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Brexit could end in farce, not tragedy

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Sign of the times: demonstrators show their feelings at the Conservative Party conference (Photograph by Rui Vieira/AP)

I have been in London this week to talk about what the midterms mean for the Trump Administration, and while I’m on this side of the Atlantic it seems appropriate to revisit Brexit.

The last time I wrote about it was 18 months ago, when British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50, beginning her country’s two-year withdrawal process from the European Union. It was unclear how May’s government figured that it would be able to get all the things it wanted from the EU — (sovereignty, customs-free, duty-free access to the EU market, autonomy over migration — without making some serious concessions, significantly on Northern Ireland and loss of influence over any EU decision.

Back then I concluded: “The European Union has an incentive to avoid a truly messy outcome, but the United Kingdom has an even bigger incentive. I’m not a politician, but I understand coercive bargaining a little bit; I simply cannot fathom how this doesn’t end in a bad way for the Brits.”

Since then, the May government had plodded towards an agreement with the EU, shedding numerous recalcitrant Cabinet ministers along the way. First the leaders of the “Leave” campaign all left May’s government when it became clear that there was no chance in hell their maximalist demands would be met. Last week, May’s transport minister Jo Johnson stepped down, warning in a statement that Britain faced an unappetising choice:

“The choice being presented to the British people is no choice at all. The first option is the one the Government is proposing: an agreement that will leave our country economically weakened, with no say in the EU rules it must follow and years of uncertainty for business. The second option is a ‘no deal’ Brexit that I know as a transport minister will inflict untold damage on our nation. To present the nation with a choice between two deeply unattractive outcomes — vassalage and chaos — is a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez Crisis.”

Fast-forward to this week and, hey, it looks like May sure showed Johnson! She hammered out a tentative withdrawal agreement with the European Union. The Financial Times’s Alex Barker and Mehreen Khan provide the most detail I have seen of any news story about the agreement itself. Their article is worth reading in full, but the part on Northern Ireland stands out as an example of what May had to agree to save face:

“Theresa May will crucially be able to claim that the fallback arrangements will never force the UK to create a customs border along the Irish Sea, with special arrangements for Northern Ireland that would divide its economy from the UK mainland ...

“Brussels’ concessions ... carry a big political price. The first is a guarantee to Ireland that Britain will not be able to leave a UK-EU customs union backstop without the EU being satisfied that arrangements are in place to avoid a hard border, either through a trade deal or a successor plan for Northern Ireland ...

“Even after the compromise, Mrs May must still justify a treaty text that would keep Northern Ireland aligned to the EU’s single-market rules, enabling the free flow of goods and agricultural products across the Irish border. Northern Ireland would also be expected to apply the full ‘union customs code’ — integrating it with the EU’s customs zone in a deeper way than the rest of the UK mainland.”

That is just about Northern Ireland. On the overall “bare bones” customs agreement between Britain and the EU, May agreed to “level playing field” conditions that meant, as Barker and Khan report, “some of the most severe restrictions placed on any country outside the single market”.

Politico reports that “the EU believes the provisional deal struck by the two sides sets a ‘precedent’ for the future customs relationship. Brussels intends to prevent London from watering it down in the negotiations to come over its future trading relationship”.

The May government can claim to have successfully negotiated Brexit. The price? Acceding to EU rules on almost everything of substance. Britain gets to keep half a foot in the European Union at the price of giving up any say over EU rules. Furthermore, because it will still be wedded to EU rules and regulations, new trade deals with non-EU partners are unlikely to be negotiated. Why negotiate with a constrained Britain instead of negotiating with the EU itself?

As the BBC and everyone else has reported, this is far from a done deal. May has just got her Cabinet to sign off on it, but now the remaining 27 members of the European Union need to agree to it, and then the British Parliament. Approval at either of the next two stages is far from guaranteed.

A majority of Britons approved the departure from the European Union in 2016. This is what they wanted, and popular sovereignty should be acknowledged. But as the bill for this expression of sovereignty comes into focus, and as the terms of post-Brexit Britain become clear, it becomes harder to believe that any of this has been worth it.

May’s government is not really to blame for this. Britain’s bargaining weakness has been evident since Article 50 was invoked. In return for no longer being a member of the European Union, Britain had to agree to adhere to most of the EU’s rules and regulations. The outcome is an expression of populist nationalism. But it is also some very bad comedy.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

Daniel W. Drezner