51e Amerikaanse staat

De zwakke onderhandelingspositie van het Verenigd Koninkrijk leidt er toe dat het land als het ware als 51e staat van de Verenigde Staten gaat fungeren. Dat stelt Prashant Sabharwel, promovendus European Constitutional Law aan Maastricht University. Volgens hem betekent de Brexit daarom niet een terugkeer naar soevereiniteit maar een verlies van een belangrijk (economisch) partnerschap met de EU en ondergeschiktheid aan de Verenigde Staten van Donald Trump.

Brexit is Brexit, and Britain will make a success of it” – this circular mantra became the credo of the nascent premiership of Theresa May soon after she became Prime Minister. After the United Kingdom had voted to leave the EU in the national referendum on 23 June 2016, the swift ascent of May to the leadership of a deeply divided nation was not marked by decisive and resolute action. Instead, there was a sense of uncertainty and strategic obfuscation. Moreover, the “Brexit is Brexit” line was widely ridiculed for its banality and lack of clarity. This is not surprising considering the fact that the Brexiteers quite simply did not have a plan of action once their ambition actually came to fruition.

In the meantime, many options were discussed. Maybe the United Kingdom would not get out of the EU at all? The pending Article 50 case before the UK Supreme Court, the determined opposition of all other 27 EU countries against entering preliminary discussions on Brexit and divisions within the Leave camp on the right post-Brexit arrangement already threatened to throw a spanner into the proverbial works. Consequently, generalities would no longer do it anymore – and May decided to act.

The Prime Minister delivered a speech on her vision of a "Global Britain" on 17 January – and what she said provided the hitherto clearest indication of the path the United Kingdom government now wishes to embark on. Evidently, that path contains a very special interpretation of the transfer of sovereignty: Britain is leaving the European Union under the banner of “taking back control” – only to effectively hand it over to its special ally and partner, the US, now led by the Administration of President Trump who has expressed his disdain for the European Union many a time.

Rewriting History

Back to the speech. The Prime Minister began her remarks with a throwaway comment about how the United Kingdom had “voted to leave the European Union and to embrace the world”. Whilst certainly a crowd-pleasing sentiment, especially given the negative sentiments conjured up primarily by the Leave campaign, this is once more a transparent attempt at misdirection. Whilst being in the EU, Britain continued trading and building closer links with the rest of the world. Besides, this leaves out the basic fact that the residual EU still contains several G8 & 20 nations and several leading OECD nations.

May attempts to craft a positive case for a “truly global Britain”, thus drawing a marked contrast to both the more extreme proponents of the Leave case. She played the familiar card of portraying the EU as a constraint on the international economic clout and prestige of the United Kingdom – perhaps ignoring the fact that much of its economic success has been facilitated through a strong trade relationship with the European Union. She also conveniently forgets that countries like Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands have been consistently successful within the European Union as well. This is not to dispute the problems the European Union has – that said, much of May’s speech appears to be borne more out of wishful thinking than actual facts on the ground.

In a welcome shift of tone, May distanced herself from the wilfully ignorant voices from both leadership of the Leave side and its sympathizers, including Farage and Trump, which seemed to rejoice at the prospect of the European Union completely collapsing. That said, the atmosphere between London and Brussels has already been poisoned by ill-judged remarks on part of UK cabinet members and leaders of the European institutions, as well as individual MEPs. It can only be hoped that the grand-standing on both sides will now stop and serious negotiations commence in earnest.

Remarkably, she asserted that Cameron’s attempt at renegotiation was “valiant”. Respectfully, it wasn’t. Instead, the renegotiation was little more than a PR stunt lacking strategy, the long-term cultivation of alliances within the European Union and the ability to play a constructive role within the EU that could have resulted in much more generous concessions from the other heads of state – and a missed opportunity for Britain to drive a much-needed process of deeper institutional reform which could have convinced swing voters in the industrial heartland that, yes, Britain could remain relevant within the EU.

Our Way or the highway

“We do not seek to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries. We do not seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave”, the Prime Minister asserted and then continued by underlining that one of her central priorities was to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) over British legislation – a goal she had already alluded to before. This ties in with two other goals pursued by May: full control over immigration and clamping down on the freedom of movement of EU citizens.

Consequently, May announced that she would not just relinquish any claim to Single Market membership, but also to Customs Union membership. Instead, the Prime Minister wishes to negotiate a “bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement with the European Union”. Thus, previously discussed models for the UK's future economic relationship are off the table now, since these would have required the payment of reduced membership dues, accepting the free movement of workers, the implementation of the entire acquis communautaire and supervision by the European Court of Justice – without any say in Brussels whatsoever.

Nonetheless, this is a remarkable development on a number of levels: first, it appears that the hardliners in May’s cabinet have won the debate over her Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, who had been a fierce proponent of a close relationship with the European Union. Second, it appears that May has made the decision to prioritize electoral support on issues of immigration control, border security and working-class grievances in northern England over the complexities of disentangling a largely beneficial economic relationship with the remainder of the European Union.

Even the much-touted potential UK-US Free Trade Agreement with the Trump Administration will not be able to absorb the losses which will hamper the UK’s economy. First, the road to actual negotiations is much longer than the bold statements prior to Trump’s inauguration would make you believe. Further, bear in mind that Trump’s central priority has been expressed in two words: “America First”. American negotiators, aware of the UK’s economic predicament, will drive a very hard bargain – leaving Britain little room for manoeuvre in negotiations with the United States. Finally, the UK Government quite simply lacks the experience needed in trade negotiations – so much so that New Zealand offered its own trade negotiators.


Sure, it can be sold as a victory – but Britain's weak negotiating position will expose it to a range of American demands on labour, production and regulatory standards that may very well need to be adjusted to permit for a smooth functioning of such a deal. And that does not even begin to sum up the fears of those Britons who fear effectively becoming a de facto 51st state of the United States by virtue of the country’s close dependence on the transatlantic relationship in political, economic and military terms. Whilst a literal accession of the United Kingdom to the United States may not be on the cards anytime soon, British politicians (especially in the Conservative Party) need to be very careful about getting carried away and engaging in wishful thinking about the effects of individual trade deals or even the inclination of individual European countries to deal with the United Kingdom.

An FTA with the United States, without the clout of a trading bloc (with a larger population and combined economic capacity) like the European Union behind it, could severely disadvantage the United Kingdom and turn it into yet another consumer market for American products.

Taking back control? This is certainly not what Leave supporters bargained for.