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Brexit shootout

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 13 July 2018

This year’s football World Cup held a big surprise: England can win a penalty shootout (oh, and please don’t mention the German performance – I know).

If you are not into football, you might wonder what is so hard about kicking a ball into the goal from short distance. But ask previous English internationals, and they can tell you how to miss the goal altogether from the spot.

What we are watching in British politics is not that different.

Two years ago, British voters instructed their politicians to organise the UK’s exit from the European Union. But the resignations of Brexit Minister David Davis and Foreign Minister Boris Johnson are just the latest events in a tragicomedy of Brexit errors.

Yes, Brexit is more complicated than a penalty shootout. But Prime Minister Theresa May made it look much harder than it needed to be.

There would have been a straightforward way of executing Brexit. It was outlined by former British Trade Secretary Peter Lilley, whom the Initiative hosted for lectures last year.

Britain should have converted all existing European laws into British laws to provide domestic certainty.

It should have then offered the EU a comprehensive free trade deal, which would have been easy to accept and implement since that is the status quo. As Lilley said, “We’ve got zero tariffs and we want to go to zero tariffs – that can be done in an afternoon.”

Failing that, Britain should have maintained zero tariffs for imports from the EU unless the EU imposed tariffs on Britain.

Organising Brexit along those lines would have put Britain in a strong negotiating position vis-à-vis Brussels. Instead, Prime Minister May turned Brexit into a complete mess.

By oscillating between a hard and a soft Brexit, she only strengthened the EU’s negotiating position. May was no longer in charge of making an offer to Brussels. She had to beg for concessions from the EU and then sell them to the various wings of her own party.

The basic problem is May herself. Having tepidly campaigned for Remain, she has always been the wrong person to lead Britain towards Brexit. That task should have fallen to someone from the other camp, say Michael Gove or Boris Johnson.

As the Brexit negotiations move towards extra time, it takes a team captain with better oversight, strategy and nerves than May.

Who knows, perhaps the British government can still surprise us like the English football team?

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