In some ways, May's struggle mirrors that of previous Prime Ministers. But the world has moved on since Macmillan's dealings with Europe in 1958by Helen Thompson / July 20, 2017 / Leave a comment
When Theresa May asked Parliament to trigger Article 50, she launched Britain into an unknown economic future. However, the strategic dilemma confronting May in her attempt to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement with an accompanying customs accord for post-Brexit Britain is, in part, familiar to that previous prime ministers faced.
In 1958, Harold Macmillan insisted that if the European Economic Community (EEC) states did not agree a free trade deal, he would withdraw British troops from western Europe. However, in the wake of the French president, Charles de Gaulle, terminating the trade talks, and the US pushing Britain to pursue EEC membership, Macmillan’s judgement turned defeatist.
By the mid-1980s, Margaret Thatcher believed Britain could change the nature of the European Community (EC) as a trading entity. The French push for monetary union, however, soon dashed her hopes.
After Black Wednesday in 1992, the euro-zone crisis exposed the divisions between the British and euro-zone economies and the question of whether Britain could enjoy the trade privileges of the Single European Market (SEM) at a politically tolerable price re-emerged. David Cameron was forced to confront the conflict between his government’s commitment to a sharp reduction in immigration, and the fact that the SEM tied free trade to constitutional-guaranteed migration rights through EU citizenship via free movement. Cameron was left to decide whether his government could absorb the domestic political price of ongoing membership if he could not secure reform of the SEM. The referendum result suggests that—as he did want Britain to retain its existing trade relationship—he should not have tried to find the answer.
Confronted with the imperative for Brexit created by that referendum, May has returned to Macmillan’s objective of securing a free trade agreement for Britain as an independent nation-state outside the continental union. In a number of ways, present circumstances are more propitious than those in 1958. Geo-politically, the stance of the US towards European integration is not what it was. Far from insisting, as President Eisenhower had done, that Britain would sooner or later have to surrender and join the EEC for security reasons, President Trump and his economic advisors appear to view the EU ambivalently at best, and Britain’s departure from the EU in relatively positive terms. For Trump, the EU is a means…