Stefan Wermuth / REUTERS U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the Confederation of British Industry's annual conference in London, November 2016.

Brexit’s Path Forward

Why It’ll Be No Cakewalk

For some reason, every time British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is asked to discuss the upcoming Brexit negotiations with the EU, he uses a food metaphor. He is hard enough to follow for his fellow Englishmen, and it must be infinitely worse for non-native English speakers. Imagine the confusion felt by Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni when he learned that Johnson’s preferred approach to exiting the EU was to be “pro-secco but by no means anti-pasto.” Gentiloni has now been threatened with an actual prosecco trade war if the United Kingdom does not get favorable divorce terms with the EU. The best Gentiloni could come up with in retaliation was a prospective ban on fish-and-chips exports from the United Kingdom. Never since the 1970s “cod wars” with Iceland has the British menu been so contentious.

Denying that his country will face any hard choices in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations with the EU, Johnson has claimed his government’s policy is like his own attitude towards cake, that is “pro-having it and pro-eating it.” In other words, he believes that the United Kingdom can maintain access to the European single market, control immigration, sign its own trade deals, and end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over British affairs. Not everyone on the continent shares Johnson’s take on cake, however. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Netherlands’ influential finance minister who also serves as chairman of the Eurogroup, described Johnson’s vision as intellectually impossible” and “politically unavailable. Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel remarked that on top of having its cake and eating it too, Britain also wants a smile from the baker. President of the European Council Donald Tusk, for his part, simply observed that there would be no cakes on the table for anyone—only salt and vinegar.

Five months after the referendum, the tradeoffs and the process of Brexit negotiations still seem to bewilder most parties involved. Article 50, the legal mechanism that triggers a country’s exit from in the hope that it would never be used. As such, how it is supposed to work in practice is unclear. Confusion thus persists on three main issues: the fragile and complex constitutional settlement of the United Kingdom; what kind of country the United Kingdom wants to be post-Brexit; and its future relations with the EU.

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