LONDON — Theresa May’s role is a lonely one. Embattled at home, having lost her parliamentary majority, the British Prime Minster has few people she can trust and consult. As she leads her country through complex Brexit negotiations, there is nobody to tell her what the next step should be; no one has done this before. Hers is a leadership that has had greatness thrust upon it.
Despite her monumental task, May has managed to hold together a fragile consensus, while at the same time dealing with an interlocutor — the EU — whose implacability is matched only by its lack of creative thinking. A prime example: EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier’s insistence that the best deal with the EU the U.K. can get outside the single market and customs union is Canada-style free-trade agreement. Trade deals consist of words on page, not models frozen in time.
The EU’s intransigence leaves May with little room to maneuver. But it also offers her the possibility to demonstrate the legacy-defining leadership that few British leaders since Winston Churchill have been able to project at home or around the world.
As important as a free-trade agreement with the EU might be, it cannot be allowed to drive her country’s entire trade policy. Up until now, it has been reasonable to separate negotiations with the EU from the rest of the U.K.’s trade policy. But now that trade talks with the EU are beginning in earnest, May should bring all her country’s negotiations under one roof.
Just as Churchill’s vision carried a nation that instinctively knew it could rise to the challenge, May must set a way forward that unites the people of the U.K.
That is the only way her government will be able to balance difficult trade-offs. A bold statement to this effect from May, and a re-alignment of her teams, would make eminent sense.
The U.K. should use the transition period after it leaves the EU to negotiate and sign trade deals with other countries. This will require making clear that the U.K. is an independent actor, whatever it’s legal ability to finalize a trade deal.
The most critical phase of a trade negotiation comes in the final stages, when the broad discussion turns to contentious details. There’s no reason the U.K. can’t conclude trade deals during a transition period, even if deals cannot be implemented — but it will only be able to do so if other countries are assured that it does not feel itself constrained by the duty of sincere cooperation and common commercial policy, even during a transition period.
We must act like the independent, sovereign nation that we are about to become. May must chart a clear path forward for the U.K., beginning with negotiations for a free-trade agreement with the U.S. and talks to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It is vital that the rest of the world sees the U.K. as a serious country.
The same applies to the tariff rate quota agreements in the WTO and the third-country agreements we have through the EU. May must be able to look other countries in the eye and be able to say with conviction that the U.K. can offer more liberalization in the future, and that the future is quite close.
Theresa May must be the guide up the side of the Brexit mountain, pointing the way to the summit | Pool photo by Marco Bortorello/Getty Images
We must also join various groups in the World Trade Organization from Day One of Brexit, helping its members move in a more liberalizing and pro-competitive direction. We could join the new plurilateral e-commerce working group in our own right (not as a subdivision of the EU). We could even become members the Cairns Group seeking to liberalize agricultural produce, something that would get the attention of both Washington and Brussels. But we must be able to do this in our own right and name.
These would all be significant moves, and they will require determination and resolve to be pushed through — especially in the face of an EU that seems intent on limiting the U.K.’s ability to chart its future. A fearless leader will be required, one who can offer a vision of an increasingly liberalized world in which Britain plays a leading role, and who can explain how we can get from here to there.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man — or woman in this case. Britain needs May to step up and lead it through these perilous times. Churchill painted a vision that the elite of his time found ludicrous and impossible. Faced with a powerful enemy in Nazi Germany, many in the country saw some form of appeasement or surrender as the only option.
Just as Churchill’s vision carried a nation that instinctively knew it could rise to the challenge, May must set a way forward that unites the people of the U.K., both those who voted to leave and those who voted to remain. She must lift heads that the last year has beaten down, so that they can see the brighter future for Britain after Brexit, and the pathway to get there.
She must be the guide up the side of the mountain, pointing the way to the summit. She has no choice but to do so. The fate of millions rests upon it.
Shanker A. Singham is head of the international trade and competition unit at the Institute of Economic Affairs.