Just over a week ago, the United Kingdom passed the half-way point in its negotiations to leave the European Union. Unless there is unanimous agreement to extend the two-year negotiation period mandated in the EU Treaty, the UK will cease to be a member of the EU on March 29, 2019. So far the process has resembled nothing less than the Suez affair — but in slow motion. Then, in 1956, under American pressure, the British (and French) were forced into a degrading retreat from the Suez Canal in the space of two weeks. It taught them a valuable lesson — they were no longer world powers, they were no longer able to dictate to “lesser nations”. Now, 62 years later, the British are taking a refresher course.
The sorry saga begins with Conservative PM Theresa May recklessly triggering the withdrawal process barely nine months after taking office. To allow only nine months to prepare for negotiations which would unravel 45 years of Britain’s EU membership was grossly negligent. There was absolutely no need for Ms May to act so precipitously, other than her desire to demonstrate to Europhobes in her ranks her steadfast commitment to the Brexit cause. Instead of detailed groundwork, we had Ms May’s fatuous slogan that “Brexit means Brexit”.
Unsurprisingly this was a wholly inadequate substitute and the result was all too predictable. The UK has been forced into repeated and demeaning retreats from its so-called “red lines”, its supposedly immovable positions. This is hardly surprising since they were unrealistic and indefensible in equal measure.
The first to be abandoned was the sequencing of talks. The UK demanded negotiations over the terms of its withdrawal from the EU take place in tandem with negotiations over the terms of the UK’s future relationship. The EU refused, knowing that it was only to the UK’s disadvantage to waste valuable time on process. The UK gave way.
Desperate to move the talks on to the terms of a future trading relationship, it was only a matter of time before the UK had to agree to the EU’s figure for the “divorce bill”, the accrued liabilities owed by the UK to the EU. The UK duly agreed; and what is more, it agreed an amount four times greater than it originally said it would pay.
The next red line to be smudged was the UK’s demand that it have the freedom to set its own trade tariffs and regulatory standards from the moment of departure. But if the UK is to set its own trade tariffs and regulatory standards, there have to be customs checks on UK borders. Necessarily that would lead to a hard border with the Irish Republic — the UK’s only land frontier with EU. Yet it was the removal of precisely that hard border which helped so much to end 30 years of terrorism in Ireland.
Entirely understandably, the Irish Republic — backed by the EU — refused to countenance an arrangement which risked provoking terrorist activity simply to accommodate hard-line Brexiters in Ms May’s party. The UK caved in. During a 21-month transition period, the UK will remain bound by the EU’s external trade tariff and fully aligned in regulatory matters, but with no say over either. On the UK-Irish border, Northern Ireland will remain permanently inside the EU tariff area and bound by EU regulatory standards; unless a “technological solution” can be found. The withdrawal arrangements agreed, the UK now stands on the threshold of negotiations to determine its long-term relationship with Europe. The EU has consistently made its position clear. Full and unimpeded access to EU markets depends on membership of the EU customs union and full compliance with regulatory standards of the single market.
The UK government’s proposals on the other hand are confused and unworkable. There is to be a “global Britain”, outside the EU customs union and single market, able to make its own trade agreements and set its own regulatory standards. However, the UK will retain access to EU, its largest export market, by dint of “mutual recognition” of regulations. This process hasn’t been defined and its advantages to the EU are yet to be explained. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland will remain economically aligned with the rest of the UK, rather than EU, and as yet unknown and untested system of drones and tracking devices will ensure there is no hard border with the Irish Republic.
All this is the stuff of fantasy, but behind it there is a reality — a hard choice between exit from the EU customs union and the single market or de facto membership of each. The first means greatly limited access to the EU market, by far the UK’s largest, and a hard border in Northern Ireland, with all that entails in terms of peace and stability. The second will preserve the economy, but it would be a humiliating climbdown. It would also mean exiting from the EU’s decision-making structures. Outside them the UK will have no say on trade policy or regulatory standards but would have to comply with both. The UK would in effect become an EU economic protectorate.
But the hard choices don’t stop there. If Ms May bends to the large and vocal Europhobic segment of her parliamentary party and leads the UK out of the customs union and single market, she wrecks the economy. She also risks splitting the Conservative Party as the Euro-realist wing revolts and votes with the Opposition to bring her down. If Ms May bends to common sense and decides that the UK should remain de facto in the customs union and single market, she saves the economy but risks the Europhobic segment deposing her. Neither is appealing, so for now Ms May hides behind bromides and circumlocutions. In the meantime, a diminished UK drifts on, in disarray and disunity, to an uncertain destiny....