Sep 23, 2018

The slow-motion Brexit train wreck

Felix Salmon, author of Edge

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

With her Conservative Party's annual conference looming later this month, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May went to Salzburg this week seeking buy-in from Europe's leaders for her highly controversial Chequers plan. What she got instead was humiliation and disaster.

What's happening: The Chequers plan was always unacceptable to Brexiteers in May's Cabinet: Both her Brexit secretary and her foreign secretary resigned rather than sign on to it. As such, it was always going to be hard to get it through the U.K. Parliament. Now, Europe's leaders have made it abundantly clear that the plan is even less acceptable to the EU.

  • May took office in 2016 with a single mandate: to deliver a workable Brexit. The message of Salzburg is that she's incapable of delivering on that mandate.

Be smart: The U.K.'s ties to Europe, especially along the Irish border, are far too complex and interconnected to easily disentangle. A successfully negotiated Brexit was always less likely than one of the corner solutions.

  • A "no deal" hard Brexit would be bad for Europe and disastrous for the U.K., despite May's continued assertions that it would be preferable to a "bad deal."
  • A "remain" deal, where the U.K. changes its mind, is still on the table, at least as far as the EU's leaders are concerned. The problem is that May has consistently ruled out a second referendum.
  • The Europeans are past masters at kicking the can down the road, but it's increasingly hard to see how they'll be able to kick this one any further than the March 2019 Brexit deadline.

May's political career has already lasted longer than anybody thought it would, largely thanks to the absence of a credible alternative prime minister. But May has now lost all credibility herself.

The bottom line: We are very close to the worst-case scenario for Brexit negotiations where positions become entrenched, goodwill evaporates and brinkmanship leads inexorably to disaster.

  • The chances of Britain and the U.K. successfully "muddling through" beyond March 2019 have never been lower.

Go deeper: May's way or the highway for Brexit.

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