Sunday 25 August 2019

No-deal Brexit 'more likely' as May successor under pressure to deliver

As EU rifts claim fourth UK leader, new PM faces an uphill battle, write Michael Birnbaum and Griff Witte

UK Prime Minister Theresa May returns to No 10 Downing Street after delivering her emotional resignation speech on Friday morning. Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville
UK Prime Minister Theresa May returns to No 10 Downing Street after delivering her emotional resignation speech on Friday morning. Photo: REUTERS/Toby Melville

On one side of the English Channel, supporters see it as the greatest peace project the world has ever known.

But seen from that sceptred isle scarcely 20 miles out at sea, the European Union looks more like a political assassin, one with a particularly rapacious appetite for British prime ministers.

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The EU claimed its fourth victim in the past three decades last Friday, as a choked-up Theresa May acknowledged that her attempt to get Britain out of the bloc with her career intact had failed.

Three of her predecessors have also been evicted from Downing Street while trying to crack the code of Europe.

Now May's successor will attempt to avoid the same fate. And analysts say that to do so, he or she may have little choice but to steer Britain toward what was once seen as a remote possibility but is increasingly viewed as a live prospect: a chaotic departure from the EU with no agreement on what comes next.

"A no-deal Brexit has become significantly more likely," said Steven Fielding, politics professor at the University of Nottingham. "Whoever follows May will be faced with an existential threat. They'll think, 'If I don't deliver Brexit, I'm finished'."

If Britain does jump into the post-EU world without a net, the impact would shake Britain's economy - with ripples, and perhaps waves, far beyond its shores. May had sought to avoid that outcome, pressing the country's fractious Parliament to pass the compromise she struck with her continental peers. But that deal was voted down three times, and May resigned rather than face the indignity of a fourth defeat.

With EU leaders insisting there will be no new negotiation, it is not clear how May's successor can follow through on Brexit other than to depart without a deal on Halloween, the next in a series of deadlines since Britain's vote to exit nearly three years ago.

Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary and front-runner to succeed May, highlighted the possibility last Friday, telling an economics conference in Switzerland that his country would "leave the EU on October 31, deal or no deal."

Of course, that could be a bluff. Johnson acknowledged as much, adding that "the way to get a good deal is to prepare for a no-deal".

It's possible, some analysts believe, that Johnson - or whoever takes power in London - could be confronted with the same painful Brexit education May has undergone. That, they say, could lead to yet more uncertainty and requests for extensions.

But across Europe on Friday, May's resignation brought a recognition that a no-deal scenario may be the only way out.

"A hard Brexit seems like a reality that is almost impossible to avoid," said a spokeswoman for the Spanish government, Isabel Celaa. "There are some in London who think they can negotiate another deal," said Rosa Balfour, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. "That's not going to happen. They've already got the best deal they're going to get. The red lines will not change."

May found that out the hard way, repeatedly pressing her European counterparts to give her more so she could sell Parliament on the deal and end the impasse that has left Britain stuck in the nether-region between EU membership and life on the outside.

Her downfall follows that of David Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher, all of whom found themselves unable to unite the country - and, perhaps most critical, their party - behind a common position on Europe. "The Conservative Party has been almost fatally divided on this issue since the 1980s," Fielding said. "Successive party leaders have struggled to manage the divisions, and all of them have failed. The Conservative Party's problem has now become the British problem."

Whoever wins the job will face the most daunting challenge yet in holding the party together. An expected drubbing in European Parliamentary elections at the hands of the Nigel Farage-led Brexit Party, which did not exist several months ago, will underline just how close the Conservatives are to cracking up, Fielding said.

And it will likely embolden those on the right of the party who are pushing for an exit at any cost.

Little will be clear before late October, Europeans expect, since they don't think British lawmakers will make any difficult decisions without a deadline to sharpen their minds.

European policymakers love to loathe the list of ardent Brexiteers now aiming to succeed May at 10 Downing Street. They reserve particular disdain for Johnson, whom they remember from his days whipping up hostility toward the EU as a Brussels-based correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers have spent three years advocating negotiating positions that are unrealistic given European demands and pressures, Brussels diplomats say.

There are some European leaders - notably French President Emmanuel Macron - who long to pull the ripcord at the end of October and cast Britain away so that they can move on with their own plans.

But, for now, European diplomats expect that an extension in October would be granted, following the same logic as an emergency meeting of EU leaders last month. It's probably worse for the European Union to have Britain depart in an uncontrolled fashion than to extend the uncertainty, they say.

European leaders have offered no additional concessions to Britain, despite May's struggle to pass the divorce deal, because they see the agreement less as a negotiation than as the only answer to a math problem.

Add up Britain's red lines and what results is the current divorce deal, as unpopular as it is, policymakers in Brussels say. The only way to change the deal is to take away some of the red lines, such as a desire not to have a customs barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain.

That won't change with May's successor.

Even a no-deal Brexit wouldn't end the drama. The conversation the next day between London and Brussels would be the same. They still need to find a solution to keep open the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland to avoid sparking a new conflict. They have to agree on a way for British citizens to continue to live and work in the EU, and vice-versa. And the EU will still want Britain to live up to its financial commitments in the EU budget it agreed to before it decided to depart the bloc.

"Citizens, peace on the island of Ireland and money," one senior European diplomat warned last month, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations. If there is a no-deal departure, the diplomat said, "every term in the withdrawal agreement will still be discussed with the UK".

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