Britain’s Brexit battles

Updated 31 Jan 2019


IT’S not often that I agree with Donald Trump, but he was spot on when he declared that Britain was in turmoil when he visited the country recently.

This last week has witnessed the most extraordinary political chaos as Theresa May’s Tory government tried to push through a Brexit plan that would be acceptable to all sections of a bitterly divided party.

In a last-ditch effort at reconciliation, she recently invited senior pro-Brexit members of her cabinet to Chequers, the prime minister’s country retreat, and presented them with a plan that sought to address their concerns. After they had all signed the document, she declared that henceforth, normal cabinet rules would apply, and public criticism of her Brexit strategy would no longer be tolerated.

The following day, David Davis, the secretary in charge of negotiating Brexit, resigned to register his disagreement with the Chequers plan.

An ineffective minister, Davis was widely seen as being out of his depth in the complex negotiations with the EU. His departure from the cabinet put pressure on Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, to follow suit.

According to many reports, his staff at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office celebrated his departure by opening bottles of champagne. There was complete unanimity, including among the right-wing media, that he had been the most incompetent foreign secretary in living memory.

The next act in this political drama came when the government won a couple of close votes in Parliament as opponents of the Brexit plan attempted to amend it. Although May lost another tight vote, she is widely seen as having emerged stronger from the crisis.

Getting rid of two vocal cabinet members who had tried their best to sabotage her efforts to secure a “soft” Brexit is seen as a victory after months of drift when she seemed to be stumbling forward without any clear direction or goal.

In any case, the start of the Parliamentary summer recess will have come as a relief to an embattled prime minister.

Basically, the Chequers plan calls for the free movement of goods, but not people and services. This would mean that Britain adhered to standards laid down in Brussels, and the implication is that any disputes would be settled by the European Court of Justice. This is anathema to hard-line Brexiteers who had wanted to quit all EU institutions as they feel their sovereignty has been compromised.

Another hurdle that is taxing minds is the problem of Ireland. The island is divided into the independent Republic of Ireland and the British territory of Northern Ireland.

According to the Good Friday agreement that ended the civil war between the IRA and elements who supported merger with Britain, there would no hard border between the two entities. However, the Republic is a member of the EU, whereas Northern Ireland will withdraw when Britain leaves the Union next year.

The seemingly insurmountable problem is how to charge duties for goods entering and leaving the EU in the absence of customs check posts. And an unmonitored border would allow the free movement of people that Brits voted against in the Brexit referendum.

Michel Barnier, the EU negotiator, did not reject the British White Paper out of hand, saying there were elements in it that could form the basis for further discussions.

However, he was clear that the EU would not allow any disruption of the single market, its most valuable asset. Nor, indeed, are member countries enthusiastic about letting the UK cherry-pick which elements of the EU charter it wishes to retain.

Nevertheless, there is no desire to force Britain out without some kind of workable deal: a “no-deal Brexit” would be the worst option of all.

Indeed, this scenario would spell massive disruption on both sides as complex supply chains criss-cross the continent, with duty-free raw materials, spare parts and finished goods making their way from and to the UK and other member countries. Already, firms are stockpiling spares, medicines and food to cater for the shortages they anticipate.

Several huge multinationals like Airbus, BMW and Mitsubishi have asked the government for clarity on its Brexit plans, threatening to take their operations to the EU if their supply chains were going to be disturbed. When this was reported to Boris Johnson, he dismissed these demands with a typically bombastic comment: “F—k business!”

May’s problem has always been the difficulty of coming up with a plan that would cause the least amount of disruption to the British economy that would also be acceptable to the hard Brexiteers. The next step would be the even more arduous task of persuading the EU to accept it.

This is what the White Paper seeks to do, but obviously, Barnier and his team will go through it with a fine-toothed comb. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking away towards the March 19, 2019 deadline that will mark two years since Article 50 of the EU Charter was triggered, signalling Britain’s notice that it was leaving the Union.

There is increasing talk of a second referendum when Parliament has approved the final Brexit plan. But those who voted to leave the EU feel this would be a betrayal of their vote. Indeed, polls do not indicate that many people have changed their minds, so those Brits who passionately feel they ought to stay in the EU might well be disappointed.

Although the Parliamentary recess might quieten the public debate for a couple of months, arguments continue among friends and families. Brexit has divided the country in a way that few other issues have in recent history.

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2018