ANDREW FARRAN. Britain and Brexit: The Starting Pistol Fires!

No amount of political pressure from the EU would force Britain to accept a package it doesn’t want, and vice versa. A closure without agreement because of the Article 50 deadline would be an ‘own goal’ for all parties. Yet we may be seeing another replay of familiar European conflict themes, a century after these were intended to be put to bed.

The London Financial Times writing before the UK Elections stated:

“In six months or a year’s time, when the immediacy of security and policing issues will hopefully have faded, voters will be wondering why such essential issues as [Brexit and] the economy received so little attention. Britain’s economic  performance has been happily robust since the referendum. The ultimate effect of that vote may not be so benign.”

Britain is facing Brexit with no unifying theme or underlying rationale, without a mandate, and with low political capital  following the government’s disastrous election campaign on the evasive slogan of ‘stability and strength’. This misjudged move has in one sense further complicated the Brexit process, but in another it has created an opportunity which many might welcome to open up the negotiating process to deeper scrutiny and wider inputs from the new Parliament.

While the Conservatives may be able to forge together enough support to form a minority government it is in a noxious state. Moreover there is now no potential EU solution that could possibly hold together all the lose elements required to get a deal through Parliament. Jeremy Corbyn’s revitalised Labour Party might be expected to have a significant input into the process in the ‘national interest.’. Whether he chooses to take that course, his media savvy, austerity opposed, youth support along with his committed ‘many and not the few’, will be a force to recast Britain’s position in Europe on more accommodating lines than previously advocated. This will move the options from a ‘hard’ Brexit to a more ‘softer’ Brexit, a distinction that was not defined or even debated  throughout the election campaign. In any case, Corbyn will keep his enhanced stock of powder dry while awaiting the greater prize of the prime ministership, quite possible after another election (later this year?). This is a prospect that seriously frightens the Conservative Party and will be a powerful incentive to broaden its approach and admit more into its consultations for as long as it maintains government.

Meanwhile the divisions in the British polity are such that, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s assertions to the contrary, there is little apparent chance of the government’s negotiators being able to present anything like a coherent or substantive approach to the other 27 EU members when negotiations open on 19th June. This will be so regardless of any skill-set that may be brought to the task by Britain’s top civil servants. This is a matter for the politicians and they are not ready. It will be a long game, irrespective of prescribed deadlines, and will be affected by other developments (internal and external) over the next number of years affecting individual European countries. Europe does not exist in isolation and in the present unsettled geo-political conditions surprising events could up-end the process.

The external factor favouring Britain is that the peripheral countries of the EU, such as Poland, Hungary and the Balkan States are now looking for chances to reshape their domestic politics to pursue more narrow national and sectional interests that would be incompatible with the laws and standards of the EU. This should incentivise the core nations of France, Germany and Benelux to hold less rigidly to ab initio positions in relation to the UK. Should Russia be rattling sabres in East and Central Europe the situation would become even more fluid. We can’t predict how this might develop but disturbing signs are present which would also be opportunities for Britain. It is clear from the elections that there cannot be a second referendum on Brexit to restore the status quo ante.

As matters stand what are the options as between a ‘hard’ Brexit and a ‘soft’ Brexit and in between? It was assumed that a hard Brexit would include leaving the single market, taking back control over immigration, and cutting ties with the European Court of Justice. Anything less would be regarded as a bad deal and worse than no deal at all. It would be enormously disruptive and would require an infinite number of subsidiary negotiations, law and rule changes, and bilateral trade settlements with a hundred or more third countries, not to mention the changed status of the Irish border. A soft or softer Brexit would allow the UK to remain in a Customs Union or common market while having separate external trade arrangements with third countries in an otherwise borderless system. This could be on lines similar to the former EEC or EFTA as now existing, with tariff free access to the European market for trade and services. The EU could not block accession to EFTA.

Failure to agree on an alternative trading structure would necessitate a massive amount of sorting out among all interests – political, economic, and cultural (including residential rights for their respective citizens). Could this preserve London’s role in global financial markets or is it already too late for that given that some leading financial institutions have already submitted applications to move their operations to Paris or Frankfurt – a process that may be difficult to reverse.

No amount of political pressure from the EU would force Britain to accept a package it doesn’t want, and vice versa. A closure without agreement because of the Article 50 deadline would be an ‘own goal’ for all parties.

What does Prime Minister Theresa May have to contend with as she attempts to fix up an interim position to get her minority government underway and to the starting gate for the EU negotiations? Having sacked her principal No.10 advisers who got her into this situation, and still being dependent on just a few senior ministers (equally culpable with her) she is bringing into her informal ‘coalition’, as make-weights for ‘confidence and supply’ motions, the essential 10 members of the small Ulster Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – a socially conservative Protestant group opposed to same sex marriage and abortion – along with the equally essential and largely new 13 Scottish Conservatives  – a regional party firmly committed to a liberal LGBT regime and other social reforms. An unholy combination on yet unknown terms.. The deal with the DUP has yet to be sealed but on the strength of that the government will have the numbers it needs, if not a Brexit policy.

Complicating those tie ups is the DUP’s insistence that whatever the outcome of the negotiations with the EU their border with Ireland in the south should remain ‘soft’ if not completely open. How this might be achieved will depend of course on the nature of the overall settlement with the EU, a huge question begging matter at this stage. In addition there is the existing constitutional impasse with Sinn Fein in the Stormont Parliament, where the UK is playing the role of an impartial mediator but now finds that it has this incompatible dependence on one of the parties  – a situation that would trouble if not anger Sinn Fein (which has 7 elected members at Westminster who will not take their seats because of their objection to swearing an oath of allegiance to the Queen). The border issue is important to both in that it should not reopen old wounds.

Scotland in particular has been much confused over the issues of its own separation from the UK and the UK’s separation from the EU, issues that got hopelessly mixed in the elections but still left the Scottish National Party in a strong though weakened position electorally in Westminster and politically in Edinburgh.

The EU ‘negotiations’ are likely to be prolonged with frequent adjournments and referrals back to ‘stakeholders’. The political will to reach a pragmatic conclusion will increase exponentially as the parties become bogged down dotting i’s and crossing t’s on some thousands of rules and treaties not only among themselves but with spinoffs affecting some 150 third countries.

There is a lot of uncertainty about. But what may be more certain is that we may be seeing yet another replay of familiar European conflict themes, a century after those rivalries were intended to be put to bed once and for all.

Andrew Farran is a former Australian diplomat, trade policy adviser, and senior academic in public and international law.  He sent this post from London.

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