Engulfed in chaos, UK government looks for success in Brexit talks

Nearly a year to the day since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the process of Brexit finally begins on Monday.

The British Brexit minister, David Davis, will open the talks with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, supported by officials on both sides.

It will be a typically Brussels affair: an opening session, a 90-minute working lunch for the two lead negotiators to set the scene, then the dry, detailed business of working groups with officials poring over documents.

The bureaucratic, orderly nature of the negotiations belies the chaos and confusion that have dominated the Brexit debate in the UK over the past year. And since the election results last week that left Prime Minister Theresa May without a parliamentary majority, that chaos and confusion have intensified.

EU officials in Brussels are ready to negotiate — the sense of impatience is palpable. But there is also incredulity that the British government is preparing to go into the talks with a hard-line negotiating position when it cannot command a majority at home.

In calling the election back in April, the Prime Minister asked the electorate to give her a mandate for a hard Brexit, based on Britain leaving the European single market and making a clean break with the EU.

After voters rejected that request, the Brexit talks start Monday lacking clarity on what the exact nature of the UK’s departure from Europe will be.

That problem is compounded by the fact that May has yet to strike a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party that would give her the extra votes in Parliament she needs for a working majority.

The Democratic Unionist Party wants to attach its own conditions onto Brexit as part of its deal with the Conservatives — including the insistence on a “soft border” between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

But given May will have a limited majority in the House of Commons, even with the backing of the Northern Irish party, opposition parties such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats have their own agendas to pursue and will seek to amend any law that comes before Parliament connected to Britain’s withdrawal from Europe.

Put together, May’s case for a hard Brexit is extraordinarily weak — something that negotiators in Brussels will see coming before Davis and his team have a chance to step off the Eurostar train.

Of course, the government is not only beleaguered by its post-election hiatus but by the growing anger over its response to this week’s Grenfell Tower fire disaster — with May criticized for failing to meet victims’ families and politicians facing anger in the streets from local residents.

The nature of the tragedy has highlighted the inequality in pockets of London and elsewhere in the UK, including the housing conditions of disadvantaged communities. It begs the question whether May’s government, apparently rudderless and without real power, can realistically hope for getting a deal out of Europe when its own social problems seem to have reached a boiling point at home.

Monday will just be the first day of what will be more than 18 months of talks.

The tightly managed timetable, known in EU parlance as sequencing, means that negotiators will start discussing the “divorce settlement” — how much the UK will have to pay to exit the bloc — before it turns to talks on which ties the country will keep with Europe, if any.

This first phase could take many weeks. But public trust in the government is faltering, and May’s own poll ratings have plummeted since Election Day.

Two months ago, the Prime Minister could have looked forward to Britain having a strong negotiating hand on Day One of Brexit talks; now it is hard to see how her position could be any weaker.