Anyone surprised by the European Union’s rejection of Theresa May’s “Chequers plan” hasn’t been paying attention. Donald Tusk, the EU president, remarked today: “We all agreed the Chequers proposals for economic cooperation will not work, not least because it will undermine the single market.”
Yet this is merely the line the EU has adopted since the UK voted for Brexit in 2016. Britain, they repeatedly warned, could not “cherrypick”. It could not be in the single market for goods (as the Chequers plan proposes) but outside of it for services.
To concede otherwise would undermine one of the EU’s cardinal principles – that the four freedoms – the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour – are indivisible. Just as one cannot be half-pregnant, so one cannot be partially in the single market. Were Britain granted an exception, it would be an invitation to others (Italy, say) to demand equivalent treatment.
It was Xavier Bettel, the prime minister of Luxembourg, who perhaps put it best in 2016: “Before, they were in and they had many opt-outs; now they want to be out with many opt-ins.” The Leavers are merely discovering what was clear all along: there is no cost-free option for the UK – Brexit cannot be delivered in the terms that it was promised. Britain, as the EU has repeatedly stated, can be Norway (high access, low sovereignty) or it can be Canada (low access, high sovereignty). What it cannot achieve is some superior hybrid of both.
The problem for Theresa May is that Conservative MPs are demanding she achieve just that, or urging the UK to leave with no deal (which, as May knows, would be an act of national self-harm). As was inevitable, the EU is demanding further concessions but May, with a fragile Commons majority of just 12, has no political space in which to make them. And having pledged repeatedly to avoid a hard Irish border, she cannot countenance a deal that would create one.
It would be wrong, however, to blame the Prime Minister for this fate. Though May bungled the snap election, she inherited an already slim Tory majority. The problem lies not in the handling of Brexit, but rather with Brexit itself. Once Article 50 was triggered in March 2017, the advantage was immediately handed to the EU. There is no “good deal” to achieve, only variants of a bad one.
Any agreement Britain reaches will be inferior to its current terms. The UK, in European eyes, was already having its cake and eating it. As well as membership of the single market and the customs union, Britain enjoyed a formal opt-out from the euro (the only member state other than Denmark to do so) and the borderless Schengen Zone, a £5bn budget rebate and numerous home affairs opt-outs.
May, like David Cameron during his failed EU renegotiation, has long believed that other member states could defy the technocratic Commission and come to her rescue. But as French president Emmanuel Macron made brutally clear today, there is no desire to fix a problem created by Britain. “Brexit is the choice of the British people, pushed by those who predicted easy solutions,” Macron said. “Those people are liars. They left the next day so they didn’t have to manage it.”
Indeed, when Michael Gove and Boris Johnson had the chance to take control in the heady summer of 2016, they self-combusted. However, power would merely have taught them the lesson paralysing the May government: that the greatest enemy of Brexit is Brexit.