May is too weak for a stand off in Brussels
EU Leaders must begin to compromise with the British PM or face a British walk-out led by a hard-line Boris Johnson.
Theresa May is in Brussels for the final chance to convince European Heads of Government to push Brexit negotiations to move to the ‘second phase’ and begin talking about transitional arrangements and trade. The British Prime Minister and the European Union are both hardly innocent when it comes to tensions over recent months and weeks, culminating in an election statement that saw Theresa May accuse the European Commission President of ‘interfering’ in the election.
Now, however, a much calmer atmosphere has descended on the European Union. Mrs. May is a diminished figure since May, now holds no Conservative majority in the House of Commons and is, to many of her fellow Tory MPs, living on borrowed time. Angela Merkel’s CDU suffered the worst result in recent German elections for a number of decades, and French President Emmanuel Macron and his new political force failed to breakthrough into the legislative Senate in the same way his Presidential and Parliamentary victories in May and June represented.
EU Leaders know Theresa May is weak. Her speech a number of weeks ago in Florence was limited in how the European Union wants her to go, but is the limit of acceptability for her divided Government and Conservative Party, and even then it took an intervention from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Chancellor Philip Hammond to both simultaneously agree a transition period and limit its scope. While Johnson has largely fallen into line since the aftermath of Theresa May’s Conference speech, he remains in the wings, as the likely choice of replacement for May if she goes too far with the European Union.
The fact remains that the Prime Minister was right to call a snap General Election. The slim Conservative majority achieved in 2015, while remarkable in the circumstances, was far from ideal for dealing with such a major constitutional change as Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, especially considering the divisions within the Conservative Party itself and the headaches that former Prime Minister David Cameron had experienced at the hands of the Eurosceptic Tory rebels. Theresa May needed a bigger majority in order to compromise and to do a satisfactory deal; the loss of her majority makes that harder.
If Theresa May is seen to compromise too much this week, or at any point — whether it be over the so-called ‘divorce bill’, or any element even to do with the European Courts of Justice — then she will be deposed. The issue is that the rising tide in favour of ‘No Deal’ in the Conservative Party, however mad, means that any sign of compromise from the Tory leadership will be met with chants of ‘traitor’ and other deriding names, and a move to replace May with someone who originally voted for Brexit will begin. Boris Johnson is the only available, high-level cabinet minister to do so.
David Davis is caught up in formal negotiations and will also, likely, retire following the conclusion of Brexit. Boris Johnson’s appeal is that he is still able and willing to be Prime Minister for some time after Brexit. But he will also be hard-line with the European Union, more combative and appealing to the conservative base in the UK. The European Union have, not as much as Britain, but market share and money at stake in these negotiations, and Theresa May is their only hope of reaching an agreement.
If they push May over the edge or insist on more and more concessions, the Prime Minister will walk away from the table under pressure from her own backbenchers. For a deal to be struck, the European Union must compromise with Mrs. May’s positions also, or be left facing Boris Johnson in №10 and opposite them in Brussels.