Making sense of Britain’s sliding out of the European Union in March 2019
Ms. May wins the confidence vote …The British Prime minister has got a reprieve. She has managed to defeat the no-confidence motion brought in by the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Is she out of the dump? No, because earlier the House had overwhelmingly defeated her Brexit deal by a big margin, thanks to big chunk of her party members voting to defeat her Brexit proposal. Nevertheless, it gives her some breathing space to try and extract some more concessions from the European Commission that could mollify the disaffected MPs from both sides of the aisle.
The defeat of the Brexit deal ..Just two days ago, after an acrimonious debate, the House of Commons rejected the Brexit deal crafted by Prime minister May. Thus, the draft deal arrived at after months of tortuous and fitful negotiations between British diplomats and the designated European Council ministers went up in flames. The looming British exit from the EU looks to be heading towards an abrupt and chaotic end that everyone on both sides of the English Channel dread, but can’t do much to avoid.
How and why the talk of Britain leaving the EU start..
Britons voted to exit the EU in a referendum held in the country on June, 2016. It was a narrow win for the ‘Brexiteers’ over the ‘Remainers’. Nonetheless, it was a victory for the people and politicians clamouring for exiting the EU. For almost four decades, many in Britain had been resisting the idea of a union with the other Europen countries because it meant surrender of some sovereignty to the European Commission, besides ceding concessions on matters like migration, job, and accepting Syrian refugees. The opposition to the idea of a single European entity stemmed more from the nostalgia of imperial might, and the illusion of reclaiming it, than the hard realities of present day geopolitics.
The Brexit referendum that brought Ms. May to 10, Downing Street…After intense lobbying by the Brexiteers and the Remainers, each ide trying to sway the voters through facts, figures, and fantasies, the referendum too place which gave the Brexiteers a narrow victory with 52%votes, over 48% of the Remainers. The Prime minister, David Cameron, an ardent ‘Remainer’ resigned paving the way for Ms. May to become the prime minister. Ironically, May had all along been a ‘Remainer’, but now had to vocally support Britain’s resolve to exit the EU.
Article 50, and its invocation …. As per the Constitution of the European Commission, a member state wishing to leave the body has to serve a notice under Article 50. This clause, now so much in the news, is comprised of just 250 words, and is very lightly framed. This is so, because the drafters of the Constitution had never imagined that any member, let alone the United Kingdom, would ever decide to leave the EU. The membership of EU is very much coveted by both those who are in and out of the body.
After some dillydallying, May served the Article 50 notice on the European Commission on March, 2017. It set the clock ticking for both the UK, and the European Commission to complete negotiations on the post-exit trade and economic arrangements within two years. The deadline for conclusion was thus set on March, 2019 – less than two and half months from now.
Haggling shifts from London to Brussels, the headquarters of European Commission …May, aided by her cabinet colleagues, lobbied very hard for extracting the most favourable exit terms for her country. The main thrust of the negotiators was to limit the likely damage to British economy after Brexit, where as the other side– the European Commission– tried their utmost to cede the minimum relaxation to outgoing Britain. Due to such divergence in interest, the negotiations rumbled on for so long.
A draft deal is reached, but the British Parliament refuses to fall in line..… Prime minister May, nervous and fearful, tabled the Brexit bill in the Commons. Her worst fears came to pass, and her bill was rejected by an overwhelming majority. More than half of her own Conservative Party members joined hands with those from the Labour Party to defeat the bill, alleging that Britain’s interests have not been adequately protected in the draft bill. Ms. May, crestfallen and angry, now faces a Hobson’s choice. The coming days could be dark and devastating.
With the rejection of the Brexit bill, what can happen to Britain…
Now the United Kingdom will have
1. no implementation period – a two or three year time allowed to ensure smooth transition to the post-exit stage
2.no security cooperation – Britain will have to fend for itself in matters of her own security.
3. no guarantees for U.K. citizens overseas.. All Britons in EU countries will lose their special privileges. They will be treated at par as those from countries like India, Brazil etc.
4. no certainty for businesses and workers having headquarters in the UK, but operations in main land Europe.
What had happened if the bill would have been passed.. Britain would then have enjoyed the benefits of a ‘soft’ exit from the EU. What then is a soft exit? Britain would have enjoyed unrestricted access to EU market. With regard to finance, travel and work facilities of Britons in EU countries, the status quo would have remained. The EU would have enjoyed similar facilities in Britain on a reciprocal basis. London could have continued to enjoy its position as the financial capital of the western world, at par with Brussels and New York.
What factors prevented acceptance of Ms. May’s Brexit proposals…
1. The emotional issue of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland (a restive province of the UK)
2. Unwillingness of the Brexiteers to allow job-seekers from other EU nations to work in the U.K.
3. It envisaged that Britain will remain in the Customs Union to minimize the impact on trade and businesses. In return, the UK would be bound by some of the rules of the bloc. However, it would have less of a say in how the rules are made. Additionally, it would be harder for the UK to sign its own new trade deals. These concessions were not palatable to many British MPs. They felt Britain has caved in to EU pressure.
Northern Island borders, the emotive stumbling block…The prickly issue was with regard to Northern Ireland, the restive province of the UK. Ireland was previously a colony of England, just as India was. In 1921, Britain granted freedom to Ireland, but didn’t allow its province, Northern Ireland to join Ireland. This was so, because a majority of the people in Northern Ireland wanted to stay with Britain, where as parties like the Sein Fen, and the Workers’ Party were extremely belligerent in their stand to join Ireland. After years of internecine armed conflict, the Good Friday Agreement was signed in April, 1998 that allowed a free, customs gate-free border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. So, people and goods could flow freely back and forth between Northern Ireland and Ireland. To some extent, the agreement assuaged the feelings of the Sein Fen.
During the debate that had roiled Britain before the referendum, Northern Ireland had amply clarified that it wanted to stay with the EU, no matter how the rest of the UK decided.
In the Brexit deal of Ms May, this issue was not properly addressed. If the UK leaves the EU, rigid Customs gates will have to be put up in the British side of the UK-Ireland international border. This will stifle the free flow of people and goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland. This will mean flouting the Good Friday Agreement. The old unrest that had caused so much of bloodshed in Northern Ireland could resurface if the Good Friday Agreement is tinkered with. This is a frightening scenario.
The Hard Exit looms and the consequences…
a. Now, Britain is heading towards a no-deal Brexit, which in effect is a ‘hard exit’. After March, 2019, goods, services, capital and manpower can’t flow freely from Britain to EU, and back. All British goods will attract EU’s customs duty of 10%, making them lose their competitiveness. London’s finance behemoths can’t freely offer their services to EU clients, open offices in EU cities, and employ EU man power to run their EU operations. It could signal the end of London’s position as the western world’s financial capital.
b. Hundreds and thousands of Britons living in EU countries will have to head home hurriedly. The same dislocation awaits EU citizens, now working in Britain.
c. Scientific research which so far, was a collaborative effort between brains from across the entire European continent, will suffer as scientists can’t freely travel back and forth.
d. The Euro will lose a part of its sheen, and NATO might also be impacted.
What is the present political mood in Britain… The political mood in Britain has changed in the last two years after the referendum was held. Most youngsters want the UK to stay in the EU due to obvious economic benefits. Those of them who were 16 at the time of referendum are 18 today, eligible to vote. Apart from them, the average Briton now feels that staying in the EU is good for the country in the long run. So, if a second referendum is held today, most likely the ‘Remainers’ will win. But, who will propose a second memorandum. It will trigger a very nasty backlash from the hardcore Brexiteers. Neither the Conservatives, nor the Labour want to moot this idea of second referendum.
Ms. May, will now have another opportunity to re-negotiate the Brexit deal with her European Commission counterparts. But, the chances of a fresh deal are bleak. The imbroglio continues.
Latest on Brexit .. To end the stalemate, the British Prime minister, Ms. May convened a meeting of the House of Commons. During an extended session, members of all the three major parties came forward with so many alternative proposals to end the deadlock, but almost all were rejected by vote, except one. According to this proposal that got unanimous support, Ms. May was authorised to reopen negotiations with the EU to explore ways to resolve the remaining British concerns. But, the EU has said a firm ‘NO’ to reopen negotiations. Is the UK heading towards a hard Brexit?