The Brexit process needs to discover a middle ground

Muhammad Zamir   | Published: March 03, 2019 21:22:07 | Updated: March 07, 2019 20:55:20

The manner in which the British House of Commons rejected the European Union's offer of an orderly Brexit on January 15 persuaded the British political paradigm to try and discover new connotations with regard to this evolving paradigm.

Nevertheless, it needs to be remembered that the process of Brexit will be initiated even without a deal on  March 29, and no unilateral British legislation can alter that date. After that if the UK does not cancel the secession process entirely by revoking Article 50 irrevocably, UK will not continue as a European Union (EU) member state after that date. However, the fact that the EU institutions have refused to reopen the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement is a denotation of how difficult it has been to negotiate with the UK in the first place. Nevertheless the EU appears to be still willing to show flexibility over the Political Declaration on the future relationship between the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union.

Consequently, analysts have noted that this will be the key document that will accompany the Withdrawal Agreement. It may be recalled that this was published on November 22 and subsequently endorsed by the European Council and the British government.

Some European and British political scientists still see a glimmer of hope. They consider that the Political Declaration is open for modification. They believe that this is possible based on what has transpired through - the conclusions of the European Council of  December 13, the exchange of letters between Prime Minister May and Presidents Tusk and Juncker of  January14, the 'meaningful vote' in the House of Commons to reject the Withdrawal Agreement on  January 15, the subsequent vote (Brady amendment) of  January 29, which instructed the government to renegotiate the Irish backstop, the debate in the European Parliament on January 30, the recent exchange of letters between Mr Corbyn and Mrs May, the joint statement of Mr Juncker and Mrs May after their Brussels meeting on  February 07, and, finally, the Commons debate on February 12.

They are pointing out that the legal base of the Declaration is Article 50 and the document exists only in the context of the UK's withdrawal from the Union. Its purpose is to accompany and elucidate the Withdrawal Agreement.  Consequently, as far as the EU is concerned, the Declaration should be viewed as the first draft of the Commission's mandate for the negotiation of the future association agreement, and not itself as the legal mandate. The negotiation of the final deal can only begin after the UK has ceased to be a member state of the Union and will be conducted on a different legal base and according to different procedures. In this context it is being suggested that as far as the UK is concerned, the Declaration only informs the Westminster Parliament about UK's direction of travel post-Brexit. It indicates the location of Britain's final landing zone as an ex-member state. As such it needs to be interpreted as only the start of the journey, not the arrival. In this regard it is being mentioned that the second version of the Declaration could demonstrate that it has been suitably adapted to take into account the refusal of the House of Commons to ratify the first. This will then help the EU to create a deal that attracts broad bipartisan support in the British House of Commons.

In his intervention during the Brexit debate on  February 06, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition, has underlined to the British Prime Minister five requirements: (a) a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union, including alignment with the EU Customs Code, the common external tariff, "and an agreement on commercial policy that includes a UK say on future EU trade deals"; (b) close alignment with the Single Market, underpinned by shared institutions and obligations; (c) dynamic alignment on rights and protections, allowing the UK to keep pace with EU standards; (d) clear commitments on participation in EU agencies and programmes and (e) unambiguous agreements on the details of future security arrangements, including the European Arrest Warrant and shared databases.

In her reply to the Labour leader on  February10, Mrs May noted that: "It is good to see that we agree that the UK should leave the European Union with a deal and that the urgent task at hand is to find a deal that honors our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland, can command support in Parliament and can be negotiated with the EU - not to seek an election or second referendum."

Speaking to the House of Commons on  February 12, she has also confirmed her intention to seek improvements to the Political Declaration to which Mr Corbyn could lend his support.

SOME COMMON GROUND HAS TO BE FOUND: The rest of the world - the developed, developing and the least developed countries have been watching the Brexit process and the associated moments of drama and many near cliff edges with anxiety and concern.

The rest of the world, including Bangladesh, believes that any substantive changes that can make the deal more palatable, most notably regarding the Irish border backstop needs to be given greater consideration in practical terms and not be treated just as an existential question.

Fabian Zuleeg has suggested that a possible way out could be to outline an aspirational scenario in the Political Declaration that would deliver a frictionless border, potentially including: (a) a common customs territory between the UK and EU (in part fulfilling Jeremy Corbyn's demands); (b) dynamic/automatic regulatory alignment of the UK but only in areas crucial to maintain a frictionless border; (c) where checks are necessary, whenever possible they should be aided by technology and take place off border through alternative arrangements; (d) a UK-wide solution, maintaining the integrity of the UK Single Market; (e) a clear commitment that any arrangement will not jeopardise EU governance and the integrity of the EU Single Market; (f) provisions for agriculture to enable an integrated agricultural market on the island of Ireland; (g) enabling small traders/services to continue operating across the border; and (h) continued freedom for people to cross the Northern Ireland/Ireland border, i.e. the Common Travel Area.

It is clear that such a solution would not be easy for the EU27 to accept. This might be so because at various levels the trust between London and Brussels has been eroded. There is also a lingering real doubt whether this would be enough to get the deal through the House of Commons. However, better to propose a solution than to be confronted with a chaotic no deal, not least because blame will be put on the EU if no solution is provided.

This would be a pragmatic approach. Nonetheless, the UK can hope to move forward if May can suitably take care of the existing problem of her internal party politics. Theresa May would have to accept that moving that far to the centre might split her party, going against the Euroscepticism of most of the Conservative Constituency Associations. It might also end her political career. Similarly, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn would also need to accept this olive branch, forgoing the chance of bringing down the government and alienating the strong Remain supporters among Labour MPs and within the wider party membership.

This means that both sides in the British Parliament might have to pay a high price for such a centrist compromise. It will require a deviation from party unity and adversarial politics. But, at this stage, it appears to be the only chance left to avoid No Deal scenario.

Both sides also need to remember that the Association Agreement will have to include arrangements for a deep and comprehensive free trade area and a customs accord, taking into account a degree of regulatory alignment that will be determined in the course of its negotiation. Given their high level of economic interdependence, the Parties will also have to agree to work together for the sustainable development of both the UK and Europe, based on a competitive social market economy aiming at full employment and social progress.

The aim of their security partnership will also have to address the question of how to constructively promote peace, freedom and justice. The Association Agreement will also need to ensure the close cooperation of the Parties with a view to maintaining internal and external security for their citizens and states. There has to be provision for regular dialogue and possible joint action in the on-going fight against crime and terrorism. This will then enable the continuing development of close relations in foreign, security and defence policies, while respecting the constitutional autonomy of the Parties and their current and future obligations under international law.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.




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