ONE year after Britain filed for divorce from the European Union, agreement on a draft “final” deal appears to be in the air. People seem to be relieved and there is talk of progress.
But, it’s complicated and nothing is really settled yet. Most Brexit-watchers agree that there will be more tough talk and acrimonious horse-trading in the months leading up to Britain’s exit from the EU on March 29 next year. And beyond. This soap opera isn’t over just yet.
Read: Brexit is forever
Here’s the thing: while Brexit is the only show in town in Britain (along with alleged Russian government in the Salisbury nerve attack), most EU governments and Europeans don’t share Britain’s obsession with its upcoming EU divorce.
As such, it can sometimes feel like Britain and the rest of Europe are not just separated by the Channel, they actually inhabit parallel universes.
Over there, Britain and British citizens are totally focused on the rights and wrongs, the pros and cons, the ins and outs of Brexit. The Remainers and the Leavers slug it out in newspapers, radio, television and on social media. Sometimes, even in real life.
Over here, in Brussels as in the rest of Europe, Brexit is mostly a minor sideshow as leaders reflect on the much more serious business of “the future of Europe”.
Take the media, British journalists in Brussels have to cover each and every twist and turn in the tortuous Brexit negotiations. The rest have to keep track of other EU irons in the fire, including Eurozone reform, a deteriorating rule of law and democracy situation in central and eastern Europe and the continuing challenge of managing immigration and refugee flows.
Also, with elections to the European Parliament set for May next year and the upcoming horse-trading on the choice of the next president of the European Commission, non-British journalists as well as EU leaders and policymakers have more than enough on their plate.
Sometimes, outsiders can’t understand the EU-Britain-Brexit disconnect. Many in Asia think EU officials spend most of the time fretting over Brexit and its repercussions on EU policies. When told that they don’t, Asians seem surprised — and sceptical.
So let me try and explain: true, Britain’s decision to leave the EU did give everyone a big jolt, prompting some to fear that other unhappy countries would also seek to exit the EU. Instead, support for the EU has actually gone up among European citizens — and among young Britons.
Meanwhile, of course the infighting and confusion over Brexit within Theresa May’s government hasn’t helped — nor have repeated alleged attempts to unseat the prime minister or recent accusations by Brexiteers that the EU is “bullying” Britain on the issue.
Many on the continent continue to believe that Britain will regret its decision as businesses, banks, students and jobs move from to the continent. And British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s hype on how the rest of the world is ready to embrace “Global Britain” is viewed as just more wishful thinking from a country which still has nostalgic dreams about “Empire”. Significantly none of the Commonwealth countries are lining up to clinch trade deals with Britain.
It’s true, however, that Asian countries — like Pakistan — which relied on the “British connection” to get their message heard in the EU will have to work harder to cultivate other EU governments. Forward-looking countries are already seeking out new European connections on trade and aid.
It’s also true that Britain’s exit will mean the departure from the European Union of all British Asian members of the European Parliament, some of whom actively supported Asian causes.
Britain in many ways made the EU a more open, interesting and diverse place. There aren’t many ethnic minority Europeans in the EU institutions but those who are black or brown and working in EU agencies are often British.
The “agreement” reached this week confirms that there will be a transition period until Dec 2020,
offering some relief to business. Most difficult issues — including the conundrum of the border with Northern Ireland and the future trade arrangement between Britain and the EU — have been pushed down the road.
The feeling in Brussels remains that Brexit is a “self-inflicted” wound and that in a globalised world, Britain’s proud announcements about “Global Britain” and “taking back control” are foolish rhetoric.
Prime Minister May used to insist that “Brexit means Brexit”. No one really understood her then — and although the months have dragged on, no one understands her or her many querulous ministers even now.
Make no mistake, Britain will be missed. Many Europeans would like Britain to change its mind and stay in the EU. But life goes on.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels
Published in Dawn, March 24th, 2018