UK and EU begin sales pitch for ‘only’ Brexit deal
A large rock nearly sunk the Brexit deal; some wish it had. The future of the 6.7 square kilometer peninsula of Gibraltar, meshed between Europe and Africa at the mouth of the Mediterranean, created inevitable last-minute jitters and shenanigans, as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez threatened a no-show at the summit in Brussels.
For 300 years, the rock has been sovereign British territory, a status backed up by a 2002 referendum, when 98 percent of its 30,000 population voted to retain this arrangement. The last-minute Spanish skirmish is the opening salvo in a series of yet-to-be-decided constitutional issues including the rock, but also Northern Ireland and Scotland. Theresa May has conceded that Spain, which claims the rock, could exclude Gibraltar from any EU-UK trade deal. It is some climb down, with Spain now pushing for joint sovereignty.
Yet a withdrawal deal has been done. In just 40 minutes, 18 months of fractious stop-start negotiations on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU was signed off. As it stands, the UK will leave as scheduled on March 29, 2019. Always ready with a soundbite, Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel chided reporters that: “We are organizing a divorce... it’s not a funeral.” EU leaders were likewise equally keen to highlight it was not a moment to celebrate, each of them dutifully showing the requisite wave of remorse at the loss to the EU of Britain, the world’s sixth-largest economy. That said, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was a little more pointed: “If I were British, I would be sad for my grandchildren.”
Britain sought the divorce, although half-heartedly and with no idea as to what relationship would happen afterwards. A 26-page “Political Declaration on future EU-UK relations” was approved, but it is replete with semi-meaningless aspirational waffle. The future relationship will be forged through another 18 months or so of further courtship.
This was never an equal marriage and the negotiations reflect that. The 27 other members of the EU have held the upper hand from day one of the talks, with Britain as the weaker party at every stage. Part of that is just simply scale. Britain needs a deal far more than the EU, even though both sides want one. It is one state versus 27; one veto versus 27.
Yet European leaders must be chuckling at their luck. Added to this inbuilt asymmetry was staggering British ineptitude and disunity. Typically, one would imagine that the single party, in this case the UK, would benefit from greater clarity and unity of purpose against a dysfunctional, disunited multi-headed adversary. The EU had one negotiator, Britain went through three Cabinet ministers dealing with the issue. The EU position remained solid, the British one changed from month to month.
The outstanding feature of the Brexit negotiations is that the EU side, for all its internal disagreements, presented a far more coherent front than Britain. Michael Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, worked hard to bring his side together, while his British counterparts did not manage to play the various states off against each other. The EU stuck ruthlessly to the core principles of its negotiating position from day one, including honoring its four freedoms — the free movement of goods, capital, services and labor. British politicians dreamed of a la-la land fantasy world where the EU would allow the UK to cherry pick all the goodies and avoid all the rules and obligations that come with it.
This was never an equal marriage and the negotiations reflect that. The 27 other members of the EU have held the upper hand from day one of the talks, with Britain as the weaker party at every stage.
But is it a good deal for Europe? Arguably it has brought the EU-27 closer. Britain, as the most Euroskeptic state, will no longer hold the others back from further integration. If the future relationship talks go well, the EU could still benefit from British strengths too in terms of security, defense and intelligence. British Brexiteers are at pains to argue that Britain is at risk of being a vassal state to the EU hegemon; a somewhat bleak and misleading picture given the absence of any future trade deal as yet. That said, the EU definitely got the upper hand in the negotiations.
Back in Westminster, a large alliance of unlikely friends has pledged to vote against the deal, from the Labour Party to hard Brexiteers. A meaningful Parliamentary vote in a few weeks’ time might determine not just the deal’s fate, but also the prime minister’s. May cannot be faulted for her resilience and determination, of which inexhaustible supplies will be needed as she tries to sell this one and only deal.
So, as the summit concluded, leaders on all sides were starting their sales pitches, with influencing the British Parliament in their sights. In near unison, from May to Juncker, they agreed that they had reached the best possible deal for the EU and the UK. It was, they chimed, the “only deal.” Ah well, to channel Voltaire, “all is for the best” in this, the “best of all possible worlds.”
- Chris Doyle is 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. Twitter: @Doylech