Brexit

What the British Election Means for Brexit

The chance of a soft exit has improved, but not for the reason you think.

How does your Brexit garden grow?

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The U.K.'s Brexit ordeal looked complicated and unpredictable even before the election. Now things are worse. Theresa May is weakened by her narrow victory -- the closest thing to a humiliating defeat a technical win could be. From now on, she's even less in command of the process. One more slip and she might be out of a job. Another election is possible, to be followed by who knows what.

So where does this leave Brexit? The popular line of analysis is that a weakened May will no longer be able to pursue the "hard Brexit" she previously had in mind. This is half-right at best. The chance of a certain kind of soft Brexit has indeed improved -- but not because May's ambitions have been checked.

May's ambitions for Brexit have been misunderstood throughout -- a consequence of the prevailing hard-or-soft framing of the Brexit choices.  

Two limiting cases are easy to define. In the first, the country changes its mind and stays as a full member of the EU. This still looks extremely unlikely. In the second, the clock runs out on the talks without an agreement, so the U.K. leaves the EU with no new deal to take its place. This so-called cliff-edge exit is quite possible. In between these poles, there's a range of outcomes combining varying degrees of access to the EU's single market (up to and including full membership) and varying degrees of submission to the EU's system of governance.

What May wants is maximum access to the single market and minimum submission to the EU's system of governance. Soft on trade, you might say, and hard on sovereignty. In particular, she wants to regain full control of the U.K.'s borders so that she can manage immigration. The EU's position on this has been clear: Control of immigration rules out full access to the single market. The four freedoms -- free movement of goods, services, capital and people -- are indivisible, it maintains. So if the U.K. wants to control its borders, it can't have maximum access to the single market.

This all-or-nothing position -- there's hard Brexit (hard on trade and hard on sovereignty) or no Brexit, and not much in between -- has been Europe's bargaining posture, not Britain's. To be sure, this position is intelligible, internally consistent, and politically defensible. But it's also a choice, not something that the laws of logic, economics or good government require. A significant hardline euroskeptic faction of May's Tory Party see things the same way. They want a Brexit that's hard on sovereignty, and if that also means hard on trade, so be it.

But not May. Remember she was a Remainer. Her stance is not "to hell with free trade and the economy." She wants the best mixed deal she can get. Her chancellor Philip Hammond calls for a pragmatic Brexit -- a good way to put it. True, the government has said that "no deal is better than a bad deal," causing something close to hysteria among Britain's pro-EU commentariat. But please: What else are you supposed to say at the start of a negotiation? "For us, any deal is better than no deal. In the end, we'll be willing to accept whatever terms you dictate." It isn't recommended.

May's election drubbing certainly increases the chance of a cliff-edge Brexit, because of the delay and confusion it will introduce on the British side. The clock is running and the deadline of having something signed by March 29, 2019, is still there. But what does the election mean for the probabilities of those various middle outcomes?

There are countervailing forces. First, May is weaker within her party. This strengthens the Tories' no-compromise-on-sovereignty faction, whose votes she'll need. She called the election to strengthen her hand against these hardliners, for the sake of a softer Brexit and not a harder one. Yet May's electoral failure also strengthens the soft-on-sovereignty forces elsewhere in her party and across the aisle in the Commons. So on the one hand she'll need the votes of her hardliners to get anything done, but on the other she'll be able to argue that if they refuse to compromise, the Tories might end up out of government. There's also the possibility (faint as yet) of cross-party collaboration, again with a softer-on-sovereignty Brexit in mind.

But the biggest effect of May's election disaster may be that it softens Europe's posture. British commentators almost invariably take EU declarations as given: What the EU insists upon is not a policy one can analyze or criticize, they seem to think, but a state of nature that just is. In fact, it's another variable, and May's humiliation will influence it. Specifically, her setback might attenuate the EU's desire to inflict punishment on the U.K. in order to discourage other exits. What further punishment is required, really?

With luck, all this could open up new possibilities in that wide trade-and-sovereignty space. Maybe Europe will be a bit more willing to give an inch on immigration, or on trade in financial services. Maybe Britain will accept a smaller recovery of sovereignty in return. New opportunities could present themselves. Sadly, a prime minister with the wit to seize them would not have bungled this election in the first place.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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