The Brexit Deal is the Best the UK Could Have Hoped For
Angelos Chryssogelos (Harvard University)
It is hard not to feel sorry for Theresa May. Her tenure as UK Prime Minister is not expected to last much longer once the House of Commons votes on the Withdrawal Agreement she negotiated with the EU after a long and arduous process last week. If she loses, her position becomes untenable and she will be tempted to put an end to her ordeal by resigning. If she wins and delivers Brexit, she becomes fair game for her numerous foes in the Conservative Party who are eyeing the leadership once the difficult part of leaving the EU is over.
May admittedly strikes a dignified tone as she tries to conclude a deal that takes into account both the result of the 2016 referendum and the policy constraints that emerged thereafter: the need to keep the British economy aligned to the EU regulatory framework to avoid disruption; the imperative to avoid a hard border in Ireland; and the effort to secure a degree of independence in at least the two policy areas that have become emblematic of the idea of ‘control’ for Brexit supporters, immigration and trade.
Given all these constraints, the Withdrawal Agreement should be seen as a reasonable compromise for any British government. This is not to absolve May of the mistakes she made since becoming PM: the premature triggering of article 50, the successive laying down of ‘red lines’ that were designed to mollify her party rather than accommodate her negotiating partners in Brussels, and calling an election that ended up depriving her of her parliamentary majority. But despite these missteps, the fundamentals of Brexit were bound to diminish whatever ambitions May held at the beginning of her tenure.
For all her early defiant tone, May was always a compromise choice between the different wings of the Conservative Party and, ultimately, the two sides of British society – Leave and Remain – that the referendum crystalized. A reluctant campaigner for Remain in 2016 herself, she was never going to ‘betray’ the referendum result by manipulating the UK into a long-term EU membership-in-all-but-name, any more than she was going to plunge the British economy into the chaos of a no-deal Brexit or jeopardize peace in Northern Ireland.
The Withdrawal Agreement is thus an accurate reflection of “Mayism,” and likewise of the ambivalence of British society towards Europe. That it leaves all political tribes of Brexit Britain – from the hard Brexiteer Conservatives of the European Research Group to the pro-Remain social-liberal metropolitan elites and everyone in-between – angry and alienated is ultimately a testament to its capacity to expose all of these groups’ unrealistic and untenable expectations from Brexit.
All this is not to say that the agreement is not a problematic document for the UK, nor that it does not expose the conceptual inconsistency of ‘soft Brexit’, a term that sounded benign in comparison to the chaos of ‘no deal Brexit’ but that ultimately leaves the UK subject to EU decisions without any capacity to shape EU policies. Should the agreement’s backstop be activated, the UK will find itself in a customs union less accommodating than the customs union that, for example, Turkey has with the EU, while being subject to the kind of supervisory and dispute-settlement mechanisms that the EU imposes in highly asymmetrical partnerships, as in the case of Ukraine. Ironically, the only way to avoid this development will be for the UK to agree to a further extension of the transition period, during which it will continue paying into the EU budget and accepting freedom of movement for the privilege of access to the EU market.
In the end however, a divided society and an uninspiring political class can produce neither ‘clean breaks’ nor ‘great leaps forward’. Theresa May and her Withdrawal Agreement are every bit as sad and uninspiring as Brexit was always supposed to be. The prospects for ratification of the Agreement in the Commons do not look promising right now, but its 500-plus pages have already demarcated the realistic scope of what any managed and orderly departure of the UK from the EU must look like. The outline of Brexit is now defined. All it remains is for the political system in the UK to determine the degree of ignominy that will accompany it.
Angelos Chryssogelos is a Berggruen-Weatherhead research fellow in the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. He has held research and teaching positions at LSE and King’s College London. He is an associate fellow of the Europe Programme of Chatham House.