Historians who will one day write the story of British politics in the early 21st century will agonize over the question of whether British Prime Minister Theresa May really wanted to leave the European Union. In the months leading up to last year’s’ referendum, when she was the home secretary, May supported the “Remain” camp, though many believed it was only out of loyalty to then-Prime Minister David Cameron, and that privately she was in favor of leaving. Since becoming prime minister, May has emerged as a firm advocate of making a clean break with the EU, belying the assumption that she had been a Brexiteer all along. And on Wednesday — after her letter triggering Article 50 in the European Constitution, officially initiating the divorce proceedings, was delivered to European Council President Donald Tusk — she stood up in Parliament and gave a remarkably pro-European speech.
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To loud jeering from the opposition benches she said, “now more than ever the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe — values that the United Kingdom shares.” After the Brexit is completed, May said, Britain would seek “a new deep and special partnership” with the EU. She went on to detail the challenges facing Britain in the upcoming two years of negotiations, sounding much more convincing when listing the threats to its prosperity once cut off from the EU than confident in its abilities to strike a new independent path. Had she given the same address nine and a half months ago, no one would have suspected for a moment she was a leaver. Did the historic occasion force out of May’s normally calm and calculated exterior her true inner Europhile? Or was she simply, as a shrewd politician, trying to manage expectations?
May knows full well that at this stage, she cannot make any promises. Europe is experiencing its own political turmoils, and different politicians on the continent are making very different statements. Manfred Weber is the head of the European People’s Party group, the main center-right alliance in the European Parliament, and a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian counterpart of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. “We’ll have to have a very tough position on Brexit,’” Weber said, adding, “People will see it’s a dangerous exercise to leave the union.”
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron, the frontrunner in the French election, the first round of which is scheduled for April 23, said: “The question is not to punish the U.K. for a vote made by British people. My priority will be to protect the European Union, the interests of the European Union, and the interests of European citizens. And my deep wish is to have Great Britain with the European Union in another relationship.”
The truth is that European politicians, too, cannot predict which course will most help the continent and the union: making Britain an example to other wavering EU members by “punishing” it in the breakup process, or trying to smooth the way toward a new relationship. Just as the vote for Brexit was a result of a toxic mixture of nationalism, populism, xenophobia and misinformation, Europe’s reaction is likely to fueled by the same dark motives, not any soul-searching over how grand designs of an ever-closer union played a part in alienating one of the EU’s largest members.
Will the EU demand that Britain pay up to $60 billion for various commitments to joint programs and budgets? Will the three million Europeans living in Britain and over a million Britons on the continent be allowed to continue living and working in their current homes? How will British companies continue to trade with the single European market, and will airlines, banks and international corporations be forced to move to the continent? Can Britain really regain full control of its borders and immigration and will the Scottish nationalists, who only two and a half years ago lost an independence referendum by a margin of 10 percent, pounce on the opportunity and launch another referendum to leave the United Kingdom during this period of uncertainty?
Europe needs a hell of a lot of goodwill over the next two years to ensure the EU is not dramatically weakened by the breakup and that at the end of the two-year countdown to final separation, Great Britain is not transformed into little England. Goodwill is not an ingredient found in European politics in abundant quantities at the moment. No wonder May was trying to lower expectations.
Interestingly, one specific field in which Brexit is already having a tangible effect is in British-Israeli relations. This week was the inaugural meeting of the new U.K.-Israel trade working group. Israel isn’t even one of Britain’s top-30 trading partners, but London was eager for Israel to be one of the first countries with which it established such a group. The purpose is to prepare the ground for a new trade deal, after Britain no longer trades with the world as part of the EU. With all due respect to Israeli technology and cherry tomatoes, the eagerness seems to have more to do with diplomatic than with economic factors.
The haste to set up trade talks came at the height of a pro-Israel, anti-United Nations offensive from London that surprised even Britain’s own diplomatic corps. It began with a coruscating statement from Downing Street in December, criticizing outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry for focusing on Israeli settlements in his farewell speech and singling out the Netanyahu government as “the most right-wing in Israel’s history.” The statement from May’s office was particularly surprising seeing as Britain has just supported the UN Security Council resolution against the settlements, its diplomats even helping to draft it. But the change in tone from London has continued, including in statements like the one on Friday in which Britain announced it was putting the UN Human Rights Council “on notice” for its “disproportionate focus on Israel.” London warned that the council that if it did not end its unbalanced approach, Britain would “adopt a policy of voting against all resolutions concerning Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Syrian and Palestinian Territories.”
This is Britain’s new policy toward Israel. Instead of accepting Palestinian demands to apologize for the Balfour Declaration, the British government seems uncharacteristically eager to celebrate the document’s centennial, later this year. And who knows, perhaps the oldest boycott of Israel, that of the British royal family, may be coming to an end. According to multiple reports, 2017 will be the year in which a British prince will officially visit Israel (rather than just making private visits to the grave of Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Greece, and attending funerals).
The new winds out of Whitehall don’t signal a sudden acceptance of Israeli hasbara, but rather the realization that after leaving the EU, Britain will also be much more dependent on its “special relationship” with Donald Trump’s America. The British statements mirror those being made by the new administration in Washington. As one Israeli official said tactfully this week, “we’re in a period in which the positive sides of our relationship with Britain are being emphasized.”
Fifty-two percent of Britons voted to “take back control” and leave the European Union. For now, at least, that means handing control of their Middle East policy to the White House.