How Brexit Britain Managed to Lose All of Its Friends

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The sight of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a self-professed “best friend” to Britain, berating Theresa May’s Brexit strategy this week was telling. Even at a time when France and Italy are at diplomatic loggerheads, Viktor Orban is painting the European Union as a menace to society, and Ireland’s Big Tech-friendly tax model is under fire from the European Commission, the bloc’s 27 member states have more or less stuck together in talks with the U.K. They’ve certainly toed the negotiating line laid down by Brussels.

All of this matters as Theresa May considers requesting a possible delay to Brexit. Given that she would need the unanimous support of EU leaders, there will be strings attached.

May has used up a lot of goodwill over the past two years. She kicked off negotiations with unpleasant hardball tactics, misjudged Britain’s ability to extract trade terms with the EU that were just as good as being a member, and pressured other leaders to sign off on a draft deal in November that she herself has undermined since.

Her January promise to return to Brussels and renegotiate an Irish border provision that she’d only just agreed enraged many in the EU capital. Philippe Lamberts, an member of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, told me afterwards that the U.K.’s unreliable behavior demonstrated exactly why the Irish backstop was needed, and that European unity would hold. It has.

It’s pretty damning that the U.K. has failed to build any coalition within the EU that might help sway crucial votes or support its case. Core members like Germany and the Netherlands – despite facing respective hits of 8 billion euros ($9.1 billion) and 4 billion euros to yearly exports if Britain crashes out without a deal – were quickly alienated by the U.K.’s logic-defying demands for preferential access to a market that it wanted to leave without stopping it from signing its own free-trade deals.

And while smaller pro-British countries such as Poland and Hungary have been among the country’s most outspoken supporters, they’ve consistently defended the indivisibility of the single market and their own citizens’ rights. As net beneficiaries of EU funds, they have good reason to stick to the Brussels script.

The central and eastern states that might have found common ground with Britain as a tough ally against Russia and a check on the dominant euro-zone countries like France and Germany have failed to rally to its cause on Brexit. Faith in the broader NATO umbrella has probably outweighed fears that Britain will drift away from military cooperation into isolationism. Most are driven by fears of being left behind by closer EU integration rather than inspired by Britain’s break for freedom. Poland’s criticism of the Irish backstop found little endorsement in the region, according to European policy academic Monika Brusenbauch Meislova, highlighting May’s forlorn task in trying to find cracks in the EU’s united front. 

What happens next? As the debate moves from the terms of Brexit to whether Europe will allow May a few months delay, European unity is likely to hold, according to Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European Studies at Oxford university. If there’s evidence that this will help get May’s withdrawal deal over the line, much will depend on Germany, where lawmakers have expressed support for an extension of a few months. But if May takes negotiations to another “no deal” cliff edge after that, her isolation may prove fatal to her own political career. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.