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Brexit Diaries 29

Barbara Wesel
February 26, 2018

Jeremy Corbyn has laid out Labour's approach to the UK's looming divorce from the EU. Meanwhile, Donald Tusk believes "cake philosophy" is still alive and Britain's Brexit minister has dismissed "Mad Max-style" fears.

Mad Max Fury Road
Davis' reference to 'Mad Max' may reveal where his true fears lieImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Warner Bros./Jasin Boland

Eleven months after the triggering of Article 50, the UK's Labour Party has given its take on Brexit in a speech by leader Jeremy Corbyn. He supports a form of Brexit, wants to stay in a permanent customs union, and likewise remain in a somewhat close relationship with the single market.

Corbyn in his speech recognized an important reality: Some 44 percent of UK exports go to the EU and 50 percent of UK imports come from there. That neatly describes the scope of the problem. After that followed his wish list. He would like a new comprehensive customs union where Britain has a say in future trade deals. Under his plan, the UK would technically leave the EU and all its agreements on March 29 of next year, but it could then try to reenter the customs union a day later.

But as to changing the rules of that customs union, his chances are rather nonexistent. The same holds true for the single market and "reasonable management" of migration. Corbyn wants to rewrite the EU's rules and then sidle up close to it. It sounds an awful lot like cherry-picking.

'Ambitious managed divergence'

Officially Prime Minister Theresa May will give another one of her trailblazing Brexit speeches on Friday and Brussels is holding its breath. But what leaked from her Cabinet meeting at Chequers sounds rather like more of the same.

UK Cabinet meeting at Chequers
The gathering at Chequers was supposed to be a happy affairImage: Reuters/S. Rousseau/Pool

At least they must have had a lovely away day from London at the prime minister's 16th century country estate. Take all your closest colleagues with whom you thoroughly disagree, an intractable topic, have May run the meeting, shake but don't stir and success is guaranteed. The result is what's being called "ambitious managed divergence."

It means the UK will pick certain EU rules to adhere to and diverge from others it finds more cumbersome. From this pick and mix approach will then emerge a future close relationship and "frictionless trade with the EU as far as possible." Let's please not mention Northern Ireland in this context because that would spoil the good mood.

The philosophy of cake

The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, was acerbic when asked for his reaction to the Chequers' leaks. What Britain wants from us on Brexit is "pure illusion," he responded, showing his sternest "no nonsense" face. They are still trying to cherry-pick and the ideas from the Cabinet meeting proved that "the cake philosophy" is still alive, he said.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, as the originator of the "we want to have our cake and eat it" mantra, must feel largely honored. Maybe he should consider a nice professorship in "cake philosophy" at Oxford.

Tusk: 'Cake philosophy is still alive'

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is also known for not mincing his words. When a hapless reporter at the Brussels summit asked for his reaction to the latest Brexit proposals, Rutte hit back: "Can you explain to me what the UK wants?" And after he visited May in London last week, he was very direct. "The British government really needs to offer more clarity about where it wants to go," he said. "The clock is ticking, and we need to move fast."

There are always talks

Meanwhile, talks are going on at the "technical level." Negotiators have to formulate the legal language of the divorce agreement. An unenviable task, because a dozen disagreements lurk behind the basic deal.

And then there is the transition agreement. Has May really delimited her proposal and taken out the time frame of December 31, 2020? And has she already made a U-turn on citizens' rights to remain in the UK during the transition period or will she make it later? And is London aware of the fact that these two preparatory agreements are supposed to be agreed upon by the next summit on March 22?

No 'Mad Max' Brexit

The UK's Brexit minister, David Davis, tried to be reassuring when meeting with Australian businessmen in Vienna. The Aussies are still regarded as close cousins by the Brits and are expected to become strong trading partners after Brexit. It's a shame that currently imports and exports between the two countries make up only 2.5 percent of the UK's trade volume. But we are talking about the future here.

Davis therefore told the Australian businessmen that his party would certainly not plunge the country into a "Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction" through Brexit. This gives us an interesting view into the minister's innermost thoughts. If a "Mad Max"-style image of extreme and totally random violence, wholesale destruction and vicious gang fighting goes through Davis' mind, it might in fact show his real fears. Brussels should take that as a warning.