The European question has long troubled Britain, especially its Conservative Party. The careers of five of the last six Conservative Prime Ministers — Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron—have been destroyed by controversies over the nature of the preferred relationship between Britain and Europe. Prime Minister Theresa May’s job is now on the line, as the opposition mounts in her party to the complex Brexit agreement she had negotiated with the European Union. After she unveiled the agreement last week, some members of the Cabinet have resigned and efforts are on to oust her from the leadership of the Conservative Party and, with it, the prime ministership. Some in her cabinet want her to go back to Brussels and improve the terms of separation from the European Union. But May and the EU have both ruled out any renegotiation. The opposition Labour Party, too, is divided, but for now it is relishing the ruling party’s internecine war. And they would be happy to face fresh elections. Prospects for the parliamentary approval of the pact seem rather dim; and some are demanding there be a fresh referendum to decide whether Britain should stay in the EU.
As Europe embarked on the project of integration, Britain was torn between becoming part of it and remaining a sovereign political and economic entity. The controversy had appeared to have lost its salience during the prolonged Labour rule (1997-2010) during which Britain’s interdependence with the EU deepened. But when the Conservatives returned to power in 2010, under the leadership of David Cameron, Eurosceptics in the party kept pressing for separation from Brussels. Cameron thought he could outflank them by ordering a referendum when he came back to power in 2015. But Britain voted with a narrow margin to leave the EU in the summer of 2016. Cameron resigned and May took charge.
As things stand, Britain will be out of the EU on March 29, 2019. May’s deal leaves a transition period lasting until December 2020 to give Britain and the EU time to work out a final arrangement on a host of issues, including trade. The two sides have agreed on a broad statement of principles on how that agreement should look. As May fends off her critics, the clock is ticking. The EU is likely to approve the agreement later this month. The British parliament is expected to vote on it in early December. Meanwhile, May’s political future hangs in balance. If there is one thing that defines May’s political personality, it is tenacity. She rightly argues that a “no-deal Brexit” — that is, separation without an agreement — would create immense chaos. In the next couple of weeks, she hopes to persuade her party and parliament, that the agreement she has negotiated is superior to the alternatives suggested by her opponents.