View from abroad: Bored of Brexit

Updated October 23, 2017


BY now, entire forests must have been sacrificed to produce the paper used to print the endless news items, op-ed pieces and editorials about Brexit. In fact, it is impossible to open a newspaper or switch on TV or radio news broadcasts in the UK without some report on the British decision to leave the EU and its fallout. Negotiations in Brussels over the divorce have been spluttering along to little effect. In fact, the word ‘deadlock’ is being invoked with worrying regularity.

Brexit has dominated the news cycle ever since the June 23 referendum was announced last year. After the Leavers won a shock victory, the Remainers (dubbed Remoaners by their gleeful opponents) have gone into a terminal gloom. Through court cases, parliamentary debates and an ongoing media campaign, they have attempted to somehow, anyhow, reverse the referendum vote. But according to polls, the majority of Brits, even those who voted to remain, think that democratic norms demand respect for the result, and the government should proceed to negotiate the best possible exit deal.

The problem for Theresa May’s government is that it does not represent just one point of Tory views. There are those within the ruling party who voted to remain; a second school calls for a hard Brexit with a ban on the freedom of movement enshrined in the EU charter, even if this blocks British access to the lucrative European single market; and the third group wants a soft Brexit that minimises damage to the economy.

For a prime minister weakened by the disastrous snap election she called in June, reconciling these different factions is a virtually impossible task. As she herself voted to remain in the referendum, she is viewed with suspicion by the hardliners in her party. David Davis, the minister responsible for conducting the negotiations, has been unable to cross the first hurdle of making enough progress on the so-called divorce bill for substantial talks about the UK’s future trade relations with the EU to begin.

The agreed sequence of the talks — for which two years are allocated under EU rules — calls for an agreement to first be reached over how much the UK is going to pay into the EU’s kitty on departure. This amount is intended to cover the UK’s previous commitments to long-term projects already agreed, as well as subsidies to be paid to various sectors and member states. While no specific figure has been put forward, Mrs May’s recent offer of 20 billion euros in a speech has been deemed too low. In fact, the British PM is alleged to have privately told European leaders at last week’s summit that she would put billions more on the table to ensure progress in the talks.

Although the divorce bill is the biggest hurdle, two other items on the agenda are proving difficult to resolve. Firstly, the EU member states are adamant that the rights of their citizens living and working in Britain must be ensured. As there are three million of them, and their presence was the major factor behind the victory won by the Brexiters, Mrs May’s freedom to act is circumscribed. Although well over a million Brits live in EU countries, a large number of them are pensioners and thus unlikely to send for their families to join them as working EU citizens do in the UK.

The third issue relates to Ireland. Here, the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign state, is a full member of the EU, and has an open border with the British territory of Northern Ireland. The latter will leave the EU along with the rest of the UK in March 2019, and the EU insists that there will have to be customs controls at the border. However, this would contravene the agreement that brought the Irish civil war to an end. Without this, the EU fears that this route could be used to smuggle goods into its member states.

And this was supposed to be the easy bit before the trickier trade negotiations can even begin. However, Mrs May’s domestic weakness has turned into a strength in Brussels where leaders fear that if they push her too hard, she might be forced into making concessions that would lead to her being replaced by a hardliner on Brexit. In Britain, she retains her job despite leading an election campaign that has weakened her party because many senior members fear that a battle for succession might trigger fresh elections that could well open the door to the Labour Party.

As it is, Jeremy Corbyn, the popular Labour leader, has demanded that if the Conservative Party cannot deliver a successful Brexit deal, it should step aside and let Labour take over. Mr Corbyn met Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator in Brussels recently, and assured him that under Labour, the British government would pay the EU whatever was legally due.

The reason the divorce bill is proving to be such a hurdle is that during the referendum campaign, leading Brexiters like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove made irresponsible and false promises. For instance, they claimed that after the UK no longer had to contribute to the EU budget, there would be a saving of 350 million pounds a week that would go to the hard-pressed National Health Service. This figure was instantly contradicted by think tanks and economists, but was nonetheless instrumental in swinging public opinion. For Johnson and Gove to now swallow that in fact, up to 60 billion euros would have to be paid to just leave the EU is galling.

Understandably, these intricacies are too much for many Brits to take in. What they do know is that inflation is up, the pound is down, and the road ahead looks much bumpier than they had been told. When Boris Johnson bombastically proclaimed: “Let the British lion roar!” he little knew that it would be more of a moan than a roar.

Published in Dawn, October 23rd, 2017