Breakingviews - Britain heads for Brexit in name only

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May is welcomed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the EC headquarters in Brussels, Belgium December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Yves Herman

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Brexit is rapidly becoming a symbol without substance. Prime Minister Theresa May’s last-minute deal with the European Union reduces the chances of a chaotic divorce but exposes the difficulty of preserving trade flows after the separation. A lengthy transition period will create further scope for May – or another Prime Minister – to make concessions.

The first phase of Brexit talks was supposed to be straightforward. In reality, the six-month negotiation was punctuated by British compromises. Despite initial protestations, the government will pay a divorce bill that UK officials estimate will be between 40 and 45 billion euros. It also conceded that the European Court of Justice can rule on disputes involving EU citizens for up to eight years after Britain leaves.

The biggest climbdown, however, was over the border with the Republic of Ireland. Ministers had insisted it was possible to leave the EU’s single market and customs union without reintroducing a hard border. That was exposed as naive. Decisions on a detailed plan are deferred to the next stage of the talks. In the absence of a solution, however, the UK has committed to maintaining “full alignment” with the EU rules required to keep the border open.

The tussle is a preview of the issue likely to dominate the next phase of the talks: Britain’s willingness to comply with EU regulations after quitting the bloc. May wants an ambitious pact, but also insists on her country’s right to determine its own future. Officials in Brussels say that means London may have to settle for an agreement like the one the EU has with Canada. Even that could prove tricky since all 27 remaining EU nations will have to approve it.

Fully resolving this question by March 2019, when Britain is due to leave, looks impossible. A transition period, initially of two years, will buy time to agree details. Once in place, that limbo could easily be extended. May might then make further concessions – or be replaced by a Prime Minister not bound by the same “red lines”. Reversing the referendum decision still looks unlikely. But the chances of Britain leaving the EU in name only will continue to grow.


Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.

Sign up for a free trial of our full service at and follow us on Twitter @Breakingviews and at All opinions expressed are those of the authors.