Search form

Last updated: 45 sec ago

You are here

Columns

The Brexit Catch-22

So long as the EU will not allow Brexit to be the template for further exits by its remaining 27 members, the success of the negotiations will depend on who blinks first. The tug and pull of these opposing teams has turned war-like, judging by leaks from the recent dinner at Downing Street between British Prime Minister Theresa May and EU President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Both sides await the starter’s gun following the UK’s general election on June 8, but not before digging their heels into deep ruts for better leverage. While the EU tests the thickness of the rope that will bring home a “serious offer” on the rights of the 3.2 million EU citizens living in Britain, and the size of the exit bill, Britain dusts its hands to get a firm grip on the “detailed outline” of a future free-trade deal before it agrees to pay up.

Like any divorce, with or without goodwill, it comes down to money. And when pre-nuptials were never signed, just laws of co-habitation, there is bound to be acrimony. Gone is the talk of EU parliamentarians standing in solidarity with British Remainers. Instead, both line-ups are shouting for more manpower.

EU members, in danger of being pitted against each other by the financial shortfall that Britain’s departure will create, are trying to prioritize better internal cooperation and collaboration. For her part, May’s combative accusation that the EU wants to influence the outcome of the British election — having had her demands described as emanating “from another galaxy” by Juncker — helps rally Britons behind her.

The two sides’ opening positions appear intractable. May’s rejection of one of the EU’s four core principles — the free movement of labor — precludes any future membership of the single market. When Britain then tries to strike favorable sectoral deals on essential areas such as financial services, the car industry, agriculture and fisheries, the EU accuses it of cherry-picking.

Another British rejection, of the jurisdiction of EU law and the European Court of Justice over British law — the nub of Brexiteers’ notions of sovereignty — means the rights of EU citizens living in the UK cannot be guaranteed for the long-term, a central EU demand.

Added to this is the explosive disagreement over Britain’s exit payment. The sum May sees as honoring her country’s outstanding commitments is not €60 billion ($66 billion), let alone the indigestible €100 billion bandied about after the ill-fated dinner.

Brexit MPs’ assurances of a “just you wait and see” positive deal have relied on Germany’s decision to prioritize its lucrative auto trading interests with Britain. But these will pale when Germany concludes that it will largely be stuck with the €10 billion “black hole” that the Jacques Delors Institute has predicted would gape in EU budgets due to the UK’s departure. Even its powerful car industry has deferred to the needs of preserving the EU’s integrity first.

There is no such thing as a cloth of gold on British soil, and certainly no peace to be made with politicians willing to march them up to and over that cliff edge.

Trisha de Borchgrave

This all makes it nigh-on impossible for Britain and the EU to establish a legally binding framework from which to implement any negotiation, transitional or otherwise, within the two years available.

So pre-emptive gloves have come off, as both sides attempt to fracture each other’s alliances, the EU by catapulting bribes of membership over the fragile ramparts of the UK to Northern Ireland if it were to join Ireland, and by dropping reminder leaflets over Gibraltar of Spain’s potential veto over the UK’s future relationship with the bloc.

Britain is looking to seduce in equal measure, albeit with throws of shorter reach. While it winks at Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his country’s strong trading relationship with Britain, he can only nod back, still licking his wounds from a turbulent election in which he scraped past Geert Wilders’ ultra-right-wingers clamoring to leave the EU.

Can the Catch-22 that is Brexit still be overcome? Will expediency prevail, or will it be a case of who has least to lose if the deal fails and Britain defaults to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules?

Placating the demands of the EU as a consortium of countries that needs, in the words of EU Commissioner Donald Tusk, a “level playing field” and “a balance of rights and obligations” may just not seem worth the effort, especially to British citizens of a former empire that, according to historian Stuart Laycock, has invaded or occupied at least 90 percent of the world since the second century AD.

So with characteristic sangfroid, the British may finally unite, in full tabloid anti-EU battle cry, behind their belligerent leader and under the mantle of what they have been seeking to regain: Their identity, which lies somewhere between Blitzkrieg bravery, pragmatism and magnanimity toward spectacular failure.

As for incensed Remainers, there is no such thing as a cloth of gold on British soil, and certainly no peace to be made with politicians willing to march them up to and over that cliff edge.

 

Trisha de Borchgrave is a writer and artist based in London. She can be reached at www.trishadeborchgrave.com and through Twitter @TrishdeB.