Is the path to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU now finally clear, some three years after the Referendum that decided it should leave – to regain national sovereignty, to control its borders, and to conclude its own trade agreements with the rest of the world? Deadlines have come and gone – 28th March, 12th April, 22nd May and now a flexible extension to 31 October; or the UK may leave at any time meanwhile if it can get the EU agreed Withdrawal Agreement through its Parliament. Parliament has approved the extension prospectively, largely with Labour votes but with many Tories dissenting. A majority of MPs are opposed to a no-deal Brexit. The EU Council will meet on 30 June solely to review progress, not to engage in further negotiations on the withdrawal.
The EU’s position was understood to be final. Its concern in allowing the extension is to prevent the possibility of further cliff-edge extensions or emergency summits and to protect its institutional integrity. Although Prime Minister May had requested an extension only until 30 June this longer extension is being viewed positively – by providing a longer period to position for an orderly withdrawal (should that come about). The time has come for the British Parliament to face up to the need to be politically realistic over Europe, more so now than was the case at the Referendum and at all stages since.
Uncertainty still surrounds Britain’s participation in the forthcoming European Parliamentary elections. If Britain leaves the EU before 22 May it will not do so. If it hasn’t it will be obliged to conduct the elections even though the elected representatives may never take their seats if Britain is out by 30 June. This adds to the pressure on the UK Parliament to either pass the Withdrawal Agreement, pull the chain on Article 50 and remain in the EU, or crash out before or by 31 October.
Only in recent months have the complexities of unpicking 45 years of deep integration in the European economy and community begun to be perceived and understood. The dire consequences of leaving without a deal with an array of loose ends to be reconfigured – for business with lengthy supply chains, for future investment, for citizens residing in the other country, among many other issues – had been seriously underestimated. A growing awareness among even the ‘infuriated’ that they might be held to account by the public for such consequences is beginning to dawn.
At this point the UK has been reduced to a level of shame over the mishandling of the withdrawal which is unique in its history. Some have described it as a monumental failure of the political process. Throughout a national perspective has been lacking. The process has been about the political Parties themselves and their purpose of reconciling with their dissidents. The eventual outcome on Brexit cannot ignore the inexorability of globalisation; but outright rejection of some form of a customs union and participation in a single market still remains a fixed red line for Prime Minister May who fears a backlash from her fringe, and probably many others, and the loss of office. However this is one red line likely to be eliminated if Britain is to retain a close relationship with the EU in future, and is a reason why Boris Johnson, in spite of the pundits, should not be her successor. The EU will formally require the UK not to back track on the new interim arrangements, by not interfering with EU processes, and engage while in situ with the treaty obligation of ‘sincere co-operation’ (e.g. inter alia over the election of the next Commission and Council presidencies and the ensuing EU budget).
It can be expected nonetheless that the hard Brexiteers will maintain their guerrilla war against all and sundry, though their numbers are decreasing. As foreshadowed by their leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg of the so-called European Reform Group (ERG), in responding to the possibility that the UK would have to participate in the forthcoming EU Parliamentary elections, was to threaten disruption within the EU Parliament until it got its way. A threat duly noted by French President Macron who was determined that Britain should not participate in the European elections or take any further part in the Parliament to obviate the risk of such obstructionism.
The hollowness of the hard Brexiteers’ positions has been exposed, not least their assertion of the unlimited benefits to be gained from negotiating separate trade agreements. To begin with, Britain exports 47% of its goods to the EU while the rest of the EU sends only 15% of its goods to the UK. As Martin Wolf of the Financial Times has put it: “For the EU, the UK market is important. For the UK, the EU’s is vital”. In the face of that the EU has just concluded a massive free trade agreement with Japan from which the UK will, on withdrawal, be excluded. On its own the UK could not achieve a comparable agreement. Nor on its own would it have the clout to out-do the EU in trade agreements with China and the US. While the US and EU markets are comparable to each other, the UK market by itself is only a fraction of theirs. Some $1.6 billion of trade flows between the EU and China every day. And as for relying on WTO terms, those terms for the UK have yet to be negotiated at a time when the US is emasculating the WTO with its aggressive embrace of protectionist trade practices.
Where the proverbial square has not been circled is over the Irish border and the ‘backstop’. In retrospect it is incredible that a country that has been obsessed with Irish issues for some 500 years could not have foreseen this issue arising once the UK and the Republic of Ireland were or could be sharing a land border between diverging trade regimes, in relation to which Ireland has clear and mandated obligations to its EU partners. Some on the British side are all too ready even now to crash out without a deal, breezily dismissing the ramifications if the ‘backstop’ were to be withdrawn, including the possibility that a hard border would have to be restored, contrary to the politically sensitive Good Friday Agreement. The EU response has been fast and furious about this, assuring the Irish that in the event of a ‘no deal’ without the backstop the EU would not be opening trade discussions with the UK, nor on citizen’s rights nor on the financial settlement, until the question of the Irish border had been resolved.
While the thrice Withdrawal Agreement itself remains in limbo the parameters for future directions are becoming clearer. If withdrawal is to happen before 31 October it will be on the basis of that Withdrawal Agreement, with probable modifications to the Political Declaration making it more amenable to an on-going participation in a customs union and single market, pursuant to inegotiations in the two year transition period.
The principal difficulty all along with the withdrawal hasn’t been over trade and investment, or conventional politics as such. It has been with its profound cultural and social affects which run deeply within Britain and across the political Parties. The feigned horror on the part of the fringe Tories over the move to engage the Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn, in particular, in seeking a consensus over the terms of the withdrawal was not the fact of Corbyn’s alleged Marxism. That was a red herring. Notwithstanding these wide differences there appears to be a genuine wish across Party lines to resolve Britain’s future place in the EU and the world generally, in a manner that takes account of geopolitical realities that can’t be avoided by diminishing Britain’s status. A further positive is that the EU itself continues to have a transcending purpose which is being threatened by hostile policies to its immediate East and across the Atlantic. There is an awakening of this across Europe. The UK move to leave has heightened that awakening and is leading to the view that both the EU and the UK will be better off by maintaining a close relationship which at a minimum would include a customs union and limited market.
Brexit remains firmly in the UK Parliament’s hands, not the EU’s. A further public affirmation seems out of the question in the time remaining. Britain’s options are more circumscribed than they might have been decades ago. It is not overstating things too much to say that Britain should now come to terms with its reduced status in the world order and recognise that only vicariously through Europe can it continue to play a role as a world power and do so in everyone’s interest, including its own.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and trade policy adviser who recently visited the UK.