British foreign minister and Brexit booster Boris Johnson has assured British voters “we’ll have our cake and eat” when it comes to withdrawal from the European Union. What he means is that Britain can limit immigration from EU countries, while still maintaining the access to the European common market that came with membership. European leaders have repeatedly told the British government they have no intention of allowing this: Britain can’t have free trade with Europe without free movement of people. EU membership isn’t an à la carte sort of thing.
But things work differently in the mirror-universe version of Europe that exists inside Johnson’s head, much to the frustration of the European leaders he’s going to be negotiating with. He told a Czech newspaper this week that it’s a “myth” that freedom of labor movement is a fundamental right in Europe. He also reportedly told Italy’s economic development minister, Carlo Calenda, that Italy would have to grant Britain access to the common market “because you don’t want to lose prosecco exports.” Calenda told Bloomberg:
“He basically said, ‘I don’t want free movement of people but I want the single market,’ ” said Calenda. “I said, ‘no way.’ He said, ‘you’ll sell less prosecco.’ I said, ‘OK, you’ll sell less fish and chips, but I’ll sell less prosecco to one country and you’ll sell less to 27 countries.’ Putting things on this level is a bit insulting.”
Overall, Calenda said that when it comes to Brexit, “There’s lots of chaos and we don’t understand what the position it.”
This might be because there actually isn’t a position. According to a memo that was written by a Deloitte consultant and leaked to the press this week, the British cabinet is deeply split over Brexit. It could take up to six months to even formulate a negotiating strategy, the memo said. It also estimated that it up to 30,000 extra civil servants might be required to handle Brexit-related tasks.
Prime Minister Theresa May disputed those assessments and said that the memo had been written without any input from the government. But if her government does actually have a plan to fulfill its promise of pulling out of the EU without losing access to the common market, it’s hard to discern what it is.
May is still planning to trigger Article 50, which will formally begin negotiations for Britain’s withdrawal, at the end of March—though legal challenges could delay that. Theoretically, negotiations will have to be wrapped up two years after that, but European leaders are now acknowledging that it will probably take a lot longer, given the complications involved and the uncertainty about the British position.
It’s almost as if the proponents of Brexit stoked public anger and anxiety for political gain without ever giving much thought to how they would govern in the unlikely event that they won. How could voters ever fall for something like that?