The week Brexit got real: Britain turns pragmatic

A week ago, Britain had strict red lines on Brexit, pro-EU lawmakers were “traitors” and the plan for Britain’s future ties with the European Union after leaving the bloc were a jumble of platitudes and overweening ambition.

Fast-forward a few days and Brexit hardliners are on the defensive, while the government is showing a willingness to compromise and outlining a more pragmatic vision for a country half-in, half-out of the European Union.

“The momentum and the situation call for ruthless realism. Dreaming of a world that had turned out differently is not enough,” former Conservative leader William Hague, an influential voice in the party, wrote in The Daily Telegraph.

Prime Minister Theresa May, who campaigned to stay in the European Union in the 2016 referendum, has tried to balance moderates and hardliners in her party ever since coming to power two years ago at a time of political upheaval.

She was forced to show humility again after calling an early general election in June last year only to lose her party’s majority after a wooden performance on the campaign trail.

A year later, commentators said recent events show she has firmly chosen the moderate side with a plan for Brexit, to be fully detailed on Thursday, that envisages close regulatory alignment with the EU to allow unhindered trade in goods.

“Mrs May has recognised that the only pragmatic approach to decoupling from the EU is a softer version of Brexit,” the Financial Times said in an editorial.

‘A Remainer coup’ 

The plan has unleashed a rebellion by Brexit hardliners who fear it may prevent Britain from concluding free-trade agreements with third countries and effectively turn the country into a “vassal state” or “colony” of the EU.

It prompted the resignation of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Minister David Davis, as well as several other Conservative party figures, but analysts say that May has been able to face down the rebellion so far.

In the pro-Conservative Spectator magazine, Brendan O’Neill wrote that there had been “a Remainer coup” — a reference to Johnson’s replacement Jeremy Hunt, who also supported staying in the EU but says he has now changed his mind.

“Brexit will be softened, which is to say undermined: turned from a passionate cry for democratic independence into a bureaucratic exercise of pursuing slow-motion semi-divergence from the EU while actually kind of staying in,” O’Neill wrote.

A lot will depend on how the proposals are received in Brussels but the initial signs have been encouraging.

“If the UK is able to relax some of its red lines, then the European Union should be flexible too,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told a session of the Irish parliament.

“I think perhaps we are now entering into that space,” he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at the Western Balkans summit in London on Tuesday, said it was a “good thing” that there was a British proposal on the table.

“What we want to do now is to bring the negotiating progress forward,” she said.

British ministers have also sounded more conciliatory.

Pragmatists and fantasists

Justice Minister David Gauke said on Tuesday that the option of walking away from negotiations advocated by some Brexit hardliners was not “pain-free” and would have “a negative impact on our constituents, on the British public”.

“It’s a negotiation. That requires compromise on both sides if we are to reach an agreement,” he told BBC radio.

Commentators have also observed a new firmness shown by May in the negotiations and her increasingly overt challenge to the “Brexiteers” to try to take her down.

“May seems to have emerged stronger — at least in the short term — from Davis and Johnson’s high profile resignations,” said Constantine Fraser, an analyst at TS Lombard, an economic research consultancy.

But Fraser warned of challenges ahead for May, particularly given the loss of parliamentary support from hardliners.

“How on earth will May get that through parliament?” he asked, referring to future votes on any Brexit deal.

Steve Peers, a professor at the University of Essex, said he believed the Conservative party had in effect split into two groups.

“The pragmatists recognise that Brexit forces a trade-off between sovereignty and the economy… The fantasists deny that such a trade-off exists,” he said.

“The cabinet now clearly consists of the pragmatists, with the fantasists on the back benches. But time will tell if this can last,” he said.

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Dario Thuburn
Dario Thuburn
Scribbler for AFP news agency
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