A protester wears a Theresa May mask. Photo: Reuters/Marko Djurica
A protester wears a Theresa May mask. Photo: Reuters/Marko Djurica

Negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union will begin on Monday, June 19, almost a year after the country voted to leave the regional bloc and nearly three months after its government triggered Article 50 to open the two-year Brexit process formally.

As it has already created so much uncertainty – and can potentially cause further damage – for not only the United Kingdom but also Europe and the world at large, a key question, often raised over the past year, is whether Brexit can be reversed.

On the EU side, Britain’s rethink on its exit is possible and would indeed be welcome.

At a joint news conference with visiting British Prime Minister Theresa May in Paris on Tuesday, France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, said “the door remains open” for the UK to change its mind about Brexit. The ardent pro-EU leader echoed the remarks by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble earlier in the day that if the British wanted to come back, “they would find open doors”.

On several occasions, the presidents of the EU’s top three institutions – Donald Tusk of the European Council, Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission and Antonio Tajani of the European Parliament – have also expressed their regret about the UK’s decision to leave and said they and the remaining 27 member states would welcome a change of heart.

On March 29, the day the May government triggered Article 50, a leaked European Parliament draft resolution said that should it so wish, the UK was able to revoke the exit clause of the Lisbon Treaty – which  sets a two-year deadline for a country to leave the bloc – before the deadline expired if the EU’s remaining 27 member states agreed.

Thus whether Brexit can be halted or not depends primarily on the UK’s government and people.

Speaking to the country’s members of Parliament on the day she formally launched the Brexit process, May called it “a historic moment from which there can be no turning back” and unequivocally stated that “Britain is leaving the European Union”.

This remains the firm posture of her government – and the general consensus of other political parties in Westminster – today.

Still, while the prospect of Britain reversing its decision is still remote, a rethink is now more likely than it was before June 8’s snap election.

Describing the general election, which she voluntarily and unexpectedly called, as a vote on Brexit, with a campaign slogan of “no deal is better than a bad deal”, May sought to secure a strong mandate for a hard or clean Brexit – that is, withdrawing the UK from the single market and customs union and taking full control over its borders.

But her gamble spectacularly backfired. Not only did May fail to extend her Conservative Party’s slim majority as expected, she also ruinously squandered it, even though she had enjoyed a lead of more than 20 points over the opposition Labour Party in the opinion polls by the time she announced the vote.

While there were a number of factors contributing to May’s disastrous election performance, her hard-Brexit posture was widely seen as a key one.

Discredited, shattered and weakened after the catastrophic vote, the 60-year-old prime minister is now faced with overwhelming pressure from several prominent Conservatives, and other voices in Westminster and beyond to abandon her hardline stance.

Ruth Davidson, an enthusiastic Remainer and now a very influential figure in the Tory party after helping her Scottish Conservatives increase from only one seat in the Westminster Parliament to 13, told May that she must now pursue a softer “open Brexit” that prioritizes economic prosperity over immigration control.

May’s two predecessors as Tory PM, David Cameron and John Major, likewise urged her to reconsider her posture. For Major, “a hard Brexit was not endorsed by the electorate” and was “increasingly unsustainable”, while Cameron believed “there will be pressure for a softer Brexit”.

Some signals indicate that the so-called “bloody difficult woman” has already softened – or been forced to temper – her position. In her post-election cabinet reshuffle, May appointed Damian Green, an ardent pro-Remain campaigner, as first secretary of state, a title that makes him her de facto deputy. The former work and pensions secretary is a passionate pro-European and was a leading figure in last year’s Remain campaign.

Philip Hammond, regarded as one of the most pro-EU members of  May’s government, and who could have been fired had she won a big majority, remains chancellor of the Exchequer. Like Green, the pro-business and pragmatic politician prefers a soft Brexit that focuses on jobs, business and economic growth and is now thought to be heading a battle within May’s minority government to keep Britain inside the EU’s customs union and single market.

Indeed, a soft Brexit is advisable because it is widely argued that a complete exit from the EU would be very harmful for the UK’s services-dominated economy. If Britain leaves its closest and biggest trading partner in 2019 without a trade deal, it will have no choice but to revert to trading on standard tariffs under World Trade Organization rules. While the WTO remains a vital institution for world trade, its rules are not advanced enough, especially for services, which is why countries seek to establish more comprehensive and high-standard free-trade agreements. But such FTAs take years to negotiate, complete and materialize.

A key reason May and others press for a hard Brexit is their desire to control and limit immigration from the EU. Again, rather than impoverish its businesses, services and economy, EU nationals are generally seen as vital to the 65-million-population country’s well-being. For instance, the latest official figures show the number of nurses from the EU registering to work in the UK has dropped by 96% since last year’s Brexit vote. Because of such a radical drop, workforce experts have said the National Health Service is now facing its worst nursing crisis in 20 years.

That is partly why the pressure for a soft Brexit that prioritizes gaining access to, or even staying in, the single market above controlling immigration is now seemingly greater. The issue – or the disadvantage for the UK –  is that if it goes for such an option, it has to accept the EU’s regulations and principles, including free movement of people, but has no say on them. Thus, though it is better than a hard Brexit, a soft Brexit has its disadvantages. In other words, no Brexit may be the best – or the least damaging – alternative.

From the EU’s perspective, as European Council President Tusk suggested last October, it seems that “the only real alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit”.

What is more, given the complexity and complication of the Brexit talks, May’s lack of authority after the damaging election, and having already needlessly wasted about one-eighth of the precious time available for the talks on the unnecessary election, it is now even more difficult, if not impossible, for her to reach an acceptable soft Brexit deal with the EU and get it approved (by Britain’s Parliament and possibly its voters) before March 2019. Severing its extremely complex and dense legal ties with the grouping it joined in 1973 will also require an unprecedented number of bills to be passed. With a hung parliament, this will be an uphill task.

Oddly, while 21 months is a very short time for the Brexit negotiations, it could be extremely long in Britain’s politics. Indeed, if “a week is a long time in politics” as the late Harold Wilson, also a former British prime minister, once stated, then 21 months could be an eternity in the UK’s current volatile political environment.

Because things can change quickly and drastically, as evidenced by many unpredictable turns and twists since the Brexit vote in June last year, including the recent snap election and its unanticipated result, it may be wise not to rule out anything.

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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