Britain’s seeming inability to find a way forward on Brexit has created three very human responses: Bewilderment is first, and fatigue comes second. Finally, there is boredom. Still, the matter is simply too important to ignore. The United Kingdom is, after all, one of the ten largest economies in the world. It is the second largest economy in Europe and its departure would leave the European Union (EU) a much-diminished economic and political force in the world. There is no denying, however, that the way forward remains disturbingly uncertain. Most of the problem lies on the British side. Within the EU, there seems to be a much clearer consensus.
President Jean-Claude Junker of the European Commission announced recently that he would brook no further delays. He has, of course, said this before. Such an “ultimatum,” no doubt aims to pressure the British because the Europeans want very much to resolve this matter. For the Continent, the economic issues are reasonably straightforward. Britain remains a large and a good customer of Continental European business. On this basis, EU would like very much to settle favorable trade agreements as quickly as possible. As long as uncertainties prevail, business will have difficulties planning and so have a reluctance to expand. Europe is less amenable on the financial side. Since finance is a huge part of the British economy, London has sought to retain the advantages it enjoyed as an EU member. The Europeans are wary of giving London all it wants, since that would put the EU’s financial center outside its control.
Politics also informs the EU’s eagerness to resolve the matter. Italy is presently ruled by an anti-EU coalition. Anti-EU feeling has grown throughout populations in France and Germany, the political-economic core of the union. As long as Brexit remains an open question, these anti-EU movements have a hook on which to hang some of their complaints and aspirations. There can be no doubt that the anti-EU feeling, in Italy certainly but also in France and Germany and elsewhere will go on whatever becomes of. But its resolution would substitute real terms and conditions for vague complaints and accordingly would remove fuel from these movements, something the EU leadership would very much like to do.
On the British side, the depth of complexity is evident in Parliament’s inability to vote positively on any proposal. A main sticking point is the Irish question – something that in different forms has plagued British politics for about 1,000 years. Because the Republic of Ireland is an EU member, a UK exit would create a hard border between Ireland and the counties in the north that would remain under UK sovereignty. In particular, a hard border would threaten the Good Friday Accord that ended IRA terrorism in Ireland and elsewhere. The EU has proposed a two-tiered approach with which British Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed. Under it, the border in Ireland would remain while the UK ensured that the northern counties abide by EU product rules, at least until negotiators could find another solution. Hardcore Brexiters object to any such settlement, even on a temporary basis. It would, they claim, violate British sovereignty to have one region of the kingdom under foreign rules and the rest of it under its own national rules. They have voted accordingly. So, too, has the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, a part of Theresa May’s coalition government, voted no. It fears that such an arrangement would eventually break ties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
In order to sidestep these problems, the government has also put forward what it calls a “political declaration.” It would stand separate from any other agreement. This would make no commitments, on Ireland or anything else for that matter. It proposes a two-year period during which negotiators from London and Brussels would hammer out the post-Brexit deal. This approach failed to go forward as well because a major group in Parliament, from both sides of the house, viewed it, with some merit, as what they called a “blindfold Brexit.” They refuse to endorse anything that fails to set out the terms of separation before it takes place. In part because some refuse to endorse any arrangement that involves the imposition of Brussels’ rules, Parliament has refused to approve plans for a customs union along the lines Turkey has negotiated with the EU. For similar reasons, Parliament has refused to endorse participation in the EU’s single market, known as Common Market 2.0, an arrangement similar to the one Norway has with the union. A proposal for a second referendum has also failed in the face of objections that Britain will not follow the Continental model of asking the people to keep voting until they give the elite the answer it wants.
With so much to block the way forward, Prime Minister May has sought talks with Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party. For Americans and especially for politicians on the Continent, this might look like a straightforward practical step, but consultation with the opposition is simply not done in Britain, or hardly ever. May and the government, however, are desperate, if not others in her Conservative Party. If her efforts to achieve closer economic ties with the EU without excessive amounts of intrusion can attract enough Labor votes, especially if endorsed by Corbyn, she might gather a strange majority in Parliament to pass a deal. That, however, is a big if.
Short of such a big step, continued parliamentary deadlock can yield only one of two results. It can bring the country to a second referendum on British membership in the EU. May would need Labor Party support for that. Alternatively, it can lead to another general election with hopes that the new assembly will find it easier to find common ground. Though support for a second referendum has grown, largely out of frustration with the present parliament’s inability to act, it remains problematic, not the least because it would smack, as already mentioned, of the European practice of asking the people to vote again and again until they produce the elite’s desired outcome. Even a new general election might face a block. Under the fixed-term legislation, Parliament would have to produce a two-thirds vote to authorize it. No doubt Labor and the Scottish Nationalists would vote for it in the hopes of gaining greater influence in the new parliament, as would other, smaller parties. But the Tories and the DUP would likely balk, and there are enough of them to block such a move.
Matters are uncertain enough to defy any attempt at forecasting. Brexit, as frustrating and boring as it has become, will remain in the news for the foreseeable future. It will continue to defy normal perceptions of rationality and impose dollops of uncertainty on business and politics as well as diplomatic plans, on both sides of the channel and the oceans, too.
This article was written by Milton Ezrati from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.
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