Brexit Negotiations Bordering On Collapse
This was supposed to be the easy part. Stage one of the Brexit negotiations is supposed to wrap up in the middle of this month with agreements in three critical areas — first, the amount Britain will pay in order to cover its previously agreed to financial commitments to the EU bloc; second, determining the rights of EU citizens currently living in the UK; and lastly, determining the nature and status of the border between Northern Ireland, which, as part of the UK, will be leaving the EU, and Ireland which remains a member.
The original pro-Brexit position on the first two items was absolutely clear. There would be no separation payments made and the sovereignty of British law would be absolute. Of course, those were entirely untenable positions and totally unacceptable to the EU. So, after drifting aimlessly for the past few months, Theresa May did what everyone knew she would do — she totally caved.
Last week, May agreed to pay around £44 billion, or over $50 billion, which more than doubled an earlier laughable offer of around £20 billion that was summarily rejected by the Europeans and is now $50 billion more than the Leave supporters were originally promised it would cost. In addition, it is also believed that May had agreed to allow the European Court of Justice to at least have some role in determining the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. This, again, was a total repudiation of what the Brexit backers had originally vowed.
It seemed that the only remaining issue to be resolved before moving on to the far more difficult process of determining the future economic relationship between the EU and the UK would be the Northern Ireland border. And May seemed prepared to again cave on that issue, essentially allowing Northern Ireland to remain in the EU and maintain its open border with Ireland while technically leaving the EU only on paper. Again, that is a total repudiation of the “hard border” promised by the pro-Brexit forces.
But this reported agreement blew up in May’s face when the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) rejected that plan. May relies on the deeply conservative DUP for her majority in Parliament in a coalition government formed after the Conservative’s disastrous election earlier this year. Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, said the DUP will oppose any “regulatory divergence, which separates Northern Ireland economically, or politically, from the rest of the U.K”, adding that May seemed to be engaging in “mad negotiating” that threatened the stability of the UK.
The rumored deal also set off objections in both Scotland and in London, both of which overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU. Both Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), and Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, demanded that any special treatment afforded Northern Ireland should also be extended to those areas of the UK as well. According to Sturgeon, “If one part of UK can retain regulatory alignment with EU and effectively stay in the single market (which is the right solution for Northern Ireland) there is surely no good practical reason why others can’t. If it’s not some kind of Norway status for whole UK, it must mean some kind of special deal for NI. Has to be one or the other. And if latter, why not also for Scotland, London & Wales (if it wants it)?”
As has happened so often in these negotiations, May and her Conservative colleagues seemed completely caught off guard by the objections of the DUP. Likewise, they also seemed oblivious to the fact that carving out special privileges for Northern Ireland would create similar demands in Scotland, London, and potentially Wales.
May has now been forced to cut off negotiations, despite having agreed in principle to the Northern Ireland arrangement, and return to the UK “with her tail between her legs” once again, as one Liberal Democrat characterized it. She and her Conservative colleagues now face a critical decision in which there are no good options. She could go ahead with the deal and dare the DUP to bring down her government and force new elections. Even if the DUP backed down, the demands for a similar deal for Scotland, especially, would be harder to ignore and could prompt yet another vote on independence. May’s best hope is that Ireland will agree to continue working on the border issue but still allow the next phase of the negotiations to begin.
In a further indication that the Conservatives are simply flying by the seat of their pants, Brexit Secretary David Davis was forced to admit, incredibly, that the government had conducted no economic analyses on the effects of Brexit. This directly contradicts his earlier statements that the government was “carrying out about 57 sets of analyses” that would “cover 85 percent of the economy” and, as recently as October, claimed that these analyses contained “excruciating detail”. Davis had repeatedly refused to release these analyses, claiming that their release would damage the UK’s negotiating position. These were all blatant lies told directly to Parliament.
Time is not on the UK’s side. It is generally agreed that if negotiations do not begin on phase two at some point very early next year, no agreement is likely to be reached in time for the March, 2019 deadline when the two year negotiating period ends and the UK will be forced to begin trading with the EU under WTO rules which it is estimated could cost the UK between 5% and 10% of GDP over a decade and a half. Economic growth in the UK is already slowing dramatically and it is estimated that the UK will have the slowest growth of any EU economy by the time the separation occurs in 2019.
In light of the fact that Theresa May has essentially caved on every position held by the pro-Brexit camp in this first phase of the negotiations, those Leave voters might want to reconsider the wisdom of giving all the negotiating power to the EU with their votes to leave the economic union. And as, the UK economy continues to shrivel and more and more “special deals” continue to be made, you have to wonder whether more and more people will begin to think along the lines of that aforementioned Liberal Democrat who said, “As each day goes by, it becomes clearer that the best deal for everyone is to stay in Europe. The people of the U.K. must be given a vote on the deal and an opportunity to exit from Brexit.”
Dealing with the realities and difficulties of Brexit, it is always easy to lose sight of just how cynically the UK arrived at this point. Brexit itself was merely an election ploy used by David Cameron to win re-election in 2015 and establish a Conservative majority for years to come. The Scottish independence referendum had already led to the virtual destruction of the Labour party in its strongest base as it was summarily replaced by the SNP. The promised Brexit referendum was Cameron’s ploy to not only cleave away support from the far-right UKIP but also further weaken Labour’s support in its other traditional strongholds in the North. As an election strategy, it was a resounding success. As an actual policy, it has turned into an unmitigated disaster. And, in the end, Cameron may go down as the PM who destroyed the UK. All to win an election.
Originally published at tidalsoundings.blogspot.com on December 7, 2017.