May needs to seal core Brexit deals for Britain
There is no time to lose if prime minister is to secure the least disruptive transition and she would be wise to inject younger blood into her cabinet
Messy divorces are usually no one else’s business beyond immediate family. With Brexit, though, everyone, especially great trading nations such as China, the United States and Japan, has a legitimate interest in the terms of Britain’s separation from and future relationship with the world’s biggest trading bloc. But they have no control over events that are shaping it. They can only hope Prime Minister Theresa May pulls off a win-win outcome for Britain, Europe and an increasingly globalised world. The challenge seems almost insurmountable for a politically weak leader, her authority undermined by the loss of a parliamentary majority in an election she did not need to call.
It comes as a pleasant surprise, therefore, that the recent crucial European Council summit was hailed as progress in Britain’s negotiations, despite key “phase one” issues such as money, or the divorce bill, remaining unresolved. And there is still no agreement on a transitional deal after March 2019 or discussion of “phase two”, the gut issues of Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.
So it is understandable if people clutch at straws, and observers have highlighted two to emerge from the summit. The 27 EU nations will finally begin internal talks on the transition and there was positive feedback, notably from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But come another council meeting and reality check next month, real progress in crafting a deal to satisfy both the 27 and May’s hardline backbench followers will not be any easier. If she wants continued access to markets to protect British jobs and living standards, she has to cut deals on core issues in the “leave” vote, such as the free movement of people and supranational jurisdiction.
That would be seen as a betrayal by many followers and some media. Politically, she needs to regain the initiative, perhaps by injecting new, younger blood into her uninspiring cabinet. There is no time to lose if she is to secure the least disruptive transition – continued membership for the time being of the EU single market and customs union, as she envisioned in a recent landmark speech in Florence before the council summit. That would serve everyone’s best interests.