Theresa May, the embattled UK prime minister, is fighting on multiple fronts. The European Union exit negotiations which started yesterday will be far from easy. The UK has to keep the nation together, confronted with secessionist forces in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and at the same time reach an acceptable Brexit deal in a limited time span.
On top of this comes a clear message from the British people in the 8 June election, reinforced by the disastrous picture of the UK ‘social safety net’ that has emerged from last week’s horrific tower block blaze in west London. Ordinary people want changes in the economic model and societal structure. This includes the role of the health services and education as well as the general issue of inequality.
May’s Conservative government cannot master the struggle by itself. Deprived of a majority in the unnecessary election, it is living on borrowed time. The British should form some kind of national unity government. Only such a step can convince the electorate that Britain lives in extraordinary times calling for policies virtually without precedent.
The answer is to share out the political costs (and hopefully, in time, the benefits) through a government of national unity. This might look far-fetched. But so did the idea until a week or so ago of Jeremy Corbyn, the much derided Labour opposition leader, getting close to becoming prime minister. One promising way forward would be to jettison extreme Brexiteers mainly (but not exclusively) in the Tory party and hard-core left wingers in the Labour party – forming a government supported by mainstream members of parliament.
Even if, for evident party political reasons, no formal unity government is realisable, it should be possible – as Denmark did 25 years ago – to establish a functioning national compromise between the Conservative and Labour parties. Denmark coped with a somewhat similar situation after a Danish referendum rejected the Maastricht Treaty in June 1992. For various reasons, the major political parties did not wish to establish a national unity government. I was at that time state secretary in the Danish foreign ministry and became one of the architects defining and negotiating the solution.
The key for keeping the UK together and achieving an acceptable EU accord is to maintain Britain in the single market. Economically this makes sense, but politically it faces at least two hurdles. There would be the need to accommodate free movement of persons inside the EU as well as the role of European Court of Justice. Either of these policy stances is unpalatable for one or both major UK parties.
So rallying around a national solution is the answer. This what the Danes did in 1992. The rest of the EU was threatening to push Denmark out. The Danes themselves, in questioning the future of the treaty, were bringing potential disastrous consequences for the other member states.
The Danes showed understanding of the problem the Danish vote created for the EU. This view is notably absent in all British statements about Brexit – but it is vital for mobilising goodwill. The Danes emphasised that they saw the negotiations as among friends and partners – not adversaries.
The Danish political parties agreed to convince our European allies that, if a solution was found, they would campaign for a ‘Yes’ at another referendum. Party politics was subordinated to the national interest.
This called for adroit management and sound political judgment, but it worked. With the help of the British EU presidency of the time, an agreement was signed at a summit in Edinburgh in December 1992. A subsequent referendum in May 1993 brought a clear majority for ratifying the treaty.
There are differences between the two countries’ political positions and cultures, but the Danish example is worth following. I doubt whether exit negotiations can finish before the due date of 29 March 2019. An extension, requiring EU unanimity, is realistic only if negotiators see the prospect of a successful outcome. May’s posture has hitherto made that doubtful. A British national compromise can pave the way to success – with benefits for the whole of Europe.
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and Singapore Management University, and a former State Secretary at the Danish Foreign Ministry.