Republished from Spain’s La Razon:
While Theresa May is celebrating the successful end to Phase One of the Brexit process, she is also quietly aware of the difficulties she faces in the next stage of the negotiations. Not only must she navigate a deal with the European Union, she must also satisfy the 20 to 30 Conservative MPs who want nothing less than a complete break from Europe — a “Hard Brexit” — and the smaller group of about 15 Conservative MPs who would vote against any such move.
The result is a compromise where Britain seeks to leave the EU by March 2019 without resolving what sort of Brexit it wants. Instead the UK position is to go for a transition period where it satisfies the desire to leave, without having to decide up front what that actually means.
In practice, this means agreeing to stay in the EU in all but name – accepting free movement, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, paying membership fees, and accessing the customs union and single market — the UK just has no say in any of the decision making processes. It also means paying the divorce bill of up to £39 billion and accepting the rights of European citizens in the UK.
This deal suits the UK government as it allows it to claim that it is honoring the voters wish to leave, and it suits the EU which loses the UK only in its decision-making bodies. The political weakness of the May Government domestically translates into a weak position internationally in dealing with the EU.
Given this mutual convenience, it will be hard to move to the next stage of the process, especially as this will entail hard decisions for the UK. These include avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland, and coming to terms with the fact that Britain’s access to the single market for goods and services are likely to be less advantageous than currently enjoyed. Having promised that the UK can “have its cake and eat it”, the Government will now have to make clear how to do this or to explain to its people why it cannot have both.
Whether May can servive this process is an open question. Boris Johnson has already complained that, if Britain adheres to EU rules without having a say, the UK will be reduced to a “vassal state”. And yet London has made a commitment that there will be no need for a hard border in Northern Ireland because trade across that border will be on the same terms. May has yet to explain how this circle can be squared.
The trade deal that the UK will seek with the EU is at the mercy of all 27 member states who may want to extract their own concessions from the process. There is much talk about whether the deal will be like that of Norway’s which pays for access and in effect also pays not to be a member, or that of the EU deal with Canada, which is in goods but not in services. Since the UK economy is mainly in services, neither of these works as a model. What is possible beyond an extended “transition” period is as difficult to predict as it will be to negotiate.
What is possible beyond an extended “transition” period is as difficult to predict as it will be to negotiate. It seems clear that a deal will not be struck before the UK leaves and before Parliament has a say on the terms of that Treaty. Whether British MPs and the wider public will be happy with the Brexit that is finally delivered remains to be seem.
Many people voted to leave to give reduce the power of Brussels and because they were told that they would be better off. When it becomes clear that Britain will have less say in the main market in which it does business and that as a result the UK is worse off, they may take a different view. The 2016 referendum showed a country divided over its relationship with Europe. However, the result of a Brexit deal which fails to deliver much of what it promised is unlikely to change that division.