With just 20 months to go till Britain is meant to leave the EU, it’s become potentially more of a time bomb, writes Vidya Ram
IT IS often the case that when a senior politician ridicules concerns about a policy or programme, you know it is really running into trouble. That’s certainly true of Brexit. David Davis, the ‘Brexit’ secretary (the cabinet minister who heads the clunkily named Department for Exiting the European Union) told a House of Lords select committee earlier this week that he viewed with ‘amusement’ press reports suggesting the government was ‘softening’ its stance on Brexit, with some even suggesting that it might not happen at all. Nicholas Watt, a senior editor of the BBC news programme Newsnight, reported last week he had spoken to a number of senior figures, including influential supporters of Brexit, who now believed there was a ‘strong chance’ it might not happen at all, a sentiment that has been repeated by others in one way or another since.
QUESTIONS about the viability of Brexit as the government had laid it out — in Prime Minister Theresa May’s crucial Lancaster House speech in January — emerged rapidly after the election and the government’s loss of its overall parliamentary majority. Ms. May had pegged the election around public support for her version of Brexit, which involved leaving the single market in order to satisfy public demand for border controls, as well as exiting the customs union in order for Britain to be able to negotiate tariff-free deals unrestrictedly with the rest of the world. With the loss of seats, and rise of Labour putting this mandate in question, many asked whether the party would be forced to soften its stance on a number of key issues, particularly given its alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, which had made the issue of the open border between the two Irelands all the more important to solve. (The issue of how to keep an open border while ending the customs union is seen as one of the major practical challenges of Brexit.)
There are a number of reasons why those questions have persisted since. Firstly, the practical issues around Brexit — and the interpretation of the ‘will of the people’ vis-à-vis the referendum — seem to be burgeoning rapidly, highlighted by an ongoing controversy over Britain’s membership of the European nuclear industry regulator, Euratom. Britain had committed to leaving the agency when it notified Europe of its plans to leave the union, back in March. The government had suggested it had little option but to leave as it raised issues around jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice among other things, but legal opinion remains very divided, with many (even strident Brexiteers) suggesting that keeping Britain in Euratom remained completely viable and necessary. In fact, among those to criticise the government for its insistence on leaving was none other than the man who had headed the Vote Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, who labelled those who were pushing to leave Euratom ‘morons’. Others have warned that by leaving the regulator, Britain would lose out on crucial developments that had taken place, particularly around radiotherapy, which could delay the delivery of cancer drugs to patients.
No deal or bad deal?
THEN there’s the confusion on what the government policy on crucial areas is: for example, around the now infamous slogan of the prime minister that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal.’ That negotiating position has faced widespread criticism from both within and outside Conservative Party circles, for the perception internationally that Britain’s aggressive negotiating stance was likely to be counteractive. Major questions are now being asked about whether a plan exists for the “no deal” scenario, with differing answers from senior cabinet members. “Are ministers just making it up as they go along?” asked Emily Thornberry, Britain’s shadow foreign secretary at prime minister’s Questions this week. Another crucial area over which confusion reigns is the issue of the transitional period that would ease Britain’s exit for it and other member states, in particular what EU precepts or bodies would continue to be relevant over that period.
Some fear the scale of the practical challenges facing the government is something they have not necessarily acknowledged. In an extraordinary intervention this week, Amyas Morse, the head of the National Audit Office, told the media ahead of the publication of a report that the government’s approach to Brexit was in danger of falling apart ‘like a chocolate orange’ with little flexibility involved in the government’s approach or willingness to accommodate a backup plan. (The government’s inflexibility on major issues became apparent with the publication of the ‘repeal bill’, which removes the supremacy of EU law, and which includes no concessions on issues that opposition parties had sought such as on the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.)
These issues arise at a time when economic conditions have toughened, factors Brexiteers say are unrelated to the exiting process, but which critics say were just some of the repercussions they had warned about all along. Inflation in May climbed to its highest rate in four years, 2.9 per cent, with weakness of the pound persisting, as wages remain subdued. While the unemployment rate is at its lowest level since the 1970s, the Office for National Statistics said last week that real disposable incomes were falling at their highest rate since 2011, largely as a result of inflation. Anecdotal evidence has also suggested that concerns about Brexit have finally begun to hit investment into the country, while EU workers in areas such as health have begun to leave the country, creating potential skills shortages. Pessimism remains high about what will follow Brexit. On Wednesday, the ratings agency Moody’s warned that it was ‘unclear’ whether the government would be able to deliver a ‘reasonably good outcome’ in its negotiations with Europe, warning that the likelihood of an abrupt exit with no agreement and reversion to WTO trading rules had increased.
OVERALL, one has a sense of the upper hand lying very much with the continent. Bluff and bluster has continued in Britain. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson scoffed at the ‘divorce bill’, the multibillion-pound payment that Europe believes is owed to it by Britain as it exits the union, telling MPs that the EU could ‘go whistle.’ But his remarks were calmly rejected by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator.
He warned that without a recognition of the payments owed by Britain, trust would be broken and there would be little chance of negotiations moving forward. ‘I am not hearing any whistling, just the clock ticking’, he said this week. With just twenty months to go till Britain is meant to leave the union, with the purported mission of ‘taking back control’ of borders, laws, and trade, it’s potentially more of a time bomb.
TheHindu.com, July 15.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion