Wasting time won’t stop the ticking of the Brexit clock

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Wasting time won’t stop the ticking of the Brexit clock

​This time next year the UK is expected to pack its bags, depart the EU and start life anew, returning to its state of splendid isolation. Goodbye to being part of the world’s largest single market, the world’s biggest exporter of manufactured goods and services, and the biggest import market for over 100 countries — and welcome to fortress Great Britain. This is, after all, what those who voted for Brexit longed for — or did they? Triggering Article 50 last March set in motion a two-year process of leaving behind the EU, but thus far, negotiations have failed to make any notable progress, and as next year’s deadline approaches the pressure is mounting to at least agree on a transition period, come March 2019.
Expecting a quick and smooth Brexit deal would have been naïve at best. It is not the way Brussels conducts its business, and in this case it is not necessary that it should. This situation was forced on it, with no obvious benefits for making it any easier on the UK. On the other hand, the incompetence shown by the British government led by Theresa May, and I use the term “led” generously, demonstrates a lack of strategy and direction combined with sheer incompetence. It is one thing for the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to warn the UK that it will come to “regret” the decision to leave the EU, but it should worry the government even more that in a recent Ipsos MORI survey only 37 percent of Brits say they are confident that the negotiations will produce a good deal, while 59 percent say they are not.
This is not surprising, considering that each step forward in the Brexit process has been followed by two steps back, reigniting the customary war of attrition within the Cabinet, the Conservative Party, and now also with the junior partner in the coalition, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. The topsy-turvy talks about an agreement yielded last December a provisional agreement on three major Brexit issues, including the divorce bill that the UK will pay the EU, the future of the Northern Ireland border, and the fate of UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU and EU citizens in the UK. The agreement included the caveat that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” which is not uncommon in negotiations, but mainly between enemies, not among friends and allies.
While this agreement revealed for the first time that Britain was willing to pay about £37 billion to the EU to settle the separation bill, a report by the Office of Budget Responsibility concludes that as a result of leaving the EU the country will end up saving no money at all over the next five years, and will probably still be paying the EU at least until 2064. This scenario is hardly in line with the referendum promises the Brexiteers made to the British public of releasing considerable resources to the nation’s public services — particularly the National Health Service — if only they would vote to leave the EU. Nevertheless, Prime Minister May had no choice but to agree to such a separation agreement if she wanted to facilitate a transition period that, in the words her Florence speech, would give businesses a sense of stability and time to adjust to the new conditions created.

The combination of the complex nature of the “divorce”; the fact that time is fast running out; the diametrically opposed interests of the two (at least) sides involved; and the current domestic British political and social discourse, are making any progress in the negotiations difficult and tortuous. 

Yossi Mekelberg

It is hard to escape the impression that British politics is still contesting the lost Brexit referendum. The business community, as much as the UK’s European interlocutors, is indeed in desperate need of clarity from the government, which means that it must leave behind the stage of abstract suggestions and quickly move on to more tangible solutions and policies. Avoidance of the issues is buying May some time, but time is running out, together with Europe’s patience, rather too quickly. If as May claims, and as a responsible prime minister should, her main concern is to ensure political and economic stability during the transition period and in the long term, she has to stop being opaque and ambiguous about the terms of leaving the EU. These are not negotiation tactics any longer, but political ones to avoid confrontation with other members of her Cabinet, her own party and the right-wing media. What she and the British negotiators are discovering is that the EU leadership is playing hardball, and that ball is harder than they might have expected, because they grasp her political weakness and the weakness of the British position. For the EU foreign ministers then to set guidelines, as they did in late January, requiring that during a transition Britain must stay in the single market and the customs union, shouldn’t come as a surprise. And it presents an inconvenient truth to May, that the price of the much needed transition period is to abide by EU legislation and adhere to the four freedoms, including the one she has been trying to avoid the most — the free movement of people — and remaining subject to the European Court of Justice. It is doubtful whether the UK is genuinely in a position to present an alternative plan for the transition period or to just walk away from it.
The combination of the complex nature of the “divorce”; the fact that time is fast running out; the diametrically opposed interests of the two (at least) sides involved; and the current domestic British political and social discourse, are making any progress in the negotiations difficult and tortuous. There is also suspicion that both sides, at least tacitly, would like the transition period to be a blueprint for a permanent agreement with as a few changes as possible, hence concessions are hard to come by. Consequently, there is emerging a pattern of negotiation which is low on trust and avoids addressing issues that might create a rift not only between the negotiating sides, but within their constituencies, especially in the UK, and would determine the long-term post-Brexit reality. 
Avoidance cannot stop the ticking of the Brexit clock. It will only increase the pressure and the rifts that will have to be resolved or postponed under crisis conditions, with potentially more explosive consequences, and long-term damage to relations between Brussels and London. Brexit is an unpleasant job, but someone has to do it — or, if there should emerge a leadership courageous enough, rethink or discard Brexit altogether.
 
  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.
    Twitter: @YMekelberg
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