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Brexit — the table has turned

Twelve months ago, Britain rocked the EU by voting in a referendum for the exit door. It is fair to say that despite a shaky position back then, the bloc looks considerably stronger and healthier than the UK, with a clearer position from the 27 states than the single one. It is less clear a year on what sort of deal will be reached for the UK leaving the EU.

Politically, France at the time looked like the basket case, with a president with historically low ratings and an insurgent far-right. Britain lost one prime minister and very nearly another earlier this month.

As Emmanuelle Macron enjoys a historically high majority, Theresa May heads a minority government, hostage to the Democratic Unionist Party, whose loyalty has been bought in a deal worth £1 billion ($1.3 billion) to Northern Ireland. Some see this as the British taxpayer footing the bill to keep the Conservatives in power.

May’s approval rating has plummeted to a woeful minus 17, not helped by her handling of the fire tragedy in West London. She remains in office but not in power, largely because a divided Conservative Party has yet to reach a consensus on who her successor should be, and cannot agree on the form Brexit should take. Conversely, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is gaining popularity by the day.

The backdrop to the negotiations is thus not ideal as the first week of formal talks ended. The clock is ticking on the two years set aside for the divorce proceedings that must be completed by March 2019. With such a weak government, more than ever it is far from clear what sort of deal might transpire, if one is reached at all.

Britain’s negotiating position appears shambolic to the outside. The indecisive election result has triggered a major rethink, reopening the debate on many fronts. Public opinion, according to the polls, may be shifting slowly away from a hard Brexit, lighting up the faint hopes of those who wish to remain part of the EU. This may be some way off, but perhaps now not impossible.

The hard or soft Brexit debate is dominating the plotting in Westminster. Support for a softer exit is gaining ground, with 50 Labour MPs backed by key trade unions urging the party leadership to push for this. In theory, the government is clinging to the principles outlined in May’s landmark speech in January, including leaving the single market and customs union. Both these options are widely touted as being on the cards again.

The indecisive election result has triggered a major rethink, reopening the debate on many fronts. Public opinion, according to the polls, may be shifting slowly away from a hard Brexit, lighting up the faint hopes of those who wish to remain part of the EU.

Chris Doyle

May’s “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra is also being challenged. Leading the charge is Phillip Hammond, chancellor of the exchequer no less, claiming “no deal would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain.” In the event of no deal, at least 30 Conservative MPs have said they would vote against leaving the EU. The “punishment deal” remains a considerable fear. Many EU members want to ensure Britain is the last country to flee the nest.

The deal May has pitched for first is one on citizenship, which prior to the election she was reluctant to commit to. The 3.2 million EU nationals living in the UK and 900,000 Britons living in EU states are all desperate for certainty on their future status.

May made what she described as a “big and generous” offer that any EU citizen with five years’ residence will be granted settled status, giving them rights “almost equivalent to British citizens.” But she insisted this must be reciprocal, and refused to outline the specific cut-off point for eligibility.

None of this satisfies Labour or the EU. Lead negotiator Michael Barnier tweeted that the EU wanted the “same level of protection as in EU law. More ambition, clarity and guarantees needed than in today’s UK position.”

Most crucially, it does not give any certainty to those involved. Many of them still see May using them as bargaining chips in the talks, not as people. As the deal is reciprocal and dependent on other arrangements, the millions affected are still little clearer as to their eventual fate and have to wait another year. Even then, imagine 3.2 million European citizens applying for settlement. The system could get swamped.

At the core of this is an issue that could be the biggest hurdle to a Brexit deal. The EU insists that the European Court of Justice should have authority over any deal involving EU citizens, but this is an absolute no-no to the May government, which insists British courts should be sovereign. The compromise could be an arbitration panel with figures from both sides.

Britain has been called the laughing stock of Europe over Brexit, its reputation for effective and sensible diplomacy seriously challenged.

• Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. He tweets @Doylech.