Brexit Chaos A Dangerous Game

Disorganized and thin-skinned, Theresa May is failing to manage the Brexit process.
Theresa May is making a hash of the Brexit negotiations, the author argues. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images [M]

Half a year after Theresa May’s entrance into Downing Street, details about her Brexit strategy are a rarity. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is a working style that suggests Great Britain’s prime minister might not be up to the huge task of leading her country out of the European Union unscathed.

She doesn’t engage in debate with critics of the way she is handling things, forcing them out of office instead – as happened to the chief British diplomat in Brussels. He was branded a naysayer because he pointed out possible problems. But Ms. May’s tendency to surround herself with a small circle of loyal colleagues is dangerous. In view of the challenges facing her, it would be more to the purpose to listen to as many opinions as possible and seek advice to prepare for difficult negotiations with the E.U. and the many stumbling blocks that both she and Great Britain will face.


Negotiations may well end in major failure if Ms. May doesn’t change her approach.

The prime minister also has a problem regarding content, and has proclaimed mutually exclusive goals. She continues to suggest that immigration controls and unobstructed access to the single market can be combined – although the E.U. contradicts her at every opportunity. Instead of facing this clash of goals, Ms. May continues to repeat the mantra that she will get the best possible deal for Great Britain. Her approach seems haphazard and awakens expectations that she will be unable to meet.

In the coming weeks, she intends to reveal more of her Brexit strategy. But considering what has already seeped through from her grand speech about the exit from the E.U., the impression is unlikely to change fundamentally.

Ms. May likewise seems helpless and contradictory on other issues: She presents herself as a free trade advocate but speaks only half-heartedly in favor of the European single market. She defends globalization while promising a significant reduction in immigration.

Ms. May predicts companies will enjoy comfortable transition solutions during the exit from the E.U. But then shortly thereafter, she makes it clear through her spokespeople that a transition deal of this sort isn’t part of the negotiations with Brussels. She repeatedly talks about wanting to unite the country, overcome the deep divides and following policies for the benefit of everyone. But up to now, she has responded principally to the demands of the vociferous and more radical Brexit advocates and has asserted, more than just between the lines, the likelihood of a far-reaching break with the E.U.

Some aspects of her behavior are understandable. She is trying to distance herself from her predecessor David Cameron, who fawned over the financial industry and depended strongly on the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in his handling of the E.U. That strategy ultimately failed. Ms. May’s conclusion is not to place too much value on what the financial sector demands and not to count on Ms. Merkel. So the British prime minister is instead wooing other E.U. members such as Poland, which are also currently maneuvering themselves onto the fringes of the bloc.

As for her economic strategy – if she has one at all – Ms. May is concentrating on the manufacturing industry and has apparently given the automaker Nissan far-reaching assurances that the Brexit will have no negative effects on the company. She is also unresponsive to proposals by financial firms – even though they represent one of the most important industries in the country. But if the Brexit is to be a success, as Ms. May repeatedly promises, she must not allow an extensive retreat of the sector and the shifting of thousands of jobs.

She has learned a lesson from Mr. Cameron’s defeat: He was accused of not being ambitious enough in negotiations with the E.U. and not bringing home sufficient concessions, which ultimately led to 52 percent of Britons voting against Europe in the referendum at the end of June. So Ms. May is emphasizing that she is ambitious and capable of pushing through both immigration controls and a barrier-free trade deal with the E.U. for British companies.

But ambitions are not actions. A realistic appraisal of the situation and her own room to maneuver, along with being well-prepared for the exit talks, are another. And that inevitably involves examining the obstacles in advance, instead of simply blaming the messenger. Up to now, Ms. May hasn’t achieved this balance. That’s a bad sign for the upcoming divorce proceedings. They may well end in major failure if Ms. May doesn’t change her approach.


Katharina Slodczyk is Handelsblatt's London correspondent. To contact her: [email protected]