Brexit Negotiations Stagger On By Stephen Barber

Brexit Negotiations Stagger On By Stephen Barber

So how are the negotiations going prime minister? The strain of Brexit and holding together a fractious minority government have been showing on Theresa May of late. And the answer is of course that progress on talks between Britain and its European partners has been frustratingly slow. It has proceeded at a speed Blackadder might have described as like an "asthmatic ant… with heavy shopping." 

All the while the two year countdown since Article 50 was triggered at the end of March puts more pressure on May to secure a deal that will satisfy the hardliners in her party and the interests of the country. It is surely an impossible task particularly for a government that looks more fragile than any other in more than 20 years. 

And while the UK is desperate to move on to substantial trade talks, Brussels’ insistence that the big issues of the divorce bill (EU citizens’ rights and the Northern Irish boarder) must be tackled first is an impediment to British "success." 

 Image by The Economist

Image by The Economist

Domestically the PM is caught between hardliners content with leaving without a deal and Remainers who want to reverse Brexit. There are the so-called "sensibles" too who want to minimise the damage Brexit could cause to the economy and this involves a trade deal that would protect as many economic rights associated with the single market as possible. 

But May is weak. Her government has no parliamentary majority and is reliant on the Northern Irish DUP, while separate sexual harassment accusations hang over the heads of some Ministers. There are some in the Cabinet, led by Boris Johnson, who are openly disloyal but virtually unsackable and the administration frequently appears at risk of collapse. How can it possibly hope to prevail at arguably the most important negotiations since 1945?

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Politically, Britain has become a different place to govern since the 2016 Referendum on membership of the European Union. It has become more divided socially and geographically and polarised politically. This polarisation has manifested itself party politically as support for both main parties increases at the expense of third forces which had gained in popularity over four decades. It has also manifested itself in the sides taken over Brexit. While there is still a majority in Parliament to maintain EU membership, only a minority are prepared to question the ‘will of the people’ at least for the moment.

From the EU side it is said that Britain has unrealistic expectations. If this is not entirely true of sensibles in the government then it most certainly reflects the unrealistic promises that (Leave) politicians have made to voters since the referendum and explains the bewilderment in some of the population as to why we haven’t yet left. ‘ Surely this is easy’, they say, ‘we voted out, let’s leave.’

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This reflects the easy rhetoric of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson that the EU can "whistle" for its money and the absurdly relaxed manor of the man charged with negotiating a deal, ‘Brexit Secretary’ David Davis.  But unless Britain really is prepared to jump off the cliff and sever all economic and political links, the task ahead is hugely complex and government has been unable to articulate its vision for future relations. 

The fact is that the April 2019 departure date is closer than it appears since the last six months of the two year period is given over to member states’ ratification (any of the 27 can veto) and here we are at the end of 2017 still arguing over the divorce settlement. 

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There will undoubtedly be a transition period where retain retains the rights and responsibilities of membership.  While this will be a huge relief economically, it is politically unsustainable.  Remember the slogan of the Thirteen Colonies: "No Taxation Without Representation." Well this is essentially the position Britain will find itself in. 

It will have to accept the rules, regulations and costs of EU membership but will have forfeited its right to a voice at the Commission, the Council of Ministers and in the Parliament.  Is the only real alternative to ‘Hard Brexit’ actually ‘No Brexit’?

And throw into the mix Northern Ireland, the part of the UK which boarders the rest of the EU and where there is free movement throughout the island of Ireland.  How does one solve a problem like that without (a) Britain remaining in the single market; (b) having a hard border between north and south; or (c) shifting the boarder so that it is between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain?

It is a near intractable problem exacerbated by the delicious irony that Mrs May’s government is being propped up by the 10 hard line Democratic Unionist Party MPs from Northern Ireland.

 

 

Stephen Barber (@StephenBarberUK) is a Public Policy specialist and Director of MBA at University of Bedfordshire, UK

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