London, January 18: When French President Macron met Theresa May at the Franco-British summit at Sandhurst, the elite military academy the vital “take away” for him is that Brexit is not a done deal. It can, and quite possibly will, be reversed by an increasingly likely referendum on May’s Brexit terms early next year – once the Brexit terms are clear, but before Britain is due to leave on 29 March 2019.
The British strategy is to rebuild long-neglected bilateral relations to maintain influence in Europe. The trouble for the U.K. is that, when it comes to EU countries, bilateral relations can only go so far. Membership in the bloc places limits on what agreements national governments can strike with countries outside the EU, especially in crucial realms like economics and trade.
When Theresa May became prime minister 18 months ago, she called for national unity behind the narrow Brexit majority of the June 2016 referendum. An unenthusiastic remainder from the outset, she morphed overnight into to a hard Brexiteer, foolishly hoping to appease the right wing of her party, and Nigel Farage of the populist Ukip insurgency, by supporting the idea of leaving the European customs union and the single market.
She failed to obtain that unity. “Hard Brexit” alienated not only the British business community but swathes of moderate voters and almost all young people who fiercely oppose a “fortress Britain” which limits their ability to live and work across Europe. It also led to a crisis with the island of Ireland because of the near-universal determination, in both the Republic of Ireland and the political parties in Northern Ireland, to avoid a “hard border”.