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Comment 15 Jul 16

Britain’s EU Supporters Hope May Manages ‘Soft’ Exit

The complete disarray of her political rivals gives Britain’s new Prime Minister a very free hand to determine the exact shape of the UK’s future relationship with Europe.


Marcus Tanner
Theresa May. Photo: BETA

Supporters of the EU cause in Britain are hoping that the UK’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May – a backer of the “Remain” campaign in the in-out June 23 referendum, can negotiate a “soft” exit from the EU that makes little real difference to the country’s relationship with the European club.

May - who was appointed by Queen Elizabeth on Wednesday after making the traditional journey to London’s Buckingham Palace - has pledged to respect the result of the referendum in which just under 52 per cent of voters opted to leave the club. “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it,” she said recently.

Few doubt her word, and reports on Wednesday said one of her first actions as Prime Minister would be to appoint a new “Brexit Department” within government under a senior minister, charged with managing the negotiations up and after Britain activates Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – the mechanism that begins the process of disengagement.

However, the disarray of almost all her political opponents and rivals gives her a remarkable free hand to decide the form and end-quality of the UK’s future relationship with the EU - and whether before-and-after differences are massive or minimal.

With the opposition Labour Party imploding into all-out civil war, no problems can be expected on that front.

Inside her own party, meanwhile, the triumphant “Exit” camp is a dramatically diminished force, its credibility shot to pieces after its two leaders, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, turned on each other within hours of winning the June 23 vote.

Moreover the close nature of the June referendum result, 52 per cent versus 48 per cent, is an additional argument in favour of aiming for a compromise or “fudge” that allows the less fanatical “Remainers” and “Exiters” to live with each other however much it disappoints the true believers in both camps.

“Minimal” change would be a Norwegian-style relationship with the EU which means formally leaving the club but joining the “European Economic Area” [which Norway joined in 1994] and which involves continued free movement of people from the EU and de-facto application of most EU laws and directives in exchange for tariff-free access to EU markets.

Negotiating a copy of the Norwegian-style arrangement for Britain will be politically tricky for May, however. Hostility to unimpeded EU immigration was the driving force behind the vote to leave the European club.

Moreover, May is seen as tougher on immigration generally than her predecessor, David Cameron, whose unwise pledge to slash immigration – about which he then did little – was a major factor in undermining his political credibility.

May’s clashes as Home Secretary with Cameron’s Europhile Chancellor George Osborne - who repeatedly blocked her moves to curb immigration – were also well known.

Balanced against that, May has few political allies among the hardline “Exiters” that she needs to reward. Few of them supported her race to become head of the ruling Conservative Party and only a handful are likely to be rewarded with high office.

One is former defence minister Liam Fox who wisely backed May after seeing his own leadership bid collapse at the first hurdle and who has been given the international trade ministry.

Johnson’s appointment as Foreign Secretary is a bigger concession to the Exit camp.

However, it is notable that most of the top jobs in May’s first round of appointments – the Home and Defence Ministries and the Chancellery, have gone to fellow Remainers.

May is not seen as in having much sympathy for the ideologues in the Exit camp who have routinely attacked the EU as a finished force, downplay the importance of trade with Europe and clamour for Britain to detach itself from the continent and reinvent itself as a Singapore-style international trading hub with closer ties to the US, China and Britain’s former overseas colonies.

Writing in the London Evening Standard, columnist Simon Jenkins said May will have no option but to take account of the clamour in “the city” – the London-based UK financial sector – for the UK to preserve as close a relationship with Europe as possible.

“Some version of the European Economic Area may be boring, and may not come cheap. But it will come to pass. There will be free trade of sorts. There will be freedom of movement of sorts. Britain will have some ‘association’ with the EU. The price of Brexit will be paid in compromise and fudge,” he predicted.

With so many unknowns, including a possible new independence referendum in Scotland – another black cloud on the horizon – the only certainty is that the exit negotiations will be by far the single biggest matter dominating May’s premiership. As so much depends on the relationship she negotiates before the next elections due in 2020, her premiership, whether she likes it or not, is bound to be truly “historic”.

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