Soft Brexit: Facing hard realities

Muhammad Mahmood   | Published: July 28, 2018 21:17:47 | Updated: July 28, 2018 22:20:23


EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (right) and Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab (left) address a joint press conference in Brussels on July 26, 2018: Barnier rejected the UK's plans for post-Brexit customs arrangements. —Photo: AP

Prime Minister Theresa May chaired a crisis meeting of her cabinet on July 06 at Chequers, the country residence of the Prime Minister, to reach an agreement on Brexit. The government's handling of Brexit has been chaotic right from the beginning. Furthermore, aggravations were also caused by intense fights between conservative party Brexiteers and Remainers involving denunciations and threats even before the meeting. These were all centred round the shape of the deal with the European Union. 

The core issues that contribute to the confrontation between the two groups are central to a hard or soft Brexit. These primarily involve to get a trade deal with the EU without prejudicing the UK's ability to enter into trade deals with other countries without establishing a hard border in Northern Ireland. That also presupposes not being subject to rulings from the European Court of Justice. The dislike of each other among the Tories is so intense that documents relating to Brexit are quite often leaked by ministers themselves. The document circulated to ministers before the Chequers meeting was also leaked despite the fact that all participants at the Chequers meeting had to surrender their mobile phones at the entrance.

The documents for the meeting recommended "a free trade area for goods'' but not for services and for the UK to maintain a "common rulebook'' with the EU including farm and food products with a stress on harmonising. This incensed Brexiteer ministers, especially with regard to farm and food products. This would make striking a trade deal with the USA almost impossible as standards on those products are much lower in the USA. The documents also pander to the populist sentiment by suggesting that free movement of people would end but with some caveats as well as large payment to the EU would also end. In essence the documents suggest a type of Norway/Switzerland model for the UK to conduct its relations with the EU.

The day before the meeting Boris Johnson met the former Prime Minister David Cameron, his old school friend, for a private meeting and it was reported that both agreed Prime Minister May's Brexit plans were the worst of all worlds. But that was disputed by others. What all these indicate is that Prime Minister May is out of her depth in dealing with the deeply divided Tory party on Brexit. More importantly, it appears that her own party members do not hesitate to undermine her in public.

Prime Minister May claimed that she was successful in signing up her fractious cabinet to her UK-EU free trade deal but it did not take much long for the rupture to emerge within the government ranks. In the wake of the Chequers statement Brexit Secretary David Davis, his deputy Steve Baker and Junior Brexit Minister Suella Braverman resigned. Davis described the plan as unworkable. Soon after, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was also gone. Johnson's resignation letter warned that the proposed deal with the EU would render Britain to the status of a colony. Since then more departures have taken place.

To add to her woes US president Donald Trump joined into the fray. In an exclusive interview with the Sun, pre-recorded before he left for  the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summit in Brussels. He denounced Prime Minister May for her proposed soft Brexit as a betrayal of last year's referendum and threatened there would be no trade deal with the UK as that would mean dealing with the EU instead of the UK. His newly appointed Ambassador to the UK Woody Johnson also echoed the same sentiment and told the BBC that the chance of two countries reaching a trade deal  after Brexit were "up in the air at this point'' following the Chequers Statement. Trump further fulminated that Ms May ignored his advice on how to do Brexit. According to the British Prime Minister his suggestion to her was to sue the EU instead of negotiating with them. He further went on to undermining her by suggesting that Boris Johnson would make a "great Prime Minister". He said he expected the country in turmoil when he arrives in the UK and viewed Johnson as a friend who had been very, very supportive.  Underneath President Trump's hyperbole against Ms May is a kind of hubris that the UK must listen to him or else face the consequences. It is now reported that during French President Emmanuel Macron's visit to Washington in last April, Trump suggested him to leave the EU and in exchange he would give France better trade deals and closer relations. President Macron, however, declined to comment on it. It appears that  Trump is not shy of providing advice to European leaders how to conduct their business.

In a way Prime Minister May appears to be besieged from all sides. As for the EU is concerned, it has been made clear to the Prime Minister that Brexit means exactly what means - a clear exit from the EU. This hard-line position is possibly to put the UK on the defensive and also to give a clear signal to other EU members who might be toying with the same idea what awaits them. The EU strategy is to make absolutely sure that exit from the EU would be prohibitably expensive. Michael Barnier, the Chief EU Brexit negotiator, made it absolutely clear there would be no unravelling of the EU Single Market.

While Michael Barnier appeared to react warmly to the Chequers statement, he still stressed that the EU's "four freedoms of movement of people, goods, services and capital'' were indivisible. He further emphasised that at the end of the negotiation best relationship with the EU would be to remain a member. This raises the question whether Michael Barnier will have anything to do with the British deal on offer. Ms May's intention to have the cake and eat it too is obviously clear to the EU negotiator.  Mr Barnier has always have a dislike for such a solution. Ms May has an uphill task ahead in negotiating with the EU. But the UK has also its cards to play based on its strategic military and security role.

The UK can neither force its future relationship on the EU nor concede anything. The post-Brexit relationship  with the EU can come about only through an agreement between the two sides. More apocalyptic future may lie ahead for Ms. May if she can not pull it together with the EU or her negotiated deal with EU fail to get parliamentary approval. Some Tory members of Parliament have signalled they might cross the floor. Already some Brexiteers publicly voiced their opinion that either she dumped her agreed proposal or go. If she is forced go, she might also in all likelihood take the party with her. Now there is a great foreboding that has engulfed the Tories: if they do not pull together, the Labour might just walk in with   Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister. In fact, Ms May is playing that very card herself for her political survival as her authority is eroding. But the problem of Brexit Britain is much deeper than the problem facing her or more precisely, the nation itself. Ms May is  faltering in carrying through her Brexit agenda as reflected in her narrow win in  parliament on Brexit legislation, but her fall will not resolve the crisis.

muhammad.mahmood47@gmail.com

 

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