Britain files for divorce from the European Union

Liverpool, 9March2015, Photo: Anthony Moretti

As I drove to work this morning, I caught the top of the hour news from the BBC. Of course, its top story was about a letter submitted by a British representative to the European Union to the EU leadership.

That letter made official that Britain wants out of the EU.

As I listened to Prime Minister Theresa May speak confidently about Britain assuming more control of its economic, social and political future, I was left to wonder what Britain will look like in approximately two years, when the divorce is finalized. (Here is the full text of her address.)

And that confidence might not be simple bravado. Reuters notes that

The British leader has been reticent about what she hopes to achieve so as not to give her hand away. But government officials, lawmakers and analysts say privately that May believes she has some strong cards to play, while also hoping that EU officials will favor pragmatism over punishment.

Pragmatism, perhaps, but no matter the attitude adopted by the EU team, the next two years will be complicated. The Conversation suggests that the next couple of months will be critical in setting a tone for what’s to follow.

The UK government will approach the negotiations from a much more settled political and economic condition than the EU. Prime Minister Theresa May leads a party and government which is now overwhelmingly committed to Brexit. For the foreseeable future she faces no serious parliamentary, party, public opinion or electoral threat to her commitment to see through on her plans.

In contrast, the EU faces a period of uncertainly in political leadership. Elections loom in France, Germany and Ireland. More problematically, substantive disagreements exist between the member states over the future goals of the EU project – and especially whether they should loosen or deepen their integration.

Speaking to the New York Times, a UK professor says that while the British government has unity on its side, it cannot overplay that hand.

“I think they would prefer a deal,” Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London, said of the British government, noting the high economic stakes. Nevertheless, he said, “I still think they are readier to walk out than most people accept.”

Given her negotiating “red lines,” the difference between whatever deal Mrs. May can secure and no deal at all, may turn out to be relatively small. Blaming the Europeans for a collapse of the talks might be easier, politically, than bringing a weak agreement to Parliament.

The politics are so toxic, Professor Menon added, that they make a disorderly departure from the bloc — often likened to walking over a cliff edge — plausible. “It’s ugly and so frighteningly horrible, that I can’t quite believe it’s happening,” he said.

We all know people who have been divorced. Sometimes the end of a marriage is amicable, and the decisions leave both parties, if nothing else, cordial to each other. Other divorces are nasty, leaving scars that take years to heal (and sometimes never do). Right now, the Britain-EU divorce is looking difficult.

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