Brexit heading to the barricades?

Two years to the day after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, the two sides don’t appear any closer to the “soft” Brexit promised by the Theresa May’s Tories. British and EU officials have begun issuing increasingly pessimistic statements about the direction of negotiations. Two of May’s ministers warn that the UK will execute a “full British Brexit” unless the EU relents:


Boris Johnson has urged the Prime Minister to deliver a “full British Brexit” as Cabinet colleagues warned the UK is able to walk away without a deal.

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said the UK was not “bluffing” about being prepared to walk away from talks with Brussels, and Brexit Secretary David Davis said there is “lots going on” to prepare in case negotiations collapse.

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Mr Johnson said people would not tolerate a “bog roll Brexit” that was “soft, yielding and seemingly infinitely long”. …

Dr Fox told the BBC it is “essential” the EU “understands… and believes” the Prime Minister’s assertion that no deal would be better than a bad deal.

He said the threat had “added credibility because if we were to leave, the economic impact on a number of European countries would be severe”.

That prompted a rebuke from the head of Siemens’ UK unit, calling it “incredibly unhelpful”:

Jürgen Maier said the aim should be “minimum friction” in any future trade deal and chastised the government for presiding over “two years of not having achieved what we were promised, which is that this was all going to be easy”.

“I think the realities are setting in and I think it is time to get away from slogans, ‘full British Brexit’, ‘going into combat with Europe’,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “It’s all incredibly unhelpful and what we need to do now is to get closer with our European partners and work out what a realistic, pragmatic Brexit is that works for both sides, the EU and ourselves.”

His intervention follows bleak warnings from Airbus and BMW about their willingness to stay and invest in Britain amid the uncertainty around the future EU trade deal.


Johnson and Fox aren’t the only people looking at a no-deal scenario. EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker briefed the Irish Dáil over his preparations for the so-called “hard Brexit,” and the economic and political consequences that would result. Juncker’s main concern is the biggest stumbling block for an agreement — the only shared post-Brexit border between the UK and EU on the Northern Ireland frontier:

With the two sides still far apart on the “hardest issues”, just days from a crunch leaders’ summit in Brussels, Jean-Claude Juncker told the Irish parliament on Thursday he was stepping up preparations for a breakdown in talks, and even drafting plans aimed at keeping the peace in Northern Ireland.

The problem of avoiding a hard border with the Republic – said by the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, to be akin to a “riddle wrapped in an enigma” – is threatening to thwart all attempts to make progress on a wider deal.

With Theresa May refusing to countenance what Juncker described as the bloc’s “bespoke and workable solution”, of the Northern Ireland effectively staying in the customs union and single market, it was crucial for the 27 EU member states to prepare for the worst outcome, the commission president said. …

“We will use all the tools at our disposal, which could have a cushioning impact. The new long-term budget for our union from 2021 onwards has an in-built flexibility that could allow us to redirect funds if the situation arose.

“We will also earmark €120m (£105m) for a new peace programme which has done so much in breaking down barriers between communities in Northern Ireland and the border counties.”


Both sides have retreated back to economic threats, in other words. Johnson and Fox want the EU to relent on the Irish-border issue by threatening economic ruin with a hard Brexit. Juncker is countering by pledging that the EU has already planned for that, and trans-European corporations like Siemens, Airbus, and BMW are warning that the economic pain will hit the UK first.

It may not end with those three, either, if the UK and EU cannot agree on a deal for a soft Brexit:

The European aircraft maker Airbus could be the first of many firms to threaten to end its investment in Britain, putting tens of thousands of jobs at risk, if the government cannot provide urgent clarity on Brexit, the leading business lobby group has warned.

The CBI said a growing number of companies were making plans based on the assumption that Theresa May’s government would fail to strike a deal with the EU. …

Josh Hardie, the deputy director-general of the CBI, said: “We’ve increasingly seen companies talking about speaking out as the possibility of no deal has grown. March 2019 is not far away when you’re talking about the kind of adjustments companies like Airbus would have to make to even be slightly ready for a no-deal scenario.

“Companies are now being forced to prepare for the reality of a cliff edge and I think we could see more statements like this if negotiations continue as they are.”


Most of the broader terms for a deal have already been hashed out, including the “divorce” payment the UK will have to provide (£40 billion, possibly more) to settle its commitments with the EU. The most intractable issue remains the border on the Emerald Isle, which has been free and open since the Good Friday accord. While the UK remains in the EU, there are no reasons to have a border to control passage of people or goods, since both can freely transit within the EU.

Once the UK leaves to set its own trade and migration policies, the border becomes a reality once again, and that threatens a return to some very bad days on both sides of it. The Republic of Ireland has made it clear that it wants no part of any such return to those days, and the EU has made it equally clear that they fully support Dublin on this point. The UK has also made it clear that Northern Ireland has to participate in Brexit; the fact that May’s government depends on NI’s ten DUP seats, and that the DUP are adamant about Brexit, makes any give on that point intolerable. The point of Brexit is for the UK to pursue its own migration and trade policies, and an open border would negate that entirely — thus the conundrum.

As negotiations have trudged along, the Irish border problem has looked increasingly impossible to solve.  May’s government has suggested an arrangement where the entire UK participates in the EU’s free trade while a “technological” solution to the border arises, but without the EU asserting its juridical authority and without the UK accepting their free-movement policies. The EU rejects that entirely, and instead wants Northern Ireland left within the EU as a last-ditch option, putting the EU/UK border in the Irish Sea and leaving customs and migration issues between NI and the UK. That won’t fly with the DUP, and the idea of the UK getting member-trading status within the EU without accepting its authority isn’t going to fly in Brussels or anywhere else on the continent.


One might think that this impasse and the inability of either side to resolve it might create second thoughts about the whole Brexit project. However, a new YouGov poll cited by the Telegraph shows that British attitudes on Brexit haven’t changed at all, even though they’re not thrilled by the way May’s government has handled it:

Polling from YouGov shows that 46 per cent of the public believe that leaving the EU was the wrong decision, while 43 per cent think that it was the correct decision.

This narrow margin between the Leavers and Remainers has remained remarkably stable over time, with Remainers consistently holding a slight edge since September of last year. Given this lead is well within the margin of error for these polls it is difficult to tell which opinion is most prevalent. …

There is a much greater consensus among members of the public when it comes to the Government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations, as polling shows that two thirds of Britons currently think the Government is handling them badly.

And yet, the Tories still get a small plurality supporting them as the best party to deal with Brexit:

Despite such a lack of confidence in the current Government, the general public still believe that the Conservatives are the best-placed party to handle Brexit.

The Tories hold a decent lead over Labour, with over one in four people making them the Brexit party of choice. Just 16 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn’s party.


That comes in part because Labour has found itself at the center of allegations of anti-Semitism, and in part because Labour is by its nature a transnational political movement. They’re not ideologically inclined to nationalism, and Corbyn hasn’t exactly helped matters with his attempts to strategize on Brexit either. The Conservatives are the party of Brexit anyway, now that the UKIP is all but defunct, so anyone seeking to see Brexit all the way through to its end is more or less stuck with the Tories. Just as with the negotiations, there isn’t much movement after two years because there isn’t really any room to move. That’s why both sides are signaling their people to prepare for a hard Brexit — and whatever that means for Ireland and trade in Europe.

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David Strom 5:21 PM on September 22, 2023