Regrets be damned. After nine months of foot dragging, Britain has finally submitted its formal request to leave the European Union.
It’s the latest, most definitive step in a Brexit process that began last June, when a slim majority of British voters opted to defy their prime minister, reject the principle of open borders, and put their country on a new, uncertain path to independence — or isolation.
Over the next two years, Britain will have to wholly renegotiate its relationship with the continent it has never fully embraced, on everything from immigration to banking, police cooperation to scientific partnerships.
It’s impossible to predict the end result — or what it will mean for the United States, Britain’s closest ally, politically and economically. Not when Britain is the first country ever to push on this exit door. And certainly not when Europe’s negotiating posture could be transformed by the upcoming elections in France and Germany.
One thing that’s clear, however, is the relative weakness of Britain’s position.
The United Kingdom has one principal demand: an end to the open-border rules that prevent it from blocking immigrants from inside the EU. But it’s not clear what it might offer in exchange for this concession.
Indeed, the whole negotiation is tilted toward Europe. For one thing, the EU has every reason to stand defiant, since giving ground would only embolden other nations to follow Britain’s path — potentially leading to a wholesale dissolution of the European project.
Plus, any Brexit deal needs to be approved by all 27 EU member countries. If Britain fails to meet the manifold demands of these various countries, it can walk away defiantly. But that’s no victory since it would leave Britain economically isolated, subject to a whole new regime of tariffs and trade restrictions.
To get a sense for how tense and messy this whole process is likely to be, consider that Britain and the EU must first negotiate how Brexit is going to be negotiated. Seriously.
The EU wants to separate discussion into two parts: first, managing the separation; second, agreeing on a future relationship. Britain thinks these issues are too entangled to be distinguished.
Only after this preliminary dispute is settled can the two sides move on to the real issues. Chief among them: Can Britain block immigrants from Europe while maintaining access to the European single market — which allows for free trade in goods, capital, and services?
The short answer is probably no. The EU won’t allow Britain to pick and choose a la carte: yes to free markets, no to free movement.
But that still leaves room for compromise. Britain might be allowed some limited power to restrict immigration, if it accepts some new restrictions on economic access. The details will matter a lot, like: Will London banks be given the rights they need to continue serving as the main financial hub of Europe?
And while immigration is the biggest sticking point, it’s not the only one. For instance:
■ What happens to UK citizens currently living in Europe? And EU citizens already in the UK?
■ Will the United Kingdom have to pay billions in compensation, since the EU will have to move several offices out of London and make other expensive structural changes?
■ How will the United Kingdom and EU manage security cooperation for things like Europol, antiterror programs, and other information sharing around criminal activity?
■ Can Britain disregard rules and regulations it considers excessive, and still participate in European markets?
■ What happens with Ireland, an EU member that has its own, special relationship with Britain? Or Scotland, where voters may be asked to choose between staying in the United Kingdom or staying in the EU?
All of this is supposed to get resolved by March 2019, after which the United Kingdom will be just another country on the outskirts of Europe.
And despite the tight timeframe, there’s little reason for the EU to start negotiating in earnest — not with potentially explosive elections coming up in France and Germany. One of the leading candidates in France, Marine Le Pen, is actually committed to leaving the EU herself, which would completely upend the Brexit landscape.
So while Britain’s decision to finally trigger negotiations over Brexit certainly counts as a landmark moment, all the real action lies ahead. And while Britain has thus far been the tough-talking, defiant actor, in the years ahead, the EU is likely to be the one setting terms and wielding greater leverage.