Article 50 won’t be triggered until March, but Europe is still watching

Finally the British public has been given more to work with than “Brexit means Brexit”, although admittedly very little.

When the referendum result was announced it was clear Britain, amid internal political division, needed to play its hand very carefully: not to overstate its global position and to approach exit negotiations with the EU in a manner which respects the 48% who didn’t vote to Leave.

Just over 100 days later and that hasn’t happened. Three months into her premiership and Theresa May has shown herself to be more at the behest of the right-wing of her party than many hoped.

With innumerable questions hanging over what exactly Brexit means she announced at the Tory party conference she would trigger Article 50 – signalling the beginning of the UK’s exit from the EU. If reports are to believed there is a rift within the cabinet itself about whether the country should opt for a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit.

Furthermore there are constant rumblings of discontent within a beleaguered civil service of how the Great Repeal Bill (golden rule of legislation – stick Great at the front and all will be well) will be formed, let alone implemented. The irony seems to have been lost on the Brexiteers that the first legislative move post the referendum is to adopt EU law wholesale into the law of the UK, even if the aim is to cut and dice it later.

In short no one seems to have much of a plan, and Europe knows it. Furthermore the situation is unlikely to be helped by increasingly draconian immigration policies and inflammatory rhetoric.

I understand May’s need to placate the Eurosceptic wing of the party and reassure leavers but there were ways of doing it without giving into the worst factions of the right. At the moment, ideology seems to be trumping practicality and diplomacy.

In France, Hollande, preparing to fight his own election as his own team one-by-one are announcing their own campaigns against him, has said the UK must be punished for the vote to leave. European Council President Jean-Claude Junker has made no secret of his intent for it to be the EU and not the UK which leads negotiations, refusing to begin even informal discussions before Article 50 is triggered.

All of this should make Mrs May cautious in her build-up to discussions, wary not to offend, and even humble in her expectations. At the start of her premiership it was considered an asset that she was not associated with the Europe-bashing albatross of vitriolic statements and false figures. However, this advantage is being squandered in favour of Tory party unity meaning the UK now appears on course for a hard Brexit with little regard for the economy.

Her conference speech made it clear she has little intention of compromising over issues such as free movement of people. While the domestic politics of this move are clear, outlining red lines before negotiations have started only limits the government’s options and will likely create problems down the line when lines have to be crossed. She appears to have learnt nothing from Cameron’s failed EU talks and whereas then there was impetus for state leaders to lend him a hand to help the UK stay in, now there is no such driver.

In the wake of the vote, those who campaigned to leave, led by Boris Johnson, were at pains to point out the result did not mean the UK was fundamentally opposed to Europe, just the European project. This message was a positive one and one the government should be at pains to maintain that position. Yet in addition to red lines, deadlines and disingenuous lines the cabinet seems dead set on offending the very principles on which Europe stands.

Amber Rudd’s poorly judged and unfortunate announcement that companies will have to publicly list foreign workers (the historic resonance of which seems to have entirely passed her by) has rightly attracted ridicule and ire but the issue is more than domestic. It plays to the image of Britain as arrogant, petulant and plain nasty. Coupled with May’s unnecessary and narrow minded approach to human rights declaring the armed forces will no longer be subject to: “activist left wing human rights lawyers”, the government is sticking two fingers to Europe in all but name.

May’s blatant disregard for the history and significance of the infrastructure of European human rights is shocking as is her willingness to label fundamental rights as an “activist left wing” issue. It smacks of the little England image the U.K. desperately needs to dispel.

Article 50 will be triggered by March next year, notwithstanding a successful legal challenge, but May would be foolish to think Europe isn’t watching before then.

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