Brexit: Aimless, rudderless, clueless

maandag 25 september 2017, 10:38, analyse van dhr Prashant Sabharwal

Het wordt tijd dat de regering van May een duidelijke positie inneemt aangaande de Brexit. De regering van premier May bevind zich nu in een benarde positie. 'Hard Brexiteers', die een snel vertrek uit de EU beogen staan tegenover de 'soft Brexiteers', die pleiten voor een transitieperiode, waarbij boendien de handelsrelatie tussen het Verenigd Koninkrijk en de EU zoveel mogelijk intact blijft. Ook vanuit de EU wordt drukgezet op de regering van May. Binnen twee jaar moet de Brexit zijn afgerond; dat laat weinig tijd over voor interne onenigheid over de Brexit.

The United Kingdom’s Brexit strategy is increasingly being revealed for being based on wishful thinking, not facts, with devastating consequences for the upcoming talks.

A visit to Canada is usually a good opportunity for a British Prime Minister to concentrate on foreign policy, nurture the United Kingdom’s relationship to an allied country and detach oneself from domestic policy. Quite possibly, this was one of the things Prime Minister Theresa May was looking forward to when she flew across the Atlantic to meet her Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau earlier this week. The past summer was less than ideal for the Prime Minister: an inconclusive stalemate in the general election, protracted negotiations on a confidence-and-supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, the Grenfell Tower catastrophe, the recent Parsons Green terrorist incident – and Brexit.

Two phases of negotiations

Let us pause here for a moment. When the United Kingdom began negotiating the terms of its withdrawal from the European Union, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, made clear that the negotiation would proceed in two stages. In the first phase, both sides would attempt to make substantial progress on select issues (namely the status of the future EU external border between the Republic of Ireland (EU) and Northern Ireland (UK)); the status of EU citizens in the UK, and vice versa; the settlement of the United Kingdom’s financial obligations towards the EU; the role of the European Court of Justice) before proceeding to the subject the UK Government is most interested in – the establishment of future trade relations between the EU27 and the UK. No such progress has been made, with the start of trade talks now having been pushed from October to December.

A tight timeline

Now, given the tight timeline imposed by Article 50(1) of the Treaty of European Union, completing the talks and concluding an agreement within 2 years of the UK’s withdrawal notification was always going to be a tall order. However, the political instability resulting from Prime Minister May’s loss of her majority, as well as barely-concealed power struggles within her Conservative Party are threatening to completely throw the UK’s Brexit ambitions into disarray. In this context, it certainly does not help that despite a slew of position papers having been published on the subject, the position of the UK Government on Brexit has remained unclear.

This ultimately reveals the very flaw with the Brexit argument and the referendum that was staged on 23 June 2016. Not just did the UK Parliament not impose any safeguards for such a fundamentally constitutional decision, it also failed to legislate for what would happen in the event of a Leave vote. In fact, it was not even clear what exactly British voters were asked to do: Leave the European Union, yes. But would they have equally consented to leaving the Single Market, if they had been presented with this additional question on the ballot? Would they have also authorized the country’s departure from the Customs Union? Finally, would British voters have agreed to leaving EURATOM if they had known that the supply of nuclear fuel for Britain’s nuclear reactors and much-needed medical isotopes would become much harder to come by? Of course, this is all speculative – but it’s another reminder of how much the pro-Brexit narrative of “the British people have spoken” should be incisively questioned, particularly when bearing in mind that a mere 52% of 72% of all registered British voters actually voted to leave the European Union.

Hard Brexiteers vs. soft Brexiteers

It is this rather muddled mandate derived from a constitutionally irrelevant, merely consultative referendum that is now causing major problems for the UK Government. The cabinet is completely split down the middle, between hard Brexiteers happy to peddle proven untruths and soft Brexiteers who want to retain some semblance of economic stability by providing for a mid-term transitional period – which would cushion the impact of Brexit. That’s before we consider the small, but still audible minority within the Conservative Party that wishes to remain within the EU. These divisions were highlighted by an interestingly timed intervention by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who wrote a Telegraph column on Brexit whilst Prime Minister May was in Canada. The foreign secretary’s primary issue is with the possibility of the UK deciding to pay for continued access to the Single Market. How he wishes to retain the UK’s economic strength in the absence of Single Market access (which the EU is not going to grant without payment into its budget, if its relationships with Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are anything to go by), he fails to say.

Of course, this could usually be dismissed as baseless bluster by a man whose position within the May Cabinet has relegated him to the sidelines, especially when compared to Brexit Secretary David Davis. What makes the latest musings of the Foreign Secretary relevant are reports that he may resign this coming weekend if Prime Minister May does not abide by his no-compromise, hardline Brexit position. This coming Friday, Mrs May will be articulating the UK’s supposedly authoritative position on Brexit in a speech to be delivered in Florence.

Struggles within the Conservative Party

Sandwiched between the EU playing hardball on Brexit, and her own party’s right wing being unwilling to give ground on unrealistic maximum demands, one must wonder how stable the government led by her actually is. Should Mr Johnson’s resignation indeed come to pass, its effects on the power dynamics within the Conservative Party – led by an already weakened prime minister – should not be underestimated. Even if Johnson, whose popularity has been vastly overestimated by the man himself [1], does not become Prime Minister himself, he could very well precipitate a protracted struggle within the Conservative Party that would render the country’s government completely ineffective – and leaving EU negotiators even more exasperated at the state of their British interlocutors than they already are.

Considering the fact that the Labour Party under Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn has effectively eliminated the Conservative lead in the opinion polls, it is also useful to remind ourselves of what has occurred on the opposition benches. After much hesitation during the election campaign, primarily owed to Labour voters being made up of pro-European, metropolitan liberals and working-class voters favouring Brexit, the party committed itself to continued membership of the Single Market. This is an about-turn from its studied ambivalence in the run-up to the general election, but ironically provides more reassurance to Britain’s EU negotiators than the sitting UK Government.

Mrs May’s cabinet, and her Brexit position, appears aimless, rudderless and clueless. She better correct that soon – otherwise Britain could very well sleepwalk into a Brexit disaster of its own making.

Dit artikel verscheen in nieuwsbrief De Hofvijver van het Montesquieu Instituut.