After nearly three years of haggling with the European Union, the opposition and members of her own party, British Prime Minister Theresa May is stepping down. A Conservative Party contest to replace her as leader will begin June 7 and likely last for about six weeks, during which time May will remain prime minister. Her replacement will likely come from the anti-EU wing of the party – unlike May herself, who was consistently derided for being a member of the “remain” camp – but that likely won’t make a difference in future talks.
The U.K. has three basic options. Two of them are immutable: leave the EU without a deal or call off Brexit and remain in the bloc. Canceling Brexit would be hugely unpopular with roughly half the population and could be justified only with a second referendum on EU membership that reversed the outcome of the first. Leaving without an agreement would be unpopular with the other half of the population. It would disrupt trade between the U.K. and its largest trading partner and would further shake the confidence of investors, potentially sending the British economy into recession. It would add fuel to the fire of Scottish independence (62 percent of Scottish voters opposed Brexit), and it would increase the chances not just of renewed violence on the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic but also of a referendum on Irish unification. And to cap it all off, the U.K. would be under pressure not just from the EU but also potentially from the U.S. – which was instrumental in negotiating the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that helped bring peace to Northern Ireland and thus has a stake in its survival – to return to the table and agree to the most odious part of May’s negotiated withdrawal deal, the Irish backstop, before either the EU or the U.S. would enter into negotiations on a new trade relationship.
The third option for May’s successor is some sort of compromise along the lines of the deal May reached with the EU. The objective, as it was for May, would be to secure as many of the benefits of EU membership as possible with as few of the costs. But no amount of charm is likely to convince the EU to budge more than it already has. Brussels sees Brexit as a challenge to the entire European integration project and has reacted accordingly, refusing to compromise on its single market – a crowning economic and political achievement of the bloc – and staunchly defending Ireland’s interests. The EU wants a deal, but it needs one less than the U.K. does, and it doesn’t need one badly enough to damage the foundation of, or member states’ confidence in, the EU project as a whole.
The current British Parliament has demonstrated that it’s willing and able to block a no-deal exit from the EU, and it has voted down a second referendum each time it’s come up. Changing the arithmetic means holding a general election, which is more likely to cost the Conservatives power or end in another deadlock than it is to lead to a way out of the current mess. The British political establishment is trapped, and the only thing worse than the status quo is making a decision that inevitably will further divide the United Kingdom – perhaps literally. Another extension of Brexit talks at the end of October appears inevitable. Brexit was supposed to divide the European Union, but instead it’s divided the United Kingdom.