The UK and EU Both Seem to Want a “Hard Brexit,” but for Different Reasons
On March 29, Prime Minister Theresa May will trigger Article 50 and initiate the United Kingdom’s official withdrawal from the European Union. Once EU officials receive notice of the UK’s intention to leave, the two parties will be able to formally negotiate the terms under which it will leave, and how it will interact with the union going forward. Much has been made about the likelihood that EU negotiators will be keen to make an example of the United Kingdom so as to send a message to other member states who may be eyeing an exit. However, if Theresa May’s political history is anything to go by, a comprehensive split with the European Union will suit her government just fine.
Following the referendum, there was much debate over whether May’s government ought to pursue a “soft Brexit,” which would have allowed Britain to stay in the Common Market, or sever all existing ties with the European Economic Area and undertake a “hard Brexit.” Polls released the day before May’s speech on her plan to leave the EU showed that more Britons supported either remaining in the European Union or at least the Common Market. May ultimately committed to a “hard Brexit,” claiming that remaining within the single market “would, for all intents and purposes, mean not leaving the EU at all.”
Controlling immigration has long been the priority for the former Home Secretary, which is a key factor in why she was elevated from her position to prime minister in the wake of a referendum result that was largely motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment. In the run up to the referendum, May backed the Remain campaign but her support was unenthusiastic; she rarely spoke in favor of EU membership. On a rare occasion May did speak, she still expressed her distaste for freedom of movement. During her time as home secretary, May put forward a number of hardline immigration policies that were criticized by many as being overtly harmful to immigrants and their families.
Considering May’s feelings on immigration, it is no surprise she opted to pursue a “hard Brexit” plan that would allow Britain to have absolute control over immigration policy. Wishing to avoid a domino-like collapse of the union, EU negotiators would have likely rejected a plan that allowed the UK to remain within the Common Market. However, considering that a “soft Brexit” would have carried provisions for the freedom of movement of people, it is unlikely May would have gone for these terms anyway.
Relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union are likely somewhat tense. Once Article 50 is triggered and negotiations begin, both sides will be trying to score political points. May’s government will hope to convince the British public and the world that the United Kingdom would be better off outside of the EU. The EU will be aiming to stem the tide of euro-skepticism by demonstrating value of EU membership and the cost that exiting the union incurs.
While the two parties have distinct goals, their plans for achieving their respective objectives appear to be largely the same: pursue a definitive break. In her speech announcing a “hard Brexit,” May declared that she would not be bullied by the EU claiming that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.” In October, President François Hollande said that “there must be a price” for leaving the EU and that Britain cannot expect to “to enjoy supposed benefits [of EU membership] without downsides.”
Both the UK and the EU have drawn lines in the sand. As of now, a “hard Brexit” appears to be the mutually agreeable course of action, but only time will tell whether both, neither, or just one of the parties were well advised in pursuing such a conclusive break.