Buckle up and fasten your seat belts — there’s a hard Brexit on the way for sure.
The first rule of making any deal is to negotiate from a position of strength. But judging by the shenanigans in London this past week, the only thing that’s become clear is that United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May is negotiating from a position of weakness. What’s more, her divided Conservative party knows it; so too the opposition parties at Westminster; and so too the other 27 member-states of the European Union (EU), along with every eurocrat at the Berlaymont Building in Brussels.
There’s too little time left to reach any sort of a soft Brexit deal. The final deal is supposed to be approved by a summit meeting of the EU27 in late October — just three months from now. There is room for an emergency summit in mid-November if needed — and the way things are looking now, it’s needed more than ever. With the Brits due to drop out of the EU on March 29 next, the entire kit and caboodle Brexit deal needs to be signed off by each of the 27 member-nations, plus the European Parliament in Strasburg, and by the European Commission — the cabinet-like body that runs the day-to-day operations of the political, economic and social bloc.
Yes, there’s some talk of extending the two-year negotiation period but, given the way things have worked out so far, the EU27 just wants to move on from Brexit and leave the Brits to the mess entirely of their own making.
The Brits have been talking to Brussels for a year now, and the only thing to show for it are the resignations of three Cabinet ministers. And those ministers quit because they couldn’t sign off on the White Paper on the Brexit negotiations, one that was supposed to reach a united government position on the talks.
Red lines? The reality is that a year into the Brexit talks with Brussels and the May government still actually reached a consensus on what it was trying to achieve in the first instance!
Take David Davis, the minister hand-picked by May to lead the negotiations with Brussels who headed up the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). You’d imagine that after a year of talks, Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator, would have some sort of a deal worked out. Nope. It doesn’t exist, and the 12 months of talking to Davis has resulted in nothing. Why? Because as far as the EU is concerned, they are trying to perform open heart surgery while the British patient is still awake on the table.
Last December, the May government and the EU agreed to move onto the second phase of talks. The first phase was supposed to have agreed on the amount of money the Brits owed to get out of the EU in the first place. That 45 years of membership came with a price tag of £40 billion (Dh193.19 billion) — £606 for every man, woman and child, each of the 66 million Brits living in the United Kingdom — that must be paid to Brussels over the next two decades.
Both sides also agreed then on the rights of the 2.5 million or so EU residents working and living in the UK, and on the rights of the 1.5 million Brits who live across the EU now.
But the most critical component came when the May government agreed to a so-called “backstop” agreement on the Irish border — guaranteeing that both the UK and the EU would remain in “regulatory alignment” to ensure there would be no return to a hard border.
The issue is critical. The border from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south is the only land frontier affected by Brexit, and there’s a fear that a return to border posts, security and customs’ checks could lead to violence in the British-government province. From the late 1960s onwards, some 3,600 people died in three decades of political and sectarian violence while another 36,000 were injured.
Complicating matters even more is the fact that the Irish government has a veto on the final Brexit agreement — should that ever happen — and it has the resolute backing of the European Commission and the other 26 EU members on the issue too.
For the first time since it won its independence from the UK in 1921 — and for a lot longer too — Dublin can negotiate with its Westminster counterparts from a position of strength. But last week, Ireland’s Taoiseach — Prime Minister — Leo Varadkar, warned his officials to prepare for a hard Brexit, and followed it up by ordering the hiring of 1,000 customs officers, livestock and food inspectors who will ensure that all the goods, services and people crossing between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic meet EU standards. That’s a hard border by any definition.
And the man who replaced Davis? When Dominic Raab was appointed, there was a collective sigh of relief in the Berlaymont Building that firstly, Davis was gone, and secondly, that the eurocrats would have someone reasonable to reach a deal with.
This week, the first words out of Raab’s mouth was a threat that unless the EU allowed the Brits to talk trade deals, London would withhold the £40 billion previously agreed in phase one of the talks last December.
May is in such a weakened position politically that within days of reaching that much-vaunted Chequers agreement for the Brexit negotiations, she was hobbled straight away by a parliamentary motion that committed her to leaving the Customs Union. Only by staying in a Customs Union can goods, people, trade and services move freely, which means a soft border with the Irish Republic. Out of the Customs Union, then lorries need to be inspected, containers opened, documents checked. Regulatory alignment? Forget it. It’s not worth the paper it’s written on.
In effect, the Brits have gone back to square one, before that December deal was reached. It’s no wonder the EU feels that the past year of negotiations have been a complete waste of time.
The only realistic conceivable outcome is a hard Brexit.
Come March 30 next, the World Trade Organisation rules will apply. There will be food shortages in shops, factories that rely on just-in-time deliveries will be idling, and maybe all those dire warnings of job losses might come to pass. And that will be entirely the Brits’ doing.