Theresa May's Impossible Vision for Brexit

Leaving the EU Without Trade-Offs Means Not Leaving at All

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech about her vision for Brexit in London, March 2, 2018. Leon Neal / Reuters

On March 2, British Prime Minister Theresa May presented her long-awaited proposal for Britain’s exit from the European Union. Hoping to cut through the cacophony and confusion of the two years since the Brexit referendum, May set out her vision for the economic relationship between the United Kingdom and the remaining 27 European Union countries by laying out the five “tests” of any Brexit agreement: “Implementing the decision of the British people, reaching an enduring solution, protecting our security and prosperity, delivering an outcome that is consistent with the kind of country we want to be, and bringing our country together.” Her speech finished on a feisty note. “We know what we want,” she said. “We understand your principles. We have a shared interest in getting this right. So let’s get on with it.”

Unfortunately for May, her ambitious plan took only a few days to deflate. On March 7, European Council President Donald Tusk released draft guidelines for the remaining negotiations, in which he clearly contradicted May’s five tests. “The repeatedly stated positions of the [United Kingdom],” he starkly recalled, “limit the depth of such a future partnership.” Furthermore, he added, “a non-member of the Union (…) cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits as a member.” With only a year to go before Britain formally leaves the EU, its post-Brexit relationship with the rest of the continent is as unclear as ever. 

The main obstacle to progress is easy to identify. The Leave campaign promised a Brexit without trade-offs, one in which the United Kingdom could achieve national sovereignty without losing European market access. On succeeding David Cameron as prime minister, Theresa May, anxious to consolidate her support among hardliners in her party, doubled down on those promises, insisting on several “red lines,” which include leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, as well as removing the United Kingdom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Ever since, her government has been paralyzed by

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