May must walk the talk, shelve global' dreams

Ms May's first big test is to validate her boast of a global Britain.

Of all world leaders, the most difficult job in the world is that of Theresa May, Britain’s Prime Minister. Though she was in favour of remaining in the European Union in last summer’s referendum, succeeding David Cameron as she did, she insisted on assuming charge that “Brexit means Brexit”.

Britain’s decision to leave the EU was foolish, stirred as it was by fear of immigrants, particularly East Europeans, who were in the country under visa-free rules to take up jobs natives would rather not do. Although immigration became the banner that led the Brexiters to victory, there were deeper reasons behind the move.

Britain could never reconcile itself to the fact that it was one among 28 countries and the dominant mover and shaker of the group was Germany, in recent years under the stewardship of Chancellor Angela Merkel. And Britons dreamed of the glory days of their empire, with the country forced to give way after World War II to the new superpower, the US.

It was no surprise that in her major policy statement, Ms May announced two decisions: to curb immigration even at the cost of leaving the single market and project the country as a global power. The Prime Minister will seek to make a so-called “hard Brexit” to clamp down on migration but her other promise is a pie in the sky.

Ms May’s first test was her visit to meet new US President Donald Trump; in fact, she was the first foreign leader to meet him after he assumed office. But by harping on the “special relationship” between the two countries she was seeking the aid of the past, rather than the future, to buttress a key foundation for a Britain bereft of its natural European moorings.

True, Mr Trump had undiplomatically welcomed Brexit and even more amazingly cast doubt on the ability of Europeans to stay together. Ms May did extract a concession from the US President about the usefulness of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), which he had termed as obsolete. But just after she left Washington, he passed an order barring people from seven Muslim majority countries, and Ms May was left fumbling to explain her point of view to a home audience.

Nor are Britain’s efforts to revive a dead horse, the Commonwealth, likely to provide much comfort. People belonging to the old empire recall how blithely Britons had said goodbye in heralding their return to Europe they always belonged to. After decades of neglect, there is not much life left in the Commonwealth, which is more notional than real.

Britain will start formal negotiations with the EU in March by invoking Article 50, which sets a two-year deadline to complete the process, a daunting prospect. Jean-Claude Juncker, the main EU functionary, has already warned members of the danger of London dividing the EU by promising individual members big concessions.

Indeed, the Financial Times has suggested that in realistic terms, Britain can seek extension of the status quo “remaining in the customs union, and accepting CJI (European Court of Justice’s) jurisdiction until permanent trading arrangements can be agreed and phased in”. The complexities involved in the process are enormous.

However, Ms May’s first big test is to validate her boast of a global Britain. For one thing, it is clear that the UK will have to fend for itself in a world suddenly made more unpredictable by the assumption of office of Mr Trump. Second, British policymakers do not possess tools to bring about the prospect of seeing their country as a global leader.

Britain still has a solid industrial base and is an innovative nation. But much as it will seek to retain its status as a world financial centre, the pull of the rest of Europe will be great and as the world’s largest free market, the EU remains unsurpassed.

Ms May has largely succeeded in getting past the parliamentary hurdle of leaving the EU, but her major tasks lie ahead. In a sense, it is unchartered territory, both for the UK and the EU. Even while formal negotiations will begin and continue, some of its members, the Netherlands, France and Germany, will be preoccupied with elections checking the rise of far-right forces receiving a shot in the arm by the unexpected victory of Mr Trump in the US. In other words, the tenor of negotiations will be influenced by domestic political factors.

One of the sterling qualities of the policymakers and people of Britain alike is that they are pragmatic in their approach to problems. The sooner they can disabuse themselves of the idea of being a future global power, the happier they will be. It is like the ruling BJP in India dreaming of building a future on the past of Hindu kingdoms. Britain as an imperial power has had its day as in the case of the Ottoman Empire Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dreams of today.

Yet Ms May cuts a dashing figure and deserves to succeed in her impossible job. At one time she wore a T-shirt, which said, “This is what a feminist looks like”. But she will have to tone down her rhetoric of making Britain a global power. It is the law of nature that old empires fall to be replaced by new ones. Britain yielded place to the US because it knew that in the circumstances of an impoverished and exhausted power at the end of the Second World War, it had to cede power to a triumphant US.

These are early days yet. When and how Ms May makes the transition remains to be seen. In the meantime, she has her hands full at home and abroad. Scotland is grumpy over being denied an option and the trade problems between the shared land border of the Irish Republic, which remains an EU member, and Northern Ireland remain to be sorted out.

Next Story