Mopping up the Brexit mess

Vidya Ram | Updated on March 08, 2018

Confused Which way to go   -  tostphoto/shutterstock.com

The British feel increasingly trapped in a box, believing that maybe the “people voted for a fantasy we can’t deliver”

Ask anyone other than an insider (or journalist covering the beat) to Britain’s negotiations with the EU about the precise state of things and you are likely to be met with a shrug of the shoulders, and potentially a puzzled expression. Six months since British Prime Minister Theresa May called for a general election to secure a mandate and inject a degree of stability and predictability into the Brexit process, little has changed for the better, with uncertainty prevailing, and differences between Britain and its European partners showing little sign of being resolved, amid a swirl of rhetoric and contradictory statements. This was highlighted this week after the minister in charge of Brexit — David Davis — appeared to contradict the government’s pledge to have a meaningful parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal by suggesting that the vote could happen after March 2019, when Brexit is set to come into effect. He was swiftly contradicted by May and forced into an embarrassing climbdown by clarifying his stance in an urgent statement to parliament the next day. However, the incident highlighted the confusion that continued to overshadow the emotionally charged exit process.

“What a mess! We get one thing one day and another thing the next,” declared Labour’s Keir Starmer in the House of Commons on Thursday, echoing the sentiment of many.

Solid impasse

Just over a month ago in a major speech in Florence May sought to break the impasse over Brexit with her European partners by calling for a two-year transition period and offering reassurances over the rights of EU citizens and Britain’s financial commitments. However, without specifics, those commitments failed to convince EU leaders to give up their insistence on a sequential set of negotiations, with trade talks only able to begin once the terms of the ‘divorce’ had been set. Their compromise — agreeing to start talking to each other about the kind of trade deal they’d be willing to negotiate — has failed to convince concerned parties, including businesses, which have repeatedly expressed their need for certainty to the government, particularly after May suggested that the terms of the transition deal that had been promised to businesses would only emerge once the wider trade deal had been agreed to. According to The Guardian, five of Britain’s biggest trade groups including the Confederation of British Industry, joined forces to write to the government urging a transition period to be negotiated as soon as possible, without which businesses would begin making “serious decisions about investment and contingency plans” early next year. Some businesses continued to speak publicly, including carmaker Toyota which this week told the Financial Times at the Tokyo Motor Show that without free access to the European single market, it could be forced to reconsider the future of a UK plant, which it announced an upgrade to earlier this year.

A number of significant impediments remain. Firstly, divisions with the government remain significant and public: shortly after May’s reassurances in Florence about a transition deal, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson contradicted the assurances about a two-year transition period by suggesting that free movement would end by 2019 (should Britain hope for a two-year transition deal under similar trade conditions to what it currently has it would have to accept other aspects of single market membership including free movement).

Meanwhile, Chancellor Philip Hammond has been the subject of sustained verbal attacks by ‘hard’ Brexiteers over his cautious approach, including around preparing for a “no deal scenario” that some had been pushing for.

What May feels

May’s personal stance on Brexit — she voted to remain — which had by and large been set aside amid her public willingness to tow a hard line on Brexit, has become an increasing focal point of analysis, particularly after a recent television interview when she was asked which way she would vote if the referendum were re-run, and she refused to answer. She is far from the only one.

“We are trapped in a box…people voted for a fantasy we can’t deliver,” a minister told The Times this week. “Even in the Department for Exiting the EU many officials believe they are masterminding a policy against the national interest,” the same article reported, highlighting the unprecedented situation faced by Britain and its political establishment.

At the same time those who have raised questions have been accused of being unpatriotic. Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative MP who is being championed by some on the right as a future party leader, declared on a BBC programme earlier this week that the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, was an “enemy of Brexit” who had constantly talked down Brexit, and criticised the central bank’s decision to cut interest rates for further pushing down the pound. A Conservative government whip also attracted criticism this week for writing to universities asking for a list of professors teaching about Brexit, amid fears of a McCarthyite crackdown on dissent (which he has subsequently denied, and insisted he was acting in an individual rather than government capacity).

No clarity

Where things go from here remain unclear: the Brexit legislation is set to continue its journey through parliament in mid-November, while negotiations with the EU are set to resume in December, when Europe has indicated its willingness to start talk about the terms of a future trade deal should progress be made on the terms of exit. However, while Britain has made clear it believes the ball is in Europe’s court, European politicians have been losing patience with negotiations.

Earlier this week European Council president Donald Tusk told the European parliament that it was now up to Britain to decide the nature of the trade relationship it hoped for and whether it would end “With a good deal, no deal or no Brexit”. To many the last may seem increasingly palatable.

Published on October 27, 2017

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