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The Brexit countdown has begun

Vidya Ram | Updated on March 05, 2018

Disparate groups buckle down to the real deal as the March 29, 2019 deadline for divorce approaches

The last week has arguably been one of the most challenging for the British government since the June 2016 referendum. The week began with the momentous decision by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to push for a customs union with the EU, firmly clarifying the party’s standing as the supporter of a “soft Brexit” and one with the pragmatic answer to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

It was telling that the proposal from a party led by an avowed socialist, committed to returning large sectors of services to state ownership, was welcomed as offering a “real world solution” by key industry body the CBI, while a former top civil servant at the department of international trade, Martin Donnelly, compared Brexit to “giving up a three course meal…for the promise of a packet of crisps in the future”.

Then came the EU’s draft guidelines on future relations, which put legal detail on the progress of negotiations so far, and should therefore perhaps have come as little surprise, but highlighted how far apart positions remained, 20 months on from the referendum. Among its suggestions was that should no other agreement be reached, Northern Ireland remain in the customs union, creating, in effect, a border within the UK between the mainland and Northern Ireland — a proposal that was welcomed by the Republic of Ireland, though outright rejected by the government of Theresa May. The government was also forced into a damage limitation exercise as details of a leaked letter from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson emerged in which he suggested that even a “hard border” in Ireland would have limited impact on trade.

Bombshells galore

If that weren’t enough, in an extraordinary intervention, former Prime Minister John Major lambasted the current direction of government policy and urged for a free vote to be given to parliamentarians on the final deal, with the possibility of allowing for a second referendum, giving voice to the sizeable backing within the Conservative Party for a softer stance.

“Of course, the ‘will of the people’ can’t be ignored but Parliament has a duty also to consider the “well being of the people…the emerging evidence suggests Brexit will hurt most those who have the least. Neither Parliament nor government wish to see that”, he said, in a highly acclaimed speech, referring to the oft-trotted out retort in the right-wing tabloids (and among some politicians) against those who suggest that Brexit entails anything other than a clear break with the European single market and customs union.

And then of course there was the bombshell from the US over the plans to slap a walloping 25 per cent tariff on steel and 10 per cent on aluminium exported there, and belatedly on cars from the EU, which appeared to make President Trump’s suggestion that the UK and US could strike a “great” trade deal after Brexit, rather questionable. The British government has signalled such deals — from the US to India and Australia — would be key to its future success as a “great trading nation”.

With all these developments it was little wonder that Theresa May appeared nervous ahead of her key Brexit speech on Friday afternoon — hastily re-arranged as winter weather wreaked havoc with Britain’s ill-prepared infrastructure to take place in central London instead of the northern city of Newcastle — at which EU leaders and industry awaited details on Britain’s stance that has largely to date focussed on vision rather than substance. It will have been particularly challenging for a politician who was opposed to Brexit before the referendum. When asked by a French journalist whether she regretted Brexit, her response was simply that it was incumbent on Britain’s politicians to deliver on the results of the referendum.

Facing the facts

Given those trying circumstances — and the competing positions of senior figures within her own party — the speech delivered by May was arguably as good as it could have got. Facing accusations following her previous key speeches that while moving things along they focused on vision rather than detail, this was one that got down to the nitty-gritty, and belied the rose-tinted vision of the future served up by some of her cabinet colleagues.

Both the EU and the UK would have to face some “hard facts,” she said — life would inevitably “be different”. Access to each other’s markets would be less than it was now. “This is a negotiation and neither of us can have exactly what we want.” She spelt out the details of what Britain would be willing to agree to, such as committing to keeping some regulations such as on state aid, competition in line with the EU’s and guaranteeing that Britain would not engage in a race to the bottom on workers’ rights or environmental protections. UK law would not necessarily be identical to EU law but would attempt to “achieve the same outcomes.”

Britain and the EU should explore ways in which the UK could remain part of EU agencies such as those for chemicals, medicines and aerospace. However, the EU would also need to introduce flexibility in its approach, she insisted, and had continually sought a tailored approach in its relationship with other nations, making Britain’s insistence on a specifically tweaked deal, with sector-by-sector considerations not unreasonable. “If this is cherry-picking, every trade deal is cherry-picking,” she insisted. She also sought to offer specific solutions on the Irish question, such as an agreement to waive the requirements for entry and exit declarations for goods moving between the UK and EU, a trusted traders’ scheme and others to reduce the risk of delays at ports and airports and enabling small traders (who carry out the bulk of trade between the two Irelands) to operate without restrictions.

The carefully crafted speech, with its focus on reality checks, appeared to offer something to a spectrum of views. While Jacob Rees-Mogg, a key player on the right of the Conservative Party and staunch advocate of a hard Brexit, welcomed the “statesman-like” speech, Anna Soubry, one of the vocal Conservative rebels, pushing for a modest move away from Europe, welcomed the prime minister’s “honest” and “conciliatory speech”. Europe’s chief negotiator on Brexit, Michel Barnier, welcomed the “clarity” and recognition of “trade-offs”.

Need to act promptly

Yet, there will be little time for Theresa May and her government to rest on their laurels: her speech offered a glimpse of the complexity ahead, following 20 months of bombastic, fudgy vision. Honing down to details that should have been drilled into months before, will present new challenges and fewer opportunities to fall back on trite references to “taking back control” and a “global Britain” when the reality suggests that these objectives are only partly achievable. She may have outlined the details of the niche deal she hopes to conclude, but it does little to change the EU’s view on “cherry-picking”. “While I welcome the call for a deep and special partnership, this cannot be achieved by putting a few extra cherries on the Brexit cake”, said the European Parliament’s lead on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt.

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested that even the details presented left many fundamental questions about the customs union and single market challenge for the island of Ireland unresolved. With just over a year to go before Britain officially leaves the union on March 29, 2019, time is not on their side.

Published on March 05, 2018

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