Dinner Party Gossip Reveals Brexiteers' Deep Delusions

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May welcomes Head of the European Commission, President Jean-Claude Juncker to a fractious dinner at Downing Street in London, Britain April 26, 2017. Dalibor Rohac writes that the notion that the UK’s European partners would acquiesce to the UK’s demands to cherry-pick from the bundle of rules, regulations and public goods that the EU provides was an integral part of the delusion that hardline Leavers sold to the British public last year. Hannah McKay/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Theresa May claims to be the one who can provide "strong and stable" leadership to the United Kingdom as the country prepares to leave the European Union.

And although everything points to a landslide victory for the Conservatives in the election in June, the prospects of Ms. May's success in Brexit negotiations look increasingly slimmer.

It is not primarily the intransigence of her European partners that is to blame, rather the unrealistic expectations of the core group of hardline Brexiteers whom Ms. May brought from the back benches to the frontline of negotiations.

Last Wednesday, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker had dinner at 10 Downing Street. The UK Government spokesperson called the meeting "useful" and "constructive."

The account of the meeting published on Sunday by Frankfurter Allgemeine and based on leaks from Commission officials, provides a much more sobering view. (a useful tweetstorm summary available here.)

According to the sources, Ms. May claimed that the UK and the EU can conclude a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement within the two-year period set for the negotiations.

May also stated that EU citizens in the UK will be treated as third-country nationals (while EU-27 is ready to extend full EU rights to UK citizens on individual basis), and that she expected the negotiations to remain confidential – an impossible demand given that the EU-27 negotiators are accountable to member states.

Related: British Labour Party Charts a Middle Way on Brexit

Predictably, the leaks triggered an uproar in the British press and added weight to the Tory voices who claim that the UK should leave the EU without any deal. But that would be a disaster for everyone involved, including the British economy and Ms. May's prospects in the 2022 election.

More importantly, from an American perspective, it could do lasting damage to the ties between Western liberal democracies and their ability to work together on issues of strategic importance.

The UK government has to approach the negotiations realistically, with an understanding that being outside of the EU and outside of the single market carries consequences – such as the need to embark on tedious and technical trade negotiations with the EU, guaranteeing some rights to EU citizens living the UK and committing to abide by some of the EU's rules.

That is not a "punishment" by the EU-27 but a consequence of the fact that, regardless of the outcome of last year's referendum, very close economic, political and security ties between the UK and the EU remain keenly in the British interest.

Related: Richard Epstein: The Europeans Should Make Brexit Easier

With leaks and snarky comments, is the EU-27 playing nice? Of course not, just as they were not playing nice with Greece in the summer of 2015.

But the notion that the UK's European partners would simply acquiesce to the UK's demands to cherry-pick from the bundle of rules, regulations and public goods that the EU provides (arguably, some of them much more appealing than others) was an integral part of the delusion that hardline Leavers sold to the British public last year.

If Ms. May wants "strong and stable" leadership to be her historic legacy rather than an empty slogan, she will need to pierce through that delusion sooner rather than later.

Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a visiting junior fellow at the Max Beloff Centre for the Study of Liberty at the University of Buckingham and a fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs.