The Corner


Theresa May: Losing With Chequers

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May holds a news conference after the informal meeting of European Union leaders in Salzburg, Austria, September 20, 2018. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

The worst-of-all-worlds “Chequers” proposal that British Prime Minister Theresa May had suggested should be the basis for the U.K.’s continuing relationship with the EU after Brexit was always likely to be rejected by Brussels, and that’s just what has happened.

The Financial Times:

Theresa May was ambushed by EU leaders at a summit on Thursday, as they warned that her economic plan for Brexit “will not work” and gave her four weeks to save the exit talks.

The UK prime minister’s allies had hoped the EU would use an informal summit in Salzburg to offer words of encouragement about her compromise Chequers Brexit plan, to help her fend off her Conservative Eurosceptic critics at home.

Instead Donald Tusk, European Council president, threw out the centrepiece of Mrs May’s proposal — an EU-UK free trade area covering goods and agriculture — leaving her fighting to save her Brexit strategy. “There are positive elements in the Chequers proposal but the suggested framework for economic co-operation will not work, not least because it risks undermining the single market,” Mr Tusk said.

The EU argues that Chequers poses a threat to the single market, since it would give the UK access to the single market for goods while cutting back on other basic EU principles, such as the free movement of people. . . .

By persisting with a scheme that was never going to work, May has squandered valuable time, increasing the chances that the U.K. will either (a) crash out of the EU (a disaster-in-waiting euphemistically known as the “WTO option“) or (b) will sign, effectively, a blank cheque (“Blind Brexit”) or (c) will agree to some sort of “vassal state” surrender.

To be sure, May’s job has been made infinitely more difficult by a band of Tory “hard Brexiteers,” a clown show so incompetent that they have still yet to come up with a credible plan, as well as by cleverly cynical maneuvering by the Labour-party leadership. Nevertheless, to have put Britain in the position it now faces has required reverse statesmanship of the highest order. And that’s what May has delivered.

What makes this mess all the more unforgivable is May’s refusal to accept a relatively straightforward alternative, remaining in the EU’s Single Market on a basis identical or akin to that enjoyed by non-EU Norway and two other countries. More unforgivably still, she appears (through proxies) to be lying about what the “Norway option” actually is.

Writing in the London Evening Standard, George Trefgarne (who sees “Norway” as the first stage in a longer withdrawal process — I’d be happy to stick with just Norway) explains:

Telling the truth in politics is, sadly, not as simple as it should be. Political parties regularly exaggerate claims during election campaigns. We raise an eyebrow but we understand.

When it comes to Brexit policy, the Government is apparently crossing a line. It has launched a social media campaign, #RoadtoBrexit, and there is a good argument that it breaches both Government Communications Service and Advertising Standards Association rules on accuracy and impartiality. Given that we, as taxpayers, are paying for it, this is pretty outrageous — and I write as someone who sympathises with implementing Brexit rationally.

For instance, one video featuring the Prime Minister claims that the deal Norway has with the EU wouldn’t deliver Brexit because “Norway is in the customs union” and we would have to pay “vast sums into the EU”. Neither of these points is correct.

The untruths about the so-called Norway option are particularly galling because it is an alternative Brexit route which, unlike other plans, already exists and works. We are signatories to the relevant treaty and it delivers Brexit by providing tariff-free access to the single market but also giving back control over our borders, money, laws and — because it is outside the customs union — our trade policy. We could sign our own free trade deals (as Norway has done).

We’d have to sign up to free movement of workers, but British passports would return and there are numerous opt-outs and limitations we could adopt. And we’d be outside the common agricultural policy and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Trefgarne asks why May’s government has removed the Norway option from the table and hazards this guess:

Most likely to create another false narrative, that it is Chequers or no deal. Well, that isn’t true. There is a working Brexit Plan B sitting on the shelf, if only the Government would admit it.

If I had to guess, that’s only a partial explanation. Another element is, I think, cowardice. Hamstrung by tricky parliamentary arithmetic, May is unwilling to confront the hard Brexiteers on the right. There’s also her lack of political imagination. She appears unable to see how opting for Norway would not only appeal across the bitter Brexit divide, but would also create a crisis within a Labour party led by hard Brexiteers (they want socialism in one country) but largely supported by Remain voters.

Whatever her motive, May now has nothing — and, as a result, sooner or later Britain will have Corbyn.

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