Opinion: Chaos reigns supreme in London | Opinion | DW | 09.07.2018

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Opinion: Chaos reigns supreme in London

As long as the UK fails to clarify who's calling the shots when it comes to Brexit, Brussels will be condemned to idly wait. The power struggle in London brings the country closer to a precipice, says DW's Barbara Wesel.

First, Brexit Minister David Davis steps down, then Foreign Minister and leading Brexiteer Boris Johnson follows. They're trashing Prime Minister Theresa May's attempt to align her Cabinet with a so-called soft Brexit. The coordinated resignation of two of the toughest Brexit ideologists plunges May's government into chaos and destroys the EU's hopes of being able to eventually begin, during the weeks to come, substantial talks about the divorce treaty and the future relationship between the UK and the bloc.

Brexit gives birth to chaos

It was only last Friday that May had tried, in hit-and-run style, to forcibly unite her quarreling cabinet. But as things turn out now, the attempt went horribly wrong. The UK's Conservatives are deeply divided about how to deal with the EU post-Brexit.

Barbara Wesel

Barbara Wesel is DW's correspondent in Brussels

On the one hand, the hardliners are not ready to go for a compromise. On the other hand, moderate delegates in the House of Commons believe the hard Brexit their opponents dream about is pure madness. There's no bridge across this abyss. The prime minister is clinging to power, but it's uncertain whether she'd survive a vote of confidence. Her only protection is the awareness that, at the moment, no one could do her poisoned job better than May herself.

The hard Brexiteers, in turn, lack support in parliament. Jacob Rees-Mogg, again and again mooted for prime minister, is not capable of winning a majority. The situation seems muddled and hopeless. Chaos reigns and tumultuous scenes in the House of Commons can hardly build confidence.

Read more: Where Germany stands on Brexit

Brexit is tearing the UK and its Conservative party apart and poisoning the political debate. For months, the EU has asked the British government not to negotiate with itself, but with Brussels — this is now set to get worse rather than better.

May's proposals would only be a beginning

In spite of it all, May claims that her proposals for a softer Brexit represent a breakthrough. Even so, the propositions put on the table at her rural retreat, Chequers, serve British interests exclusively. They could, therefore, be a starting point for further negotiations at best.

This patchwork of little bits of tariff union and scraps of single market according to British taste is, in its current form, not acceptable to the EU. Further concessions would be necessary in order to come up with a solution that will be digestible for the EU side as well. Even if May survives the present struggle with her own hardline Tories, she could still, at a later date, tumble because Brussels cannot simply give her what she wants.

Sleepwalking toward a precipice

For the EU, the continued chaos in the British government is a superfluous and unwelcome diversion. There are currently more important items on the agenda than dealing with the persistent hue and cry of the various Brexit factions. The menacing NATO summit with US President Donald Trump, his no less dangerous meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the row over migration policy and the rise of the right-wing populists in Poland, Italy and Austria should command all the attention and political clout of the key EU member states.

Read more: UK is 'making a mess' of Brexit, Scotland's Nicola Sturgeon tells DW

Instead, Brexit talks that are going in circles absorb energy and time. It appears that the UK's staunch opponents of the EU are ignoring the state of the world, or they believe — grossly overestimating their own abilities — they will be able to tackle those challenges alone.

But as long as the government in London doesn't clarify once and for all who's calling the shots when it comes to Brexit, and who represents a majority in talks with Brussels, a continuation of negotiations will be futile. The EU's diplomats are condemned to wait until the power struggle in the UK is over. If they are really unlucky, those parts of the divorce treaty over which agreement has already been reached could be worth no more than the paper they're written on.

If, however, one of the real Brexit ideologists actually came to power, Brussels can simply give up all hopes of finding a viable solution. That group appears to be craving an immediate EU exit, without any agreement. It seems as if parts of the UK's ruling party are sleepwalking toward a precipice, and no one in the EU can keep them from falling over it.