A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

United They Stand

As the Brexit process begins the British government finds it has few friends left.

Theresa May’s divorce letter was received by a European Union united in its determination not to give a United Kingdom outside the EU special privileges. Meanwhile, Brexit is fracturing unity in the UK.

© REUTERS/Yves Herman

At 1.20 pm Brussels time on March 29, the clock started ticking on the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. Britain’s EU ambassador Sir Tim Barrow hand-delivered the divorce letter to EU Council President Donald Tusk, who said he was saddened to receive the document. Under EU rules, the UK must leave the bloc no later than March 29, 2019.

If British Prime Minister Theresa May, who had signed the letter the previous night, had any illusions left about the likelihood of being handed a smooth and easy exit agreement by the EU, they should have been put to rest today. While expressing disappointment, the remaining 27 EU members repeated their determination that the UK will not get special privileges as a result of these two-year negotiations.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, tweeted a picture of himself and his negotiating team, saying they are “ready.” “We will work for #EU27 member states, EU institutions and citizens,” he said, very clearly leaving out the 28th member state – Britain. The European Parliament’s chief negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, issued a statement reiterating that there can be no special treatment for the UK, no cherry-picking of EU market access, and no sectoral agreements. Manfred Weber, the leader of Europe’s center-right caucus and Angela Merkel’s point man in the European Parliament, said that from now on, only “real” EU citizens concerned him.

Across Europe, national leaders issued statements in the same vein – expressing sadness at the UK’s departure but determination to protect the remaining citizens of Europe from an unfair deal that advantages London. EU countries may still disagree on many things, but on Brexit they are united as never before.

Even BusinessEurope, one of the most conservative industry associations in Brussels which represents businesses from across the continent, issued a statement today demanding that any deal must “preserve the integrity of the single market based on its four freedoms” (one of which is freedom of movement, anathema to the British government).

Mission Impossible?

May will step into this lion’s den on April 29, at the first summit of national leaders convened to deal with the Brexit question. From the start, the odds are stacked against her.

Despite repeated British requests to start informal negotiations early, the EU refused to begin talks with the UK about its future relationship with the bloc until today’s letter was delivered. The insistence, made in a united front by all 27 national leaders, was an early warning sign that this would not be an amicable divorce.

May has signaled that she has no intention of accepting continued adherence to EU rules or EU court jurisdiction. In a sudden policy reversal, she announced in January that rather than trying to negotiate access to the EU’s single market, she would be pursuing a so-called “hard” Brexit. This will mean a clean break with the European Union – the UK will leave the single market as well as the customs union. Unless the UK can reach a free trade deal with the EU within two years, it will suddenly be forced to do business with its largest trading partner on World Trade Organization terms – enjoying the same privileges as Sri Lanka or Malaysia.

In reality May didn’t have much of a choice. The June 23 referendum had been tipped by anti-immigrant feeling, and there was no way she could accept an arrangement with the EU that maintained free movement – the right of EU citizens to live in the UK (and vice versa) if they can find a job. Even the countries in the single market that are not in the EU – Norway, Iceland, and Switzerland – must accept the principle of free movement as well as the jurisdiction of EU courts.

Now the UK must negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU in two years – something that has takes seven years on average in the past. Even if an agreement is reached in this short period, it must then be approved by the parliaments of all 27 remaining EU countries – while the UK parliament has opted to reduce its own role to that of a bystander.

The likelihood of May’s plan working out is slim, to say the least. And EU leaders are in no mood to cut her any slack.

Anarchy in the UK

Saddened, but unified in determination – that was the mood in Brussels today. Across the channel, the mood was anything but.

As the letter was delivered, May was being jeered in the House of Commons as she spelled out her vision of negotiations. And the light ribbing she took from her enfeebled opposition was nothing compared to what is happening outside the chamber’s walls. On Saturday tens of thousands of British people swamped the streets of London as they demonstrated against Brexit, on the occasion of the EU’s 60th birthday. It is estimated to have been one of the largest public demonstrations in British history, rivaling the Iraq War protests of 2003. The sentiment that the British government was doing something fundamentally wrong and dishonest would eventually bring down Prime Minister Tony Blair a few years later.

May’s biggest headache now is a specific subset of the British population – the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland. The previous evening the Scottish Parliament had voted to back First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a new referendum on Scottish independence. The timing was no accident. Sturgeon’s original announcement of the new referendum push earlier this month occurred one day before had May planned to submit her divorce letter to the EU, upstaging May and forcing her to delay the delivery until March 29. Scotland is remaining one step ahead of Westminster.

Sturgeon’s central argument is that the Scottish people deserve a second referendum, just four years after the last one rejected independence by a 55-45 margin, because they are about to be taken out of the EU without their consent. Only 38 percent of Scots voted to leave the EU, but the national result of 52-48 means that the entire United Kingdom is being dragged out of the bloc. So far May has said she will refuse to allow this referendum, certainly before Brexit is completed, but many predict this will be a politically difficult position to hold.

Scotland’s anger is being felt also across the Irish Sea, where 56 percent of Northern Irish voters opted for remaining in the EU. But in this part of the UK the dilemma is even more serious than in Scotland. Brexit will mean that checks will have to be reintroduced along the presently invisible border separating the territory from the Republic of Ireland to the South – a prospect that has driven increasingly loud calls for a referendum on unification between the North and the South of Ireland. The situation is evolving rapidly, with more and more politicians on both sides of the border calling for such a unification plebiscite.

And extraordinarily, there seems to be a creeping acceptance by the British government that even if they will not accept a Scottish secession, the possible loss of Northern Ireland is now in play. On Tuesday David Davis, the UK’s Secretary for Brexit, said in a letter to an MP that if the North wants to remain in the EU, the best way to do so would be to unite with the Republic.

These are the conditions in which May will begin negotiations. She may have succeeded in hobbling opposition within the British parliament, but her real problems lie outside of Westminster. Meanwhile there are almost no voices left in continental Europe calling for lending her a hand.