UK waking up to flaws of draft Brexit deal

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UK waking up to flaws of draft Brexit deal

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. (AFP)

 

Following Thursday’s dramatic cabinet resignations, the UK’s draft EU exit deal looks to be in significant jeopardy. Moreover, Theresa May’s entire premiership is hanging again in the balance too.

While it is still too early to count her out, she is now facing into a hugely uncertain few weeks leading up to the UK’s scheduled withdrawal from the EU in late March. Not only could she soon face a leadership challenge from within the ruling Conservative Party, but she must also try to navigate the deal through ratification in the House of Commons without a majority in the chamber.

This looks to be exceptionally politically difficult, not least because public opinion appears to be opposed to the deal. A YouGov study, for instance, released on Thursday found that 42 percent of UK citizens oppose the draft deal, 19 percent are in favour, with 39 percent not sure.

Outside of Westminster, an emergency EU-UK Brexit summit is now scheduled in Brussels on Nov. 25.  With a number of crunch points after that, it is possible the political drama could extend into the spring, with the EU Parliament possibly not signing off (or rejecting) the deal itself till as late as March 11-14.  

With such a monumentally busy and precarious period ahead, politically, for the United Kingdom, many are starting to appreciate one of the great ironies of the 2016 referendum to leave the EU. That is, the monumental effort and time London has needed to devote to the Brussels-based club, as it seeks to negotiate the terms of its departure, is more than perhaps all previous post-war UK administrations did before the Brexit vote.

The monumental effort and time London has needed to devote to the Brussels-based club, as it seeks to negotiate the terms of its departure, is more than perhaps all previous post-war UK administrations did before the Brexit vote.  

Andrew Hammond

  

Thus the 2016 referendum that saw around 52 percent of the population apparently voting for cutting ties with the EU has seen May and her team devoting huge attention to Europe with a key strategic priority being developing a new relationship with the 27 other member states. Indeed, such has been the scale of the task already that it is likely to prove the most complex and important peacetime negotiations that the United Kingdom has ever faced. 
Even now, with a draft exit deal agreed, there remain multiple key questions about the UK’s likely pathway towards the EU exit door.  For instance, Ireland continues to cause major challenges.

Under the draft agreement, a backstop contingency plan will come into force in the event that London and Brussels cannot agree a new future-focused trade deal during the transition period scheduled to start in April. The backstop would not have an expiry date or allow for a unilateral exit and, if the new EU-UK trade deal is not ready by the end of the transition period, the backstop would kick in with Northern Ireland in “full alignment with those rules of (the EU’s) internal market and the customs union,” which critics say amounts to a barrier down the Irish Sea.
To be fair to May, the scale of the challenge she has faced the last two years isn't all of her own making. She inherited as prime minister no formal EU exit planning because her predecessor David Cameron refused to contemplate losing the 2016 referendum. 
However, her own government's grasp of the realities of Brexit has been shaky from the start. As May has gradually discovered, the complexity of the negotiations mean that she has not been able to deliver an alternative model to current EU full membership that can secure consent from Brussels and the EU member states, which provided the same balance of influence and advantages that the United Kingdom gets from its current full member status.  

For all the EU’s flaws, and it has many that need to be better tackled, the UK has enjoyed a uniquely positive position in what is the world’s largest political and economic union. For instance, it has all the benefits of the Single Market, but is not part of the Eurozone, and it has retained a big budgetary rebate. Moreover, the stark reality is that the draft Brexit deal, like all other existing agreements with the EU (from Norway to Switzerland and Canada and Turkey), has key disadvantages, including the fact that it fails to provide full access to services that account for around 80 percent of the UK economy.  
Taken overall, with the draft exit deal now in place, the realization of its flaws is growing within the UK. Despite all of her efforts, May has not been able strike a draft exit agreement that is better for the UK national interest than one which continued membership of a reformed EU potentially offers. 

  • Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.
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