London between Brexit and anti-Brexit

Beyond the surprise provoked by the result of the June 23 referendum in the United Kingdom, still widely debated not only in that country, there lies the extremely important issue of materialising this unexpected result registered back then. In other words, the British electorate’s decision has to be materialised and the United Kingdom’s process of leaving the EU has to be started.

Here however things are becoming extremely complicated. Of course, the Premier was replaced, D. Cameron’s place being taken over by one of his government colleagues, Theresa May, who is delaying invoking Article 50 of the EU Treaty that concerns the negotiations on leaving the organisation, negotiations set to last two years. Of course, there are talks about the strategy adopted by the UK in what concerns these negotiations, more precisely whether the UK will opt for the type of relations that Switzerland has with the EU, or the type of relations that Norway has, or a combination of the two.

What is certain however is the fact that this uncertainty over the moment in which London decides to set out on Brexit’s path of no-return has a strong impact, in itself, on the global economy and the EU economy alike. And this was seen recently at a G-20 summit, where the British Premier was the target of criticism levied by the representatives of other great powers, criticism that she is not at all expediting the process of launching the exit negotiations and is thus creating economic difficulties at global level. Italy was one of the countries that illustrated, at G-20, the European atmosphere in what concerns Brexit, asking the UK to speed-up the launch of negotiations and to be prepared to handle a drop in exports to the EU the moment the negotiations are finalised.

It is worth pointing out that the Italian position was motivated, if not outright determined, by London’s recent announcement concerning the restrictions placed on the EU citizens’ freedom of movement in the United Kingdom. In an interview for the international press, Italy’s Economic Development Minister was very open and adopted a tone of reproach toward the British attitude of slowing down the Brexit process: “We cannot waste two years by negotiating with the UK how to maintain them inside without them wanting to be inside. We cannot afford this paradox. /…/ The more they are going to regulate and limit the presence of EU citizens in the UK the more we are going to limit the presence of UK goods into Europe. /…/ There should be a balance there. You cannot be here in the single market but at the same time excluding some part of the European relationship.”

Japan was the most vocal at the “world economic government’s” recent summit in China, the Japanese Prime Minister insisting that a point in the G-20’s final communique should refer precisely to this delay in implementing Brexit, a delay deliberately promoted by the British Government. Faced with such an attitude, Premier Theresa May tried to counteract, pointing out that other G-20 members expressed their desire to negotiate corresponding treaties with the United Kingdom. Moreover, without specifying when this will happen (apart from a sibylline “As the UK leaves the EU”), May pointed out that the United Kingdom’s ambition is to become “the global leader in free trade,” other states – she nominated India, Mexico, South Korea, Singapore, Australia – being interested in this British stance.

Premier May had to withstand the pressures exercised in China and only when she returned to England did she adopt a somewhat coherent stance, maintaining however the attitude of ambiguity at the start of negotiations with the EU. In a statement before the Parliament, she pointed out that nobody should expect to find out beforehand when and in what manner the United Kingdom will sever its ties with the EU.

Arrogantly revealing a strategy of the unpredictable in negotiations with the European organisation, May showed that “we will not take decisions until we are ready, we will not reveal our hand prematurely and we will not provide a running commentary on every twist and turn of the negotiation.” No need to add that such an approach will certainly bring about an appropriate response from the EU, which will not be to the benefit of calm and win-win oriented negotiations, especially since it is believed that London’s secret hope is to wait for a contagion of sympathy for the United Kingdom among some continental states and the consequent weakening of the EU.

At any rate, the “game” now adopted by the British Government reveals that it is searching for a strategy that would be as suitable as possible for negotiating its future relationship with the EU, that it is yet to decide on it. The firmness with which British officials repeat that Brexit will take place – they did so at the G-20 in China too – does not necessarily mean that this event will happen. Brexit’s partisans are however optimistic and applaud this strategy of ambiguity and lack of clarity deliberately promoted by the Premier, being confident that very many EU citizens will realise the correctness of the British action. A comment to an article that details Premier May’s post-G-20 statements before Parliament shows that “we need to make this really difficult for them (including trying to force them to act before they are ready – which of course won’t work….). We need to punish them, even if we hurt ourselves, because we cannot under any circumstances, allow them to flourish after they leave. Everyone knows exactly what will happen if we start seeing UK growth figures ahead of the EU ones. EU citizens aren’t stupid, and will quickly work out that the emperor has actually no clothes after all…”

The debate in the British Parliament, on September 12, of a petition that has collected 4 million signatures and that calls for the holding of a second “in or out” referendum pleads in this sense too. The protagonists of this action are the partisans of abandoning the action of implementing Brexit and believe that the conditions they foresee for the future referendum – high voter turnout and high threshold for the “out” option – are justifying their hopes that the United Kingdom will reject Brexit this time around. The opinion taking shape in Parliament is that such an important decision, such as leaving the EU, cannot be taken without the legislative expressing an opinion on it. Even though some party leaders have voiced support for a second referendum (the Greens), the Government is firm in its decision not to organise it, also rejecting the idea voiced in some circles that the legislative should vote on the June 23 result.

Two things are obvious almost two months since the historical British referendum. The first concerns the reality (the proposal for a new referendum validates it) that the British society is clearly divided, just like the political class, in what concerns Brexit. It is maybe a Government concern that this split will consolidate once the EU exit negotiations start, so that it prefers to continue to keep the strategy and the details of the negotiations hidden from its own public opinion rather than from its European partners (especially since Scotland announced it wants to stay in the EU).

Secondly, if this split deepens, at the level of public opinion and governing elites alike, then we can rightfully ask ourselves if Brexit would still take place. The stance of the Japanese Government, concerned that the postponing of Brexit is threatening the global economy through its negative effects, makes particular mention of the fact that the United Kingdom is in fact “a gateway” to Europe for Japanese companies and not only for them, and consequently London should uphold unlimited access to the European market during the negotiations with the EU.

But this comes in a package with maintaining freedom of movement, which is a “red line” for Brussels. As ‘The Economist’ recently wrote, “Torry Brexiteers worry and fret that having won a famous victory in June, they could lose the war. Their fear is that, given the choice, Mrs May and Mr Hammond will lean more to staying in the single market than to taking back full control of migration, money and laws.” In other words, that the Brexit, as was understood by the “out” voters in the June 23 referendum, will no longer take place.

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