At the crossroads

maandag 26 maart 2018, analyse van Prashant Sabharwal

The phony war between the United Kingdom and the European Union is over. Now, for the real deal.


Theresa May heeft een ingewikkeld Brexitjaar achter de rug. Terwijl ze haar meederheid verloor in het Parlement en de macht van de Conservatieve partij door interne verdeeldheid verder afbrokkelde, bereikte May een voorlopig akkoord met de EU. Dit akkoord heeft echter een hoge prijs en markeert de precaire onderhandelingspositie van het VK.

Theresa May has had an interesting and complicated year since she triggered the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union in March 2017. The negotiations between the two sides have been slow, marked by wishful thinking on part of the British government and plenty of amazement on part of the remaining EU27 at the complete lack of preparation and professionalism of the May Government’s emissaries. Mrs May gave several vague and meaningless speeches about her “vision” for Britain’s relationship with the European Union – based on a completely unrealistic wish list that had very little to do with the decisive strengths inherent in the European Union’s negotiating position.

With the clock mercilessly ticking down to 30 March 2019, the United Kingdom found itself under severe time pressure to agree to the technical details of its withdrawal from the European Union. This is not made easier by the fact that it also wishes to settle its future economic and commercial relationship with the EU. These rather complex circumstances were compounded by the internal instability of the United Kingdom itself: Seemingly unassailable, Prime Minister May called a general election – and lost her majority. Since May 2017, she has been dependent on a fringe right-wing party from Northern Ireland on securing her majority.

The loss of her parliamentary majority also shone an even brighter light on the divisions within the Prime Minister’s own Conservative Party – a political force that has had a tradition of internecine warfare regarding the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union. Her increasingly tenuous position has exposed Prime Minister May to the risk of blackmail by both hard-right proponents of Brexit and the slender minority of centrist Europhiles who do not want to rupture Britain’s relationship with Europe.

The Brexit negotiations have meandered along, given the difficult questions involved: whether it is a potential hard border between Northern Ireland (which is leaving the EU) and the Republic of Ireland (which is staying) or the future trading arrangements between the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe – easy answers are hard to come by. However, a breakthrough was achieved in respect of the crucial issue of the transitional period after Britain’s official departure from the European Union – and approved on Friday. An agreement has been reached for Britain to essentially retain the legal status quo until the end of December 2020 – thus avoiding the dreaded “cliff edge” that would result in a crash landing for the United Kingdom, which would otherwise be forced to trade outside the Single Market and on much more unfavourable conditions than EU members.

The proposed withdrawal agreement now also envisages that the United Kingdom will be able to conclude trade agreements during that transition period – a major step for the Brexiteers who had made Britain’s inability to conclude trade deals within the Union a key argument for advocating the country’s rupture with the bloc. Further agreements have been obtained on the financial settlement of all outstanding EU claims against the UK, and also the issue of citizen rights (for EU27 nationals living in the UK, and vice versa).

However, this agreement (which is not final until all details have been ironed out) comes at a heavy price. The Prime Minister had to make a range of concessions, including one on citizens’ rights: EU27 nationals arriving during the transition period will received treatment equal to those who arrived prior to the official withdrawal date. Crucially, the European Court of Justice will retain full jurisdiction over matters of EU law and EU citizens during the transition The UK also failed with its demand to renegotiate the fisheries quotas, a policy position that had been a key bone of contention during the 2016 referendum campaign.

As the reactions from Theresa May’s own Conservative Party showed, this abandonment of a range of “red lines” originally seen as sacrosanct by Brexit proponents is far from uncontentious. Instead, the Conservative Party’s grip on power remains unstable – with the hard right making unrealistic demands, the possibility of the minority government collapsing over the Withdrawal Agreement’s final outlines remains realistic. Despite Friday’s approval of the new guidelines, thus, it is not over until it is over.

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