Is Britain negotiating itself into a corner over Brexit?
EU officials emerged from the latest round of negotiations deriding the British negotiation position as “nostalgic and unrealistic.” Chief negotiator Michel Barnier accused Britain of expecting to “enjoy the benefits of the single market and EU membership, without actually being part of it.”
This inflexible UK position is exemplified by the recent leaking of proposals for new tough restrictions on low-paid EU workers. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said this document “reads like a blueprint on how to strangle London’s economy... The British people did not vote to make our country and future generations poorer.” A new Expat Insider survey found that Britain’s reputation as a congenial place to work was plunging among European employees. Britain was rated as a less friendly and less politically stable place than just a year ago.
While many British voters are concerned about unrestricted access for EU workers, it is precisely this cheap labor that propels London’s economy. Without it, the business environment becomes stagnant, products and services become more expensive, and the authorities struggle to make amenities such as transport and health cost-effective. No wonder experts are deriding government proposals as “economically illiterate.”
Ministers have sought a three-year Brexit transition period to avoid the economy dropping off a “cliff edge;” yet if leaders insist on immediately imposing such draconian measures and halting Britain’s obligations under the European Court of Justice, it is unlikely that the EU will grant this window of opportunity.
With the government in thrall to its right-wing tabloid cheerleaders, it ignores the aspirations of those who voted against Brexit. This includes regions whose way of life would be immeasurably affected. For example, Northern Ireland’s peace process could be deeply undermined by Brexit. The government’s vision for an “invisible border” between Ireland’s north and south has been ridiculed as offering the worst of both worlds: Jeopardizing Ireland’s economic vitality, while allowing unchecked immigration through Britain’s back door. Brexit furthermore jeopardizes £200m of funding for Ireland under the EU peace program – illustrating how deprived areas stand to lose out from the halting of EU funding.
Britain’s opposition Labour Party appears to be moving toward supporting remaining in the EU single market, despite the Euroskeptic instincts of its leader Jeremy Corbyn. Labour, and even some Conservative MPs, have threatened to vote against an EU withdrawal bill in Parliament in the coming days if amendments are not introduced. Critics warn that these measures for converting EU legislation into British law give the government sweeping powers to introduce legal innovations without oversight.
There have been accusations that the government’s murky negotiating position seeks to “divide and conquer” EU member states by playing their disparate interests against each other. However, this tactic risks disrupting or derailing these ferociously complex negotiations, which are already compressed into an unrealistically tight timetable.
The latest round of talks has shown an inflexible UK position exemplified by the recent leaking of proposals for tough new restrictions on low-paid migrant workers.
Nations such as France and Belgium could benefit if a hard Brexit (or no deal) leads to an exodus of businesses and banks into the European mainland. This gives the lie to grandstanding by British ministers that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” because some EU states hope to benefit if the Brexit talks go off the rails – if only as it would discourage other European political movements from pursuing their own EU exit strategies.
European colleagues have been bewildered by Britain weighing in on concerning EU foreign policy. It is as if the British government is in denial; believing it can continue acting as a global influencer, while cutting off its own hands which clutch the levers of power.
Will Britain ever again be able to regain its relevance on key policy areas such as Syria, Iran, Yemen and Palestine? MP Alistair Burt‘s return as Middle East Minister is a cause for hope as one of Britain’s few active politicians with a grasp of the region’s politics. He is also a rare Conservative pro-European voice. We can only hope that he and likeminded colleagues get more of a hearing.
Overall, Brexit risks throwing the UK economy into the deep freeze, not only because it excludes Britain from its principal foreign markets; but also because the uncertainty resulting from these ineptly managed negotiations makes businesses nervous: Will they continue to have access to EU workers? How much more expensive will it become to import parts and export goods? Is a deal even achievable by 2019? Uncertainty discourages investment and has a cumulative impact as multiple sectors of the economy make similar calculations, depressing the business environment.
As someone who voted for remaining in the EU, I often meet Brits who opine that they voted without comprehending what Brexit would entail. As it becomes increasingly obvious what the consequences of Brexit would be – and the kind of deal that the government is seeking – there needs to be another opportunity for the public to have the last word about whether this is what they genuinely want.
Brexit looks like a gratuitous act of self-harm. Britain has committed itself to a policy that will do untold damage to its economy and relationship with the world. Most perceptive Britons realize this. However, Britain’s political leaders have set the country on auto-pilot toward a crash landing.
Following British politics today is like watching a disaster movie. Will those steering the plane have the courage and foresight to rectify their course before it’s too late?
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view