Soft Brexit …or how to do a swift about-turn

In the wake of the UK elections, the ensuing confusion suggests an increasing likelihood of a soft Brexit, as Theresa May does not have a majority and will have to deal with the situation as it stands. However, it cannot, and will not, be quite that simple as this would mean going back on the result of the Brexit referendum.

One source of confusion derives from the fact that British citizens’ image of Europe has changed considerably in the space of a year, and according to a survey by PEW Research Center in Spring 2017, a majority of the population in the UK has a positive view of Europe i.e. 54%, or 10 points higher than this time last year at the time of the referendum.

The idea of a soft Brexit has emerged as a result of Theresa May’s losses at the recent general election. She called a snap election to strengthen her majority and kick off negotiations for the UK to make a hard exit from the European Union with a stronger hand… and it is worth bearing in mind that May’s stance was indeed for a clean and total break from the EU, which was not necessarily the most effective option from an economic and financial standpoint, but it was the option that best fitted with the UK population’s decision on immigration and its relationship with Brussels.

Access to the single market hinges on compliance with the European Union’s four fundamental freedoms: freedom of movement of workers, goods, services and capital. The refusal to accept the freedom of movement for people bars the UK from being part of the EU and the single market. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier will make no bones about this point.

A soft Brexit means that the UK would back down on the matter of immigration, but also that the country would accept decisions from Brussels on the single market without being able to contest them. (In this type of situation, access to the single market would mean enjoying access to other European countries without being involved in talks on changes that may be implemented on this very single market).

These conditions are a total contradiction of Brexiteers’ and Theresa May’s previous stance. Their aim was to put a stop to immigration and stop Brussels’ directives impinging on their vision of what it means to be a British citizen or company. In other words, the UK wanted to regain the full sovereignty that it believed it had lost by joining the EU. Is the country ready to back down on that already? What is the UK’s true fundamental stance on this question? The answer to this question is not clear, which is why voting on a question of such huge importance in a referendum with a simple majority was not a good idea.

Confusion also comes from Theresa May’s seeming inability to form a new government. She is having trouble mustering up a majority and some former members of her cabinet are already jumping ship. Is Theresa May’s problem perhaps that she no longer embodies what the British people want from their prime minister? Her campaign was lackluster and her strong lead at the time the general election was called soon disappeared. Can she still represent the UK during the Brexit negotiations?

Confusion also arises from the fact that negotiations must start on June 19 and that the UK delegation seems ill-equipped, with no government, no clear stance to defend and insufficient resources to negotiate, as there appears to be a dearth of strong quality negotiators.

And there is also confusion on the budgetary prerequisite for any talks. The European Union has drawn up an exit bill to cover the UK’s financial commitments to Europe, which stands anywhere between 20 and 100 billion euros depending on whether you are talking to London or Brussels. This issue has to be resolved before talks can begin on the full list of points under negotiation (citizens, trade, the City), that will result in the UK bowing out of the EU. Meanwhile, negotiations on a fresh trade agreement can only begin after this phase. So the process is set to be long and painful for the UK.

Negotiations between the UK and the EU are taking place at the worst possible time for the UK. The country is confused as to its political way forward, as shown by the results of the general election, and they do not necessarily seem to want to follow Theresa May’s road to hell and hard Brexit. The lack of clear guiding principles is detrimental, and it paves the way for the possibility of a soft Brexit, even if this means reneging on the initial stance on immigration and letting Brussels maintain an important role in British affairs.

Talks are happening against an improved economic backdrop across all countries in the euro area. The UK example of robust growth is therefore not quite as convincing, and the UK is perhaps not so much the key player it was in a not-so-distant past.

Lastly, the option of a soft Brexit raises questions on just how representative the referendum really was, given that the result can be flouted just one year later…although the UK at least seems to have found a place in its heart for its continental neighbors once more.

This is my weekly column for Forbes. You can read it in French here

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