Two years after the UK’s referendum to leave the European Union (“Brexit”), the British Parliament is still in the same position it was in 2016: without a clear plan. Prime Minister Theresa May’s supporters say the delay is a negotiating tactic. Her leverage for a deal may increase as the March 29th deadline draws closer: the threat of a chaotic, deeply consequential Brexit in the case of inaction means her opponents are more likely to agree on a deal.
Although delaying negotiations could be strategic for May, ordinary Britons and businesses are already facing consequences. Citizens requiring lifesaving medicines such as insulin are particularly concerned—Britain imports most of the insulin that its population needs. Pharmaceutical companies could fly medicine into the country until trade deals are renegotiated, but whether aircraft can fly freely from EU countries to the UK remains unanswered.
Additionally, the slow-moving negotiations may not have been tactical after all. In the years following the Brexit vote, UK politicians have adamantly disagreed about the ideal deal. Some call for a “soft Brexit” that would keep Britain tied to the European economy. Others want a “hard Brexit,” giving the UK the freedom to write its own trade rules. The infighting in her cabinet has meant that May’s current proposal to keep some but not all of the UK’s trade deals, took two years to develop.
Even if May eventually strikes a deal with her opponents in Parliament as well as EU leaders, the two-year delay may have longer-lasting consequences for the country’s international reputation. “It makes the United Kingdom look like the torn, deeply divided polity that it is,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the risk consultancy firm Eurasia Group. “It’s a country that is inwardly focused and will likely have trouble finding direction on many issues going forward.”
6 Months Before Brexit, Many in U.K. Fear ‘It’s Looking Very Grisly’
LONDON — When Theresa May appears on stage at the Conservative Party’s annual meeting this week, it will take all her determination to drown out the ticking of an invisible clock.
One hundred and eighty days stand between Britain and an uncontrolled exit from the European Union. Then it will be 179, 178. …
After two years of negotiation, Britain has reached a moment of consequence for the process known as Brexit. The insulating layer of time that had protected the country from a potentially failed divorce from the bloc is thinning. Soon, it will be gone, with the threat of major new trade restrictions closing in.
What this could mean for ordinary Britons has been seeping into the newspapers, sometimes in leaks from secret government reports: Northern Ireland has only one energy link to the mainland, so a no-deal Brexit could lead to rolling blackouts and steep price rises; and the energy system could collapse, forcing the military to redeploy generators from Afghanistan to the Irish Sea.
With an eye toward the March 29 deadline, the government has appointed a minister to guarantee food supplies. Pharmaceutical companies are planning a six-week stockpile of lifesaving medications like insulin and considering flying planeloads of medicine into the country until imports resume. That’s if planes can still land in Britain — something thrown into doubt after the government admitted that aircraft could, in theory, be grounded by a sudden exit.
In many ways, the country is in the same position it was on the morning after the 2016 referendum: without a clear plan.
British leaders remain mired in infighting, still presenting competing visions as the Brexit countdown enters its final stage. Supporters of a so-called soft-Brexit would keep Britain closely tied to European economic rules and standards so as to minimize disruption to trade. The hard-Brexit camp backs the opposite approach: quitting Europe’s customs union and single market and freeing Britain to draw up its own trade rules.
On Friday, Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister and standard-bearer for the hard-Brexit faction, proposed starting over with a tougher negotiating approach, hinting that he might try to topple Mrs. May in the coming weeks.
Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour leader, rallied his own troops in Liverpool last week and all but promised that Parliament would vote down any deal that Mrs. May could strike.
In the meantime, there is a strange calm, as if the country is waiting to see if a storm will make landfall. On Twitter, the novelist Robert Harris recently compared the atmosphere to the months before Britain entered World War I, when the authorities watched helplessly as they were dragged toward war by the momentum of events.
“We’re just rolling toward the cliff, and nobody out there is going to stop it,” said Bill Wolsey, who owns a chain of hotels, pubs and restaurants based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
An abrupt Brexit, he said, would increase the cost of supplies and electricity in Northern Ireland by 20 percent and could curtail the flow of tourists from Europe, who are the backbone of his business.
“It’s a strange time,” he said. “How many times have we heard this attitude through history — that it will all be sorted — and then nothing’s sorted? I personally think nothing will be sorted.”
‘A rough ride’
In the two years that have elapsed since the 2016 vote, Britons have been replaying arguments for and against leaving the European Union.
Was Brexit, as Mr. Johnson would argue, an act of emancipation that would breathe life into a once-proud imperial power? Or was it, as his opponents would contend, a gesture of rage by communities that feel left behind by global capitalism, egged on by politicians’ false promises and tabloid-fueled xenophobia?
So deep were the fissures in her cabinet that it took Mrs. May two years to produce a proposal — known as Chequers, after her country residence where it was forged — that would keep some of Britain’s close economic ties to the bloc.
Mrs. May says her ideas would remove the need for checks on the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which will remain in the European Union. But that plan was blown apart at a summit meeting in Salzburg, Austria, where other European leaders decided it was too much like Mr. Johnson’s boast that, with Brexit, Britain could have its cake and eat it, too.
“Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be all right, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home are liars,” declared President Emmanuel Macron of France. “It’s even more true since they left the day after so as not to have to deal with it.”
On arriving home, the prime minister got no more comfort from a vocal pro-Brexit section of her party.
“Theresa May is in for a rough ride,” Andrew Bridgen, a Conservative member of Parliament, said last week, as the Tory conference approached. “She’s flogging this horse of Chequers. It’s flogging a dead horse. I’m not sure it’s not the last horse she’s got to ride.”
With six months until Britain’s scheduled departure, a void remains, leaving Britain stuck — unable to move forward or to rethink Brexit without risking a backlash from those who voted for withdrawal.
Mrs. May’s supporters say privately that delaying is a good negotiating tactic, and that her leverage will increase as the cliff edge looms closer. There is some truth to this. Other European Union nations would be damaged economically by a disorderly Brexit. And her critics in Parliament, where she has no real majority, may agree to any deal she can bring back if the alternative is imminent chaos.
Her team plays down the dangers, at least for now.
“There are certainly risks of short-term disruption,” Dominic Raab, the Brexit secretary, said in a recent interview with the international media.
“We can manage down some of those risks, and we can avoid some of them,” he said, though he conceded that this was not completely in his power and that avoiding disruption “will require good will on both sides.”
Even if Mrs. May ultimately squeaks a deal through — and many believe she will — the spectacle of the two-year Brexit paralysis has permanently shaped international perceptions of Britain, said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy firm.
“It makes the United Kingdom look like the torn, deeply divided polity that it is,” he said. “It’s a country that is inwardly focused, has infinitely wobbly politics, and will likely have trouble finding direction on many issues going forward. That’s not good. It’s a deeply divided, stuck political system. The cogs are grinding, and they will continue to.”
‘No evident way out’
If Mrs. May can reach a deal with the European Union and then get it through Parliament, that would trigger a 20-month period during which little would change while the details of future trade are worked out. In the meantime, many business owners are preparing for a worst-case scenario.
Charles Owen, who runs bars and restaurants for British tourists in the Alps, made the “deeply painful” decision to sell two of his four venues. Still, the situation remains “scary,” he said, as some of his employees — many of whom are British — could lose their right to work in the bloc after March 29.
“I have no idea of what the legality of those people working in my bars and restaurants will be in the last four weeks of the skiing season,” he said. “It’s scary.”
A report from Barclays Bank suggests that an abrupt departure from the European Union would cost the food and drink industry 9.3 billion pounds, or about $12 billion, in additional tariffs, with a new average tariff of 27 percent.
“It’s looking very grisly,” said Ian Wright, the director general of the Food and Drink Federation, which represents much of that sector. “And there is no evident way out.”
AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical company, says it has spent £40 million, or about $52 million, to duplicate some of its facilities in mainland Europe so that supplies will not be interrupted next spring.
This summer, one of Britain’s top health care regulators jolted diabetics by warning in an interview with The Pharmaceutical Journal that supplies of insulin could run out. Britain manufactures only a small fraction of the insulin its citizens need.
“It’s something that we need to make sure doesn’t happen,” said Michael Rawlins, chairman of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. “It could be a reality if we don’t get our act together. We can’t suddenly start manufacturing insulin — it’s got to be sorted, no question.”