Cold comfort for May this Christmas
Theresa May at an International Police and Crime Conference | Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
LONDON – In Britain, back in 1914, they said the First World War would be over by Christmas. It lasted four years. Nobody was so optimistic about Brexit.
For how many Christmases hence we will still be talking about the great unpicking of Britain’s ties to the EU? It is anybody’s guess. But if 2016 saw the lighting of the Brexit fuse, what followed has been a drawing of battle lines. In 2017, the real task begins for Theresa May, her government, and their counterparts in Brussels and the 27 remaining member states.
The battlefield has three main fronts: Immigration, trade and money.
On the first, May has drawn a clear red line. Britain must not be subject to freedom of movement; London must decide which Europeans can live here, and which can’t. On the second, she wants – the U.K.’s financial services and businesses would probably say “needs” – “the best possible access” to the single market for trade.
EU leaders say these two asks are mutually incompatible. News from Switzerland in the run-up to Christmas proves they aren’t bluffing. Last Friday the Swiss parliament pulled back from a bid to introduce quotas on European migrant numbers – essentially accepting defeat in its own “migration versus market access” tug of war with Brussels.
Theresa May likes walking holidays in the Swiss Alps, but news from the Cantons this December will have done nothing for her Christmas cheer.
On trade, the last days of 2016 held yet more bad news for her, with Wednesday’s European Court of Justice advocate general’s opinion that national and regional parliaments must ratify trade agreements. The decision referred to the Singapore deal, but has a bearing on Brexit. As if agreeing a trade deal wasn’t tricky enough, the grand bargain with the EU that May dreams of will, if the ECJ rules the same way, need to be ratified by 27 national parliaments, not to mention regional assemblies, which, as Wallonia showed earlier this year, are not afraid to be obstructive.
On the final frontline, money, May’s government has, in recent days, shown the first hints of a willingness to sweeten the Brexit deal with continued payments to the EU, possibly in exchange for market access. On this front, the fight for May will be with her backbenchers rather than with Brussels. The Tory right-wing will be incandescent if British taxpayers’ money is the price she pays for market access.
If that happens, expect the Home Front in 2017 to be just as rowdy as the clash on the Continent.