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Brexit Has Damaged U.K.’s Global Image, Experts Say

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 4/17/2019 Thomas K. Grose
a person hanging off the side of a building: LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: A member of the public walks into Piccadilly Underground Station on April 2, 2019 in London, England. The current deadline which the United Kingdom is to leave the European Union is April 12, 2019. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) © (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images) LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: A member of the public walks into Piccadilly Underground Station on April 2, 2019 in London, England. The current deadline which the United Kingdom is to leave the European Union is April 12, 2019. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

LONDON – When it comes to Brexit, the United Kingdom's now delayed divorce from the European Union, the British public is still deeply divided on whether it's a good idea. But there's one thing that a sizable majority of voters agree on: the Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May bungled the negotiations with the EU.

A mere 7 percent of Britons say the talks have gone well, according to recently published data from the National Centre for Social Research. Meanwhile, 80 percent of Leave voters and 85 percent of Remainers say it's been a mess.

And much of the rest of the world agrees.

The shambolic Brexit haggling and Parliament's subsequent inability to coalesce around any final agreement have badly dented the United Kingdom's once sterling international standing as a leading parliamentary democracy and a diplomatic powerhouse, experts in international relations say.

"It's caused significant damage to the U.K.'s reputation," says Jamie Gaskarth, a senior lecturer in politics and foreign relations at the University of Birmingham.

Britain's impotence in the negotiations was on display last Wednesday when May met with the 27 other EU leaders in Brussels to plead for a short delay of Brexit. She wanted more time to win parliamentary approval for either the withdrawal agreement she and the EU spent two years hammering out, or a modified version of it. Britain was initially scheduled to exit the bloc on March 29. But days before that deadline, the EU granted it an extension to April 12. May wanted to stretch that out until June 30. Instead, the EU leaders extended the deadline by six months, to Oct. 31.

Parliament has rejected May's deal three times in the past few months. But it has also failed to agree to any alternative. A big problem is that both the ruling Tory party and the main opposition Labour Party are deeply split over Brexit. The only thing a large majority of MPs can agree on is that they don't want to crash out of the EU with no deal. A no-deal Brexit, most economists and business groups say, would severely damage Britain's economy.

The upshot of the Brexit chaos, Gaskarth says, is "we've taken a big hit to our ability to influence foreign events." For instance, Britain's inability to ratify a Brexit deal calls into question its competence as a negotiator and its ability to stick to agreements it makes. "What's most significant is the loss of trust in the U.K. as a partner in negotiations," says Jana Puglierin, head of the Europe program at the German Council on Foreign Relations, because the other side can't be sure if what's agreed can gain parliamentary approval and win over a majority of the ruling party.

British Political Leaders Fall Short

Experts particularly fault May's handling of Brexit negotiations. "She made significant political mistakes," Gaskarth says. "It comes down to her leadership style."

May triggered Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, essentially the EU constitution, on March 29, 2017, which gave the U.K. two years to agree to a withdrawal agreement. But she's now criticized for activating Article 50 before having a clear plan of what the final agreement would look like and if it could muster a parliamentary majority. Given Brexit's razor-thin margin of victory in the June 2016 referendum, it's argued, she should have made more of an effort to come up with a compromise plan instead of catering to her party's hardcore Brexiters.

"She never tried to find a national consensus," explains Will Jennings, a political scientist at the University of Southampton. "She set strict red lines and didn't leave herself any wiggle room."

The Conservative Party politicians in charge of Brexit also lacked a fundamental knowledge of how the EU works. "Certainly the ignorance of individuals like Boris Johnson, David Davis and Dominic Raab has been cruelly exposed by the Brexit process," says Gaskarth, referring to the former foreign secretary, and two of the former ministers put in charge of Brexit.

"There was an arrogance of power: 'We can dictate the terms,'" says Judy Dempsey, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, a Brussels think tank. "They still don't want to recognize that the EU calls the shots, because that's the way the EU is constructed. Legally, it would always have the strongest hand."

But it's not that Britain's political leaders weren't warned, says Christian Lequesne, a professor of European politics at the Paris Institute of Political Studies in France, or Sciences Po, as it is commonly called. "Within the EU, the reputation of the U.K. was one of efficiency. The U.K. has an excellent foreign service." But, he says, the government didn't trust the Foreign Office so it shut it out. "It thought it was too Europhile, so it didn't benefit from the Foreign Office's expertise." Britain's sidelining of its well-regarded diplomats "flabbergasted the other EU members, especially the French and Germans," Dempsey says.

Brexit's Cautionary Tale For the Rest of Europe

After British voters approved Brexit, there were fears in Europe that it might spark similar movements in other member states. But Brexit has proved to be such a train wreck, nationalist parties across Europe have since dropped their anti-EU rhetoric.

In Poland, a coalition of opposition parties is trying to win seats in next month's European Parliament elections by claiming the ruling Law and Justice party wants to pull the country out of the EU. Nevertheless, Puglierin says, many Euro-skeptic parties have merely retooled their strategy. "Their plan is now to change the EU fundamentally from within and renationalize it. This is no less threatening."

Doubts remain that British leaders will constructively use the additional six months to find a solution acceptable to a majority in Parliament, and will instead revert to playing party politics.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wants to force a general election, which he thinks his party would win. But, Jennings says, an election won't solve matters because the parties themselves are so divided. "It wouldn't change the fundamental issues or change the dynamics." Meanwhile, many Tories are baying for May's head and want to replace her with someone more committed to a hard Brexit.

In either case, Jennings says, a new premier would face the same problems: a Parliament unwilling to accept a no-deal Brexit, and an EU that won't renegotiate the withdrawal agreement or offer the U.K. a bespoke deal that's contrary to EU law.

"There is still a lack of realism in both parties of what's possible," Jennings says. "The real risk is we'll be back (in Brussels) in six months asking for another extension."

Copyright 2019 U.S. News & World Report

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