With notable commentators stating quite plainly that the UK’s Brexit is no closer to a working solution than before, the implications for PM Theresa May continue to dog her tenure, says Rachel Smith.
May’s repeated submissions around the exit deal — in effect, a legally binding treaty of nations — have not only stirred public debate over her leadership, but also given rise to a seemingly interminable to and fro between countless parties. Appointed in 2016 — the year in which the citizenry opted to leave the EU — the Conservative Party leader’s premiership has been consumed by issues surrounding Brexit.
For many Britons, the current status quo is untenable, as Britain now faces a massive exit bill, as well as many lingering, costly implications contained within the exit treaty. Much of the citizenry is inclined to brush off the UK’s obligations as contained in the exit deal, but the days of Britain fobbing off association and accompanying costs are long gone. In the current malaise, it appears May cannot avoid outraging one camp as she placates another. Nuances aside, there are three principal bones of contention in the exit proposal as it currently stands.
BREXIT ISSUES IN BLACK AND WHITE
On two levels — both the public discourse and sentiment, and the ensuing layers of European politicking around national interests — the Brexit deal in its current form has certain innate sticking points. For many Britons, the monumental compromises the nation would have to make in order to effect an exit in its currently proposed form are unacceptable. That said, while the UK’s geography remains unchanged, the nation is no longer an island by any other measurement. The original impetus behind a consolidated EU remains, and global commerce and politics mean that insular Britannia has forever passed. In the mind of the average Briton, however, how exactly that reality extrapolates into a national identity is fraught with unacceptable compromise, at least as contained in the current Brexit papers.
The dilemma created by the concessions on sovereignty, economic autonomy, and self-determinacy of the United Kingdom contained in the current proposal are untenable for many parties. In the mooted Brexit, Britain would essentially hand much of its autonomy to the EU on a silver platter, while also providing the union with the hefty sum of £40+ billion. For many, this payment presents more as an “admission of guilt” fee, paid in exchange for not much in return. Particularly to those vehemently opposed to the formation of an EU army, the British payment seems an ideal sum to allow the EU to fund just such a force.
Totalling some 585 pages, the “separation agreement” between the EU and the UK addresses three principal issues. Firstly, the future rights of Britons in the EU (as well as those of EU citizens living in the UK) are “clarified” within the current deal. Secondly, Britain’s financial obligations to meet all previously agreed commitments are also addressed in the document. Finally, in a point of much concern, the prospect of a “hard border” on the Irish isle is tackled.
Everyone involved in extrapolating the implications acknowledges that a hard border in Ireland needs to be avoided, as there is understandable historical sensitivity around border issues in the country. Custom checks in Ireland are anathema to many Irish and British citizens.
There is also a seven-page addendum to the exit document, in the form of a far looser, non-binding political declaration. Therein, both the UK and EU outline their respective imaginings of what future trade might look like post Brexit. Negotiations around this document have yet to materialise, but it appears certain to be another minefield of jostling for national (mostly commercial) access and interests.
BREXIT COULD CHANGE UK NEIGHBOURLINESS
When in 2017 PM May promised to take the UK out of the EU single market and customs union, it immediately gave rise to a battle to avoid customs control in Ireland. Britain opted out of the single market to avoid becoming an “EU rule-taker,” and likewise opted out of the customs union, remaining free to strike trade deals with other global parties. Britain also rejected the proposed EU backstop, thus keeping Northern Ireland in both the single market and customs union, as the mooted solution would necessitate customs checks for produce ferried on the Irish Sea. Fundamentally, the solution would mean that Northern Ireland would be treated differently to the remaining United Kingdom.
Alongside this, the EU also rejected the British suggestion that the UK in its entirety would maintain a de facto customs union with the European Union. Citing the British stipulation that would allow the UK to unilaterally withdraw from such an arrangement, the EU rejected the British solution. The British suggestions further contained the proviso that such a withdrawal would be timed solely at British discretion.
The ensuing tussling has meant that “the Irish issue” remains a difficult one to resolve to the present day. British insistence on unilateral decision making and timing within the proposed “customs union solution” resulted in Brussels viewing it as too open-ended, and thus not a safeguard on the issue.
While EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier was at peace with the notion of a UK/EU customs union, thus satisfying UK insistence on maintaining territorial integrity, he countered with tightened terms and conditions. For one, the UK needs to accept that it cannot exit any backstop provisions unless or until the EU is satisfied that there is no possibility of returning to a hard border scenario.
In a nutshell, Barnier’s retorts seek to address EU member states’ concerns about a de facto British customs union membership, which lacks the obligations imagined within the single market. Looking to stem an “unfair British advantage,” Barnier proposed Britain be obliged to follow certain EU rules on the environment, competition, labour, tax and state aid. PM May also mooted an extension on Brexit beyond the current 2019 timeline, something that could potentially buy time for Britain’s ability to negotiate a fair exit successfully, but also further exasperate the fundamental issues that make union (or autonomy) such a fraught issue in the region.
BREXIT TO LEAVE ALL PARTIES FRUSTRATED
The jocular legal wisdom that a “good” divorce leaves everyone frustrated with the outcome, seems set to dominate discourse in the approach to Brexit. While the UK stance is clear and unambiguous, all parties nonetheless seem set to submit innumerable proposals of amendment to Brexit that are simply the same idea presented in different words. Blunt realities that concern a sizeable portion of the planet cannot merely be tossed aside, however, nor successfully reworded to better effect.
The devil is in the detail, however. Chapter 4, Article 150 of the Withdrawal Agreement states the United Kingdom would remain liable for the financial operations approved by the European Investment Bank (EIB) before the date of entry into force of the agreement, even if the resulting financial exposure is assumed on or after the date of entry into force of the agreement. Moreover, the European Parliament and Court of Justice would take precedence over national laws, the free movement of peoples throughout the EU would supersede national border policy, and the metastasising tyranny would thus continue.
THE POST BREXIT FUTURE
The EU has arranged for an emergency EU summit scheduled for November 25th, although this too hinges on Britain’s evolving response to Brexit. A strong contingent of EU member states will come into the gathering with the opinion that May’s current Brexit deal asks for far too many concessions on the British side. Pushed as UK negotiators are by British sentiment, an equally strong but opposite opinion is currently coursing through the national debate. This view sees Britain paying an onerous amount to exit a federation of unequal states, and is sacrilege to many who still point to a Europe historically often aligned with British interests.
While the potential success of May’s proposal seems to be growing dimmer in the approach to the emergency EU parliamentary sitting, other deadlines are looming. Supposing May’s deal survives its journey through parliament, its own stipulations dictate that the government has until June 2020 to decide whether it will ask for an extension of the transition period, opt for the outlined Northern Ireland backstop agreement, or enter into a permanent customs union. None of these options are palatable to the Brexit camp, and May faces nothing but uphill battles on both domestic and Eurozone fronts.
While there is currently some haste to hammer out a trade deal in the absence of joining the union, in all likelihood, future trade discussions will only really gather pace post Brexit. These negotiations are set to be even more protracted and difficult than the Brexit issue itself, and Britain’s Brexit issues remain — and seem set to remain — far from resolved into the immediate future. EG