After months of push-pull, Theresa May finally announced that the Brexit procedure will officially start by the end of March 2017. But it is too early for the hard-core Euroskeptics to start their celebration: with a population less and less favorable to abandon the EU, a conflictual Cabinet, and a PM whose positions are still to be clarified, the UK stance on Brexit is far from being done and dusted.
Theresa May has announced that she will trigger Article 50 by the end of March 2017. If she sticks to her plans, the U.K will leave Europe in spring 2019. But the road toward Brexit is bumpy, to say the least.
The regrets of the Leavers.
First of all, leaving the EU might not reflect anymore what the British want. A recent survey conducted by the British Election Study reveals that 6% of the Leavers would change their vote, if asked again today, against only 1% of the Remainers, enough to overturn the results of the Referendum. Be it because, eventually, many of the promises made by Nigel Farage and his followers turned out to be unrealistic, not to call them lies, like the copious (and non-existent) amount of funds to be committed to the National Health System. Be it because the United States reiterated that there wouldn’t be any bilateral agreements, nor discussion, until the British Government sorts out his role with the EU. Or be it because the pounds is plummeting and it is expected to reach parity with the Euro within 2017, British people seem to second guess their desire of leaving the Union.
The Government is a bit of a mess.
And this is a British understatement if the reports of repeated clashes among the Cabinet members are accurate. What is sure is that the positions of the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, and of Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, are at the opposite sides of the Brexit. Ms. Rudd is reported to have prepared a plan that, should be adopted, would enhance border controls and tighten the immigration also at the cost of leaving the UK outside the single market. Mr. Hammond, by contrast, is said to argue so vehemently in favor of remaining in the market that some of his colleagues have allegedly started accusing him of actively undermining Brexit. Hammond and Rudd’s positions are just the summary of the two possible options Ms. May faces, the so-called Hard or Soft Brexit.n
In a nutshell, the Hard route would privilege the immigration issue, and potentially leave the EU-UK commercial agreements to be regulated by the World Trade Organization rules. The Soft path would give precedence to the access to the single market even though this might require a more open immigration policy. According to an opinion poll by ComRes, 49% of those interviewed consider the Soft Brexit a better option, and only 39% prefer a stronger position in immigration matters. Similar results came up in a smaller survey conducted by Open Britain, which reports 59% of the surveyed wanting to retain the access to the single market against 41% wishing for a more controlled immigration policy. Interesting findings, considering the focus of the Leavers campaign on ‘taking the UK back from immigrants.’
Is Theresa May playing the Leavers?
The question, so far, is why is Ms. May trying so much for a Hard Brexit? The obvious explanation is simple. She wants to retain power, and she is aware that the Hard-Brexit faction of her party could take her down if she does not comply with their vision for the future of the UK.
The Prime Minister knows she is not an elected PM, and she is very well aware of the internal competition among the Conservative ranks. While a prominent figure in the party, she has always been more of a liberal conservative than a hard-core “Tory.” With the only exception of immigration, where her positions overlap entirely with the most anti-immigrants representatives of her party. And yet, she was not a Leaver, before becoming Prime Minister; while only mildly opposing Brexit, she made clear, before the vote, that she would prefer a UK inside the EU. Hence, she knows her fellow Conservatives are checking every move she makes to ensure she is a real Leavers. And she knows that she can prove herself to be genuine Euro-skeptic only by pushing for a Hard Brexit.
There is, however, also a more (politically) flattering theory, which does not relegate May to the sole role of a power-thirsty politician. And this theory suggests that the PM is pushing for the Hard-Brexit just to unveil its weaknesses, and make its opponents react in such a vocal way that the moderate and liberal Conservatives, the Labour Party and the financial lobbies would find common ground to put so much pressure on her Government that a Soft Brexit would be the only viable choice.
We’ll find out reasonably soon whether Ms. May is a political mastermind, or just another politician only looking to secure her position. But for someone who has grown up in an EU where the UK was an integral part, it is already sad to have to wonder about what will happen to the European-British relations.