London’s bargaining fades in Brexit talks

By Cui Hongjian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/5 21:53:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

"Every mountain is unclimbable until someone climbs it. So every ship is unsinkable until it sinks." The classic line from the award-winning drama Downton Abbey might be the most fitting description for UK Prime Minister Theresa May's current mood.

Before calling a snap election three years ahead of schedule, she was firmly convinced that there would be no unclimbable mountains; however, when the election results gave her a terrible surprise, she suddenly found there were indeed sinkable ships.

Now one year after the Brexit referendum, a complicated spectrum of political changes across the English Channel have mired the Brexit process in another predicament. Is a hard Brexit still likely?

Perhaps intended to prevent the public from developing fatigue for this political melodrama, the early general election instead left the Conservative Party barely holding onto power. Not only has May's image as a shrewd, capable and experienced leader taken a nosedive but her hard Brexit route is also difficult to sustain. The UK is once again bogged down in a dilemma: A hard Brexit? A soft one? Or no deal at all?

A chain is no stronger than its weakest link. With the snap election, May had originally meant to guide a cold, hard Brexit with a strong hand. However, her preoccupation now is to balance different political forces to secure her ruling power.

She had to befriend Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to prop her up in parliament. Despite divergences within the party, the Tories ultimately clinched a 1-billion-pound ($1.3 billion) cooperation pact with the DUP.

The two-year marriage between the Tories and the regional party will not merely weaken the UK's position in Brexit negotiations but also amplify the contradictions between No.10 Downing Street and local governments in this historical process. Fortunately for May, the ripple effects following the Scottish independence referendum have waned for the moment.

May will face a bigger dispute within her party and political risks in front of an increasingly powerful and popular Labour Party. Therefore, taking a compromising and defensive stance compared to her previous aggressive attitude will be the one and only feasible choice of the UK government in the negotiations over its divorce deal.

Across the channel, Emmanuel Macron's meteoric ascent in French politics is interpreted by the EU as a victory for integration. The EU has garnered the initiative in the Brexit negotiations, taking them in a direction favorable to itself. London's bargaining room has largely faded as the EU hoists Britain's divorce bill to 100 billion euros, seeks full rights for EU citizens in the UK, and addresses the border issue between the UK and Ireland.

Even the huge compromise made by May's administration in ensuring the rights of EU citizens in the UK was deemed as trivial by the EU.

Nevertheless, the current scenario is not as favorable to the EU as it seems to be. Some have already begun to worry that if a brittle UK government is paralyzed in negotiations because it is caught between public opinion and a muscular EU, there will probably be a breakup with no formal divorce deal, which will be the most terrible denouement for both sides.

For the rest of the world, the changing relationship between the UK and the EU is in no way a hilarious drama. Brexit negotiations not only determine whether the UK is capable and willing to fulfill its diplomatic conception of a globalized Britain playing a positive role on the world stage, but also concern how the EU rationally views its advantages in negotiations and prudently deals with surging protectionism within its framework.

In the final analysis, the divorce process should not just demonstrate respect for the UK's autonomy to choose its own development path but more importantly, showcase a pro-globalization attitude of openness and inclusiveness.

The author is director of the Department for European Studies of the China Institute of International Studies.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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