Brexit referendum campaign. The future of about three million EU citizens residing in Britain is now an emotive debate. They have reason to fear a hard Brexit. May’s tough rhetoric on immigration has done nothing to ease their anxiety that they might be forced to leave, or become second-class citizens.

There has been a shift in sentiment, however, to a soft Brexit in which Europe’s views on the future relationship carry more weight. It is to be seen in the response to what May called a fair offer on the rights of EU citizens in Britain. Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Donald Tusk all dismissed it as failing that test, and a matter still needing to be dealt with in the detailed negotiations now under way.

With knives out for Theresa May, some UK ministers are talking about Philip Hammond as possible PM to steer Brexit

May said no Europeans living lawfully in Britain would have to leave, families would not be split and EU citizens would be given a grace period to normalise their status. This is more constructive than her earlier insensitive handling of the uncertainty. But EU citizens’ groups in Britain still called it pathetic. Nonetheless, the proposals are a promising restart on resolving one of the thorniest Brexit issues. As with many others, the outcome depends on the detail.

Britain still faces a new deal with the EU that could leave it much worse off economically and socially. The disastrous election outcome for May is a blow to the credibility of the Brexit process. Hopefully, for Britain’s sake, a shift in sentiment towards a soft Brexit will help build consensus in favour of a more engaged relationship with Europe, perhaps including some kind of continued access to a single market. That will call for a radical change in priorities. Now that she has formed a majority governing coalition with a minor party, May needs to get on with a major rethink. Otherwise her talk of cooperation on terrorism, defence, climate change, trade and migration with partners it is about to divorce will ring hollow.