Europe

‘Soft Brexit’ supporters out in force in Britain as talks loom

‘Soft Brexit’ supporters out in force in Britain as talks loom
Pro-Europe protesters during a rally outside the Houses of Parliament in London in February. For the first time since the referendum on Britain’s exit, there is ‘an opportunity to have a much better relationship with the EU’. Photo: Reuters
Published: 4:00 AM, June 19, 2017

LONDON — Ridiculed by the right-wing tabloid media and ignored by Prime Minister Theresa May as she pursued plans for a clean break with the European Union (EU), Britain’s pro-Europeans suddenly have something they have long wanted: Leverage.

After a stunning general election, in which her governing Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority, Mrs May faces pressure from both inside and outside the party to soften her plans to exit the bloc, a process known as Brexit, as talks are set to begin today.

The pro-Europe Britons’ demands that Mrs May maintain closer ties to the EU have grown louder and more assertive — in particular the calls to keep Britain in Europe’s customs union, which provides tariff-free access to Continental markets and helps integrate the British and European economies.

For the first time since the referendum on Britain’s exit, there is “an opportunity to have a much better relationship with the European Union”, said Mr Roland Rudd, a senior figure in the defeated “remain” campaign and founder of Finsbury, a communications company.

Mr Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, said: “I think on balance in the House of Commons there is a majority for something softer than Theresa May’s idea of Brexit.”

This, Prof Menon said, creates a difficult and dangerous dynamic for Mrs May. She emerged from the snap election she called with a far weaker hand for Brexit negotiations and must also avert a return to feuding over Europe in her Conservative Party, where there is still strong support for a tough stance.

The new and changed political landscape makes the prospect of two diametrically opposed outcomes more likely, he said: “A softer Brexit” or “a chaotic Brexit.”

For now, no one is talking about revisiting the principle of British withdrawal, a plan accepted by the Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party after Britons voted in a referendum last year to quit. But the timing could hardly be more problematic for a change in Mrs May’s original plan, only days before talks are to begin with the EU and amid signs of frustration in Brussels at the political turmoil in London.

For Mrs May, there are no easy options. If she waters down her exit strategy — as her predecessor, Mr David Cameron, has urged her to consider — that could set off a rebellion from hardline “leave” supporters, including Mr David Davis, the Cabinet minister responsible for negotiating Britain’s withdrawal, and the foreign secretary, Mr Boris Johnson. Both are potential successors to Mrs May.

Yet, if she does not move away from their agenda, which prioritises control over immigration and lawmaking above the country’s economic interests, Mrs May risks legislative gridlock in Parliament, where she has no clear majority and must rely on 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Minority governments, or those with small majorities, tend to struggle, and some people fear a return to the situation in the 1970s, when a Labour government needed every vote to pass legislation, sick legislators were brought to Parliament to vote (sometimes hours after surgery), and a lawmaker responsible for party discipline was routinely dispatched at voting time to search out legislators in the lavatories — peering over the top of doors when necessary.

Key to her attempts to govern effectively will be the more pro-European politicians in Mrs May’s government. She promoted one of them, Mr Damian Green, a longtime ally, to first secretary of state and kept in place Mr Philip Hammond, the chancellor of the Exchequer, whom she had intended to fire, according to news reports.

Mr Hammond, who on Thursday postponed a major speech because of a devastating fire in London that killed at least 30 people, is believed to be pressing Mrs May to make a U-turn and consider retaining membership of Europe’s customs union. That could be done without accepting the free movement of European workers — which Mrs May is determined to end in order to curb immigration — although it would most likely mean abandoning her idea of striking bilateral trade deals with non-European nations, including the United States.

Even the DUP lawmakers, who support Britain’s withdrawal and will want to keep Mrs May in power, hope to keep open their border with Ireland for free trade, which is vital to the Northern Irish economy. While they may agree to leave the customs union, they back a policy of “comprehensive free trade and customs agreement” with the EU.

Pro-Europe Britons have floated other ideas, such as accepting a long transition period before Britain departs from the bloc and accepting rulings from the European Court of Justice.

The prospect of Britain continuing indefinitely in Europe’s single market, which removes non-tariff barriers and helps trade in services, is less likely. That would almost certainly involve accepting free movement, something that both Mrs May and Labour’s leader, Mr Jeremy Corbyn, have ruled out.

Other Labour figures, however, have talked of remaining in a “reformed” version of it and have criticised Mrs May’s stance.

“What we’ve criticised the government for is simply sweeping options off the table before they even started the negotiations,” Mr Keir Starmer, a Labour lawmaker and spokesman on the British exit, told the BBC.

Mrs May could stall the negotiations for a time, because the immediate focus of the talks will be on other issues, including the rights of EU citizens living in Britain.

But the Labour Party knows that in her weakened position in Parliament, the prime minister could eventually be defeated over a range of issues, including Brexit-related Bills.

Even if she gets such legislation through the House of Commons, she will have to worry about the unelected House of Lords, where she has no majority either.

That chamber delayed her plans to announce, by invoking Article 50, that Britain was leaving the EU, but ultimately cleared the way. By tradition, the House of Lords yields to the House of Commons on issues that were in the governing party’s election manifesto, and therefore have been endorsed by the voters. But, after her electoral setback, that convention is unlikely to apply to Mrs May’s exit plans.

“It was very, very difficult for Theresa May before the election,” Prof Menon said, “and it has now become significantly more difficult still.”