Saturday, 19 November 2016

Brexit: a nation in turmoil with no clear solution

The British government will be heard by the Supreme Court on December 5th. © Flickr António Jorge Gonçalves

Six months after the referendum that slipped the UK’s moorings of a common Europe, the British Parliament was said to “have no plan for Brexit”. Britain is now immersed in a legal imbroglio as to trigger Article 50 and to guarantee its permanence in the single market while securing control of immigration.

When Prime Minister Theresa May said “Brexit means Brexit”, she was not fully aware of the meaning of her own words. In fact, after the British people voted on June 23 to leave the European Union, they couldn’t know where they were heading. Almost six months after the decisive plebiscite, the country realised they had entered a dull legal and bureaucratic train.  

Once revealed the referendum’s final verdict, the UK was poised to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets the conditions in which a Member State leaves the Union within a period of two years. After a swift transition of power from Conservative David Cameron to Theresa May, the current PM built up a new cabinet including two new posts strategically put in place to deal with the withdrawal process. The new post of Secretary of State for Exiting the EU was appointed to David Davis while Liam Fox became Secretary of State for International Trade.

 High Court ruling and Brexit uncertainty

In early October, Theresa May announced she would trigger Article 5O by the end of March. However, the recent ruling of the UK High Court mandating that the British Parliament must be consulted prior to triggering Article 50 has brought further hassle to the British political scene.

Since Article 50 was only created in late 2009 and it has never been used, British politicians have been trying to grasp what to do in order to ease the divorce process. The parliament has a considerable amount of work on their hands but no one seems to know exactly how to proceed. In fact, the Financial Times reported on Tuesday (November 15), based on a leaked memo, that the “UK has no Brexit plan”. Apparently leaked by Deloitte, the note suggests it will take six months more for the government to decide what it wants to achieve from Brexit. Moreover, the document “estimates that an additional 30,000 extra civil servants could be required to meet the workload”.

After the immediate impact of the leaked memo in the media, PM Theresa May ‘s spokeswoman told journalists during a briefing that the document “was not commissioned by the Government” rather it was produced by an individual from an external accountancy firm that was “not working for the government”.

The unknown Brexit road

Rowing against the legal tide, the UK Prime Minister has vowed to continue Brexit plans. Defending her stance, Theresa May addressed the British people this time writing for the Sunday Telegraph: “Parliament voted to put the decision about our membership of the EU in the hands of the British people. The people made their choice, and did so decisively. It is the responsibility of the government to get on with the job and to carry out their instruction in full.”

Yet, the feeling of vagueness and uncertainty in the political scene is palpable.  May’s senior opponents have claimed they won’t approve Brexit negotiations if there’s no openness during debates. Labour’s Baroness Smith said: “We want to know how the Government sees the relationship with Europe. But at the moment all we’ve got is ‘we want a balance, we want to have a good working relationship, we’re in until we’re out.’ It’s just too general and too bland.”

Speaking to the Class think tank, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for more “transparency” and “accountability” to the Parliament regarding the government’s plans: "I suspect the government opposes democratic scrutiny of its plans because frankly there aren't any plans. There are no plans beyond the hollow rhetoric, which they keep on repeating - apparently - that Brexit means Brexit,'' accused Corbyn.

On a similar note of displease, Sir Simon Fraser, a former civil servant heading the Foreign Office told MPs he thinks the country has no plan to leave the EU: “My understanding is that it is indeed proving to be a very considerable challenge in Whitehall to do this [drawing up a Brexit plan], that the government has not yet reached the point where - it is still in information-gathering mode and is not yet at the point of integrating that into a central plan. And that, I assume, will have to happen before the triggering of article 50 next year.

And I agree that this is a huge burden, a huge additional load, for the civil service. This is an extraordinary complex range of activity across a wide range of domestic and international policies and it will definitely impose a great burden on the civil service,” Fraser continued during the Brexit Committee on Wednesday (November 16).

How the British people perceive the Brexit management by the government. © Ipsos MORI poll    

Can the process be overturned?

Even though the “Remain” voters may be hoping for an opportunity to revert Brexit, it seems unlikely that the process will be reverted. After the High Court’s decision, the UK government immediately appealed to the Supreme Court and is expecting to be heard on December 5. If the government loses the appeal, it is expected to bring forward an Act of Parliament early next year, this way starting negotiation talks between MPs.

Some British politicians have confirmed their readiness to vote against Brexit. The leader of the Liberal Democrats Tim Farron said the party would oppose Article 50 unless a second referendum is considered. Nevertheless, both the Conservatives and the Labour Party have ruled out another referendum, claiming that it would be an undemocratic violation of trust with the British constituency who voted to “Leave”. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn said they have accepted the result of the referendum but they won’t let go of the single market. “We are not calling for a second referendum. We're calling for market access for British industry to Europe,” said Corbyn.”

Brexit has thrown the very territorial integrity of the United Kingdom into question, too. With no surprises, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, has confirmed that the Scottish government will seek to be heard in the Article 50, naturally opposing Brexit.

 UK as a global actor

Concerned for the UK’s future, Sir Simon Fraser warned that the UK will jeopardise its global influence if it abandons the single market. “No matter how well we manage the process and however good the assets we have, structurally it is going to be much more difficult to exert global influence after Brexit,” noted Fraser while speaking at King’s College.

However, Brendan Simms proposed a different approach in an article for the Foreign Affairs magazine. Simms analysed how the UK could negotiate the UK’s maintenance in the single market. “The United Kingdom will remind the Europeans that most of them are not paying their relatively modest security dues of 2 percent of GDP to NATO. And just as the EU will warn the United Kingdom that it cannot cherry-pick, Britain will tell the EU that it cannot expect the British military to do the dirty work of protection and then refuse to let Britain share in the economic benefits that the wider EU enjoys thanks to those protections.”

While the divorce process is underway, European leaders are planning Brexit discussions without the UK. This decision came as a blow to May who had requested the EU not to convene without her presence. According to The Guardian, Council President Donald Tusk wants Member States to hold talks in a summit around December 15-16, disregarding May’s wishes.

Trump’s impact on the UK

The victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential elections has brought more uncertainty to the general British panorama. While it’s still difficult to analyse the impact of Trump’s triumph in the UK (and elsewhere), we could think of two possible scenarios. First, the UK comprehends that now more than ever it’s time for social union and eases the exit process together with the EU, as amicably as possible. Second, the UK believes that it will have a “special relationship” across seas, and is confident on future trade deals that will presumably boost the country as a global actor. While the first option seems more difficult to achieve given the current British internal political rows and incertitude as well as the conflict with EU’s terms (single market and free movement of people), the second alternative is all but speculation, as we still have to wait two months before Trump takes office, on January 20.

Yet, it is commonly known that President-elect Donald Trump felt inspired by the Brexit outcome, as he has mentioned during the presidential campaign. Donald’s stance towards the UK has made politicians such as right-wing UKIP’s Nigel Farage – the first UK politician to meet Trump after the elections – with bubbling euphoria and enthusiasm. Farage even offered to help the UK government in negotiations during Trump’s transition. A proposal that was declined by Theresa May.

Thus, the posed question remains: will the UK stick with its European counterparts, regardless of its exit from the Union, or will it be confident on its own greatness as an independent global actor?

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