Has there ever been a negotiation where one party has gone in with a weaker position than the Brexiting United Kingdom?
Prime Minister Theresa May launched her country's retreat from the European Union on Wednesday with as much pomp as one can muster when undertaking an impossibly difficult task based on a staggeringly ill-advised decision. By Thursday, it was clear how weak her government's negotiating position truly is.
Ms. May's opening gambit was to request that the EU negotiate the terms of separation and a new free-trade arrangement at the same time. The response was immediate and blunt: No.
Both France and Germany say the U.K. must first settle "terms of withdrawal, dealing especially with citizens' rights and obligations resulting from the commitments made by the United Kingdom," as the French government put it.
In other words, first we take care of the people who will be disrupted by the potential loss of their right to live and work in any EU country, plus you pay us the £50-billion you owe based on your existing obligations, and maybe then we'll talk about free trade.
Ms. May has nothing she can use to force the issue. All she's got is a dubious mandate based on a weak referendum result – hardly something she can throw in the face of EU negotiators.
The EU is sitting pretty. It can wait while the clock on the two-year Brexit process runs down. With every week that passes, the U.K.'s position will become even weaker. Businesses based in Britain will soon have to make decisions based on the possibility that there will be no trade agreement in place when the break is made final in 2019. Some could pre-emptively relocate to a European member nation in order not to lose their market access.
Ms. May will also have to contend with the growing clamour from Scottish nationalists demanding a new referendum on independence, and increased acrimony from Northern Ireland. She will be pulled in a dozen directions, while the EU holds all the cards.
The one thing working in Britain's favour is that the EU would rather it didn't leave. But that's not a realistic option. Brexit is coming and it's going to hurt everyone. EU member nations will gain nothing by making life easier for the U.K.
Best of luck, Prime Minister May.