ON March 29, just before she was about to make the historic announcement that Britain had formally commenced talks to extract itself from the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May took part in a heated session of Prime Minister’s Questions. It should have been a triumphal moment for the Prime Minister, who had scored an apparent success. The Supreme Court defeat, which required her government to place a Bill before Parliament in order to be able to trigger Brexit talks, did not prove calamitous as opposition in both the House of Commons and, eventually (after a battle). the House of Lords melted away. Theresa May would not have to guarantee the rights of E.U. nationals already in the United Kingdom, a requirement, she argued, that would have weakened Britain’s negotiating hand, despite many decrying the use of people as bargaining chips. She did not even have to make a commitment to give Parliament a meaningful vote at the end of the negotiation process (the government had compromised though, giving an ambiguous promise of a vote at the end of the process in both Houses). And there is even evidence that, despite some vocal opposition from staunch “Remain” campaigners, the majority of the British public is behind her decision to trigger Article 50, the six-paragraph section of the Lisbon Treaty that deals with exiting the E.U. A recent poll by YouGov found that just 21 per cent of the people surveyed thought she was wrong to do so.
Yet, Theresa May at points was categorically angry as she faced down a range of issues, particularly those related to the role of the devolved assemblies. A question from a Scottish National Party MP about a promise that had been made to the devolved assemblies last year that they would be consulted through the process was shot down vigorously by Theresa May.
“I have been very clear throughout, since the first visit I made as Prime Minister to Edinburgh last July, that we were going to work with the devolved Administrations, and that we would develop a U.K.-wide approach, but that it would be a U.K. approach that was taken into the negotiations and that it would be the United Kingdom government who took forward that position—and I would simply remind the right hon. gentleman that Scotland is part of the United Kingdom,” she insisted forcefully.
Theresa May was, in all likelihood, aware that the battles, and subsequent victories, that had put Britain on the path of ending its decades-old association with Europe were just the start, and challenges of entirely different proportions awaited her government.
Scottish vote Among the biggest challenges will be the questions that Brexit raises over the future of the countries that make up the U.K. On March 28, the Scottish parliament voted in favour of a call by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for the authority to push for a second referendum on independence, three years after Scottish voters decisively rejected independence. Sturgeon has argued that the Scottish government had been prepared to compromise: accepting single market access, rather than full E.U. membership, despite the majority (62 per cent) of Scottish voters opting to remain in Europe. They had faced a “brick wall of intransigence” in Westminster, which had failed to consider the needs and concerns of the Scottish people, despite promises to do so, and as a result Scotland faced a hard Brexit, which could cost it as much as £11 billion a year by 2030, she estimated. Theresa May, who has on more than one occasion obliquely attempted to make it clear that she, like Margaret Thatcher decades before her, was not one for “turning”, has stood firm, insisting that now is not the time for a referendum, which would very much complicate and weaken Britain’s hand as it entered Brexit talks. Nicola Sturgeon has taken an equally hard line, pushing for a referendum in 18 months’ time, when the shape of the final Brexit deal would be clear, according to Theresa May’s estimates. “For a Prime Minister who on Wednesday proclaimed Brexit as an exercise in self-determination to now seek to block Scotland’s own right to self-determination would be democratically indefensible,” she wrote in a piece for The Guardian on the day that Brexit was triggered. Her logic is hard to argue with, as Theresa May undoubtedly recognises, and while she may be able to delay the timing of a referendum, most observers agree that one is eventually inevitable, and while polls currently present a mixed picture of public sentiment in Scotland, it may well be a different picture once the terms of Brexit become apparent.
Irish question Northern Ireland remains another major issue of uncertainty, with warnings that the hard border between the Republic of Ireland (the European nation) and Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.) that could follow from Brexit could greatly jeopardise the peace that had been achieved in the past years. It is a testament to the seriousness of the situation that trying to find creative ways of avoiding a hard Brexit was identified by the E.U.’s remaining 27 member states as one of their top four negotiating guidelines.
There are also questions about the future of the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar after the E.U.’s draft guidelines on negotiations insisted that no agreement could apply to Gibraltar without an agreement between Spain and Britain.
May under pressure The pressure on the Prime Minister to deliver are exceedingly high: while few may have believed the grand promises she made in her speech to Parliament to “get the right deal for every single person in this country”, many of her supporters aspire to the ideals of British greatness that she and her colleagues have continually invoked. Earlier this year, the bombastic plans of Ministers to forge strong links with former colonies in Africa as part of efforts to revive Britain’s fortunes as a “great trading nation” were ironically dubbed Empire 2.0 by civil servants. Ahead of the triggering of Article 50, the right-wing newspaper The Sun , without any irony, projected its own message “Dover and Out” over the white cliffs of Dover, posting a video of the event as triumphalist music played in the background, while social media were littered with images celebrating Britain’s “Independence Day”.
Early warnings But the first days since the triggering of Brexit signal that the road will be far from easy for Theresa May and her team. Even on the day of triggering, the government became caught up in controversy as the official letter to European Council head Donald Tusk made every effort to appear conciliatory (recognising, for example, that Britain would not be able to “cherry-pick” what it wanted out of Europe, as a senior Cabinet Minister had previously suggested) even as European politicians condemned a section of it which warned that “in security terms, a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened”.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s lead negotiator on Brexit, warned that Europe would not tolerate any move to make security cooperation contingent on a favourable trade deal. “The security of our citizens is far too important to start a trade-off on one for another,” he said on the day. While that particular controversy is likely to die down, as top Cabinet members insisted vociferously that it was not intended as a threat, the developments may amplify concerns about Britain’s capabilities—and expertise—to conduct such sensitive negotiations with a wide range of partners. To date, the concerns voiced by European leaders over what they were and were not willing to accept have been brushed aside as bluster by optimistic Brexiteers, but that will be less easy going forward. “What Prime Minister May has outlined so far is pure bravado, platitude and hot air… now you have the response from Europe, making it very clear: you may be setting out your wishlist, but this is where we are,” says Lord Karan Bilimoria, a crossbench member of the House of Lords. “Article 50 was the end of the beginning, and as I predicted, this is going to be so complex and so difficult.” He adds: “The big question which nobody is asking is why we rushed into this. She wants it over before the 2020 elections, but the timing [of the triggering of Brexit] is madness when you have the French elections, and the German elections and all the uncertainty… we have been railroaded into this and reality has hit within days.”
Hopes that Britain would simultaneously be able to conduct negotiations on exiting Europe and a new trading relationship were also dashed this week as Tusk outlined the remaining 27 member states’ firm commitments, which included ensuring that exit talks were well in progress before trade talks could begin. He candidly admitted the talks would be “difficult, complex, and sometimes even confrontational”, though he ruled out a punitive approach, because, as he put it bluntly, “Brexit in itself is already punitive enough.”
Other hopes dashed in the early days after Brexit were for Britain to be able to secure sector-by-sector deals, such as for the car industry and the financial services sector, to ensure that they were able to have the necessary access to workers and passporting rights to Europe, despite the end of freedom of movement that Britain hopes to achieve. “This will lead to further uncertainty for business,” says Bilimoria. And it is not just with Europe that the government will face battles. Details of the Great Repeal Bill, which will bring European laws into British legislation and essentially ensure that Britain has the same body of laws before and after it leaves Europe, and will be essential for Britain to maintain its trading relations with Europe, were published. Through the Bill, the government will seek to acquire powers that would give it the ability to make legislative changes with almost no parliamentary scrutiny: so-called Henry VIII clauses, named after the king who acquired the powers to legislate by proclamation in the 16th century. While the government has insisted that the powers would only be used to effect minor changes, there are concerns it will compromise parliamentary sovereignty: the very thing the pro-Brexit movement had said it wanted to strengthen in the first place. Writing in Daily Mirror , Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, warned that the clauses could let the Conservatives “remake our country’s law to fit into the blinkered Tory vision of the United Kingdom”.
While several legal experts have noted the White Paper still remains short on detail, focussing more on intention than specifics, the paper does provide an inkling of the challenge ahead, and what incorporating E.U. legislation into British laws entails. “There is no single figure for how much E.U. law already forms part of U.K. law,” the report notes at one point, stating that there were around 12,000 E.U. regulations in force, and in Britain there were around 7,900 statutory instruments which have implemented E.U. legislation.
There are many other battles, too: immigration has always been at the forefront of the debate on Brexit, but the government’s ability to control immigration looks increasingly uncertain. In an interview with the journalist Andrew Neil for the BBC, Theresa May avoided answering the question of whether immigration would be significantly lower after Brexit. “What we will be able to do, as a result of leaving the E.U., is to have control of our borders, to set those rules for people coming from outside—from inside the European Union into the U.K.” Should the government struggle to keep net immigration down, it will present a particular challenge for the government as it aims to build trade relations with India and other global powers, several of which have made it clear that the free movement of its skilled professionals and a more welcoming climate for its students will be essential for such a deal to take place.
It is for this reason that the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties and others have warned that far from becoming a great trading nation, the government’s strategy was likely to be one based on creating a lower tax, light regulation environment to attract further investment and business.
On February 9, the day that the House of Commons passed the Brexit Bill, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was mocked online for declaring the “real fight starts now”. As the scale of the challenges now faced by the government becomes clear, that prediction may prove accurate after all.