The consensus in the British media is that Thursday’s informal Brexit summit in Salzburg, Austria, was a “humiliation” for Theresa May, with several papers running a photo of the red-jacketed prime minister standing in a crowd of black-suited male EU leaders to emphasize her isolation. May was getting it from both sides of the channel. European Commission President Donald Tusk posted a snarky Instagram caption implying that she was trying to cherry-pick only the parts of EU membership the British like:
May had gone to Salzburg to present the so-called Chequers plan for Brexit, first unveiled at the prime minister’s country estate in July. The plan, which called for Britain to continue to operate “as if” it were part of the EU customs union, with all the attendant regulations, was seen as too much of a “soft” Brexit for hard-liners in May’s Cabinet and prompted several of them, including Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, to resign.
But the response to Chequers from EU leaders at Salzburg wasn’t much better. Tusk declared that the deal, which would end the free movement of people between the EU and Britain and exempt the country from contributions to the EU budget, “will not work.” French President Emmanuel Macron called the proposal “unacceptable” and gave a speech calling on fellow European leaders to “stay united” in the face of May’s demands.
The timing couldn’t be worse for May, coming just a week before a Conservative Party conference at which she had hoped to sell skeptical party members on Chequers as the only plausible path forward.
But with Chequers declared unacceptable by both sides and the alarming prospect of a “no deal” Brexit looming, pressure will grow on May to pursue either a “Norway-style” arrangement under which Britain would continue to abide by many EU rules, including free movement of people, and make (smaller) contributions to the EU budget, or a “Canada-style” free trade deal under which Britain would gain full control of immigration and not make contributions but would have more limited trading access to the European market. There also appears to be little progress on resolving the thorny question of Northern Ireland: The Republic of Ireland won’t accept any Brexit arrangement that creates a hard border with the North, but it’s not clear how goods can continue to move freely over the border if the U.K. pulls out of the EU customs union. May has rejected the idea of creating a customs border between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland—some Brexiteers have referred to it as “annexation.”
May is holding firm, insisting that hers is “the only proposal on the table,” and Tusk maintains that compromise is still possible. But May continues to be in the position of trying to find a middle ground between one side that has no interest in compromise and another with completely unrealistic expectations. It’s increasingly looking like both sides are merely going through the motions of negotiating and trying to avoid a no-deal Brexit and that May’s humiliations will continue.