Brexit: UK’s domestic problem

As the UK-EU negotiations on the implementation of Brexit – final deadline: March 2019, when the island state’s exit from the European organisation will have to be sanctioned – are making progress, the dossier is increasingly becoming an issue of UK domestic politics rather than one entailing the bilateral relationship. In other words, taking Brexit to completion entails so many issues that must be mentioned and resolved, that the UK is already split into opposite camps over some of these issues, if not over most of them. And they seem to have different agendas regarding Brexit.

The close result of the June 2016 referendum – why did the Cameron Cabinet push it forward by one year, precisely before the U.S. presidential elections? – imparted certain enthusiasm to the “leave” camp, not so much by force of its own arguments, which won over a little over half of the electorate, but especially through the Westminster-type of democratic education, which prompted the other half to play fair and to concede. Gradually however, when the losses caused by Brexit were realised, from an economic standpoint, but also from the standpoint of the political unity of the UK, of the losses registered through the bidirectional flow of persons, etc., this ratio of quasi-equality changed, and the “remain” camp started to take the forefront on the political scene.

Another element that intervened was that the U.S. did not live up to the expectations of the “leave” camp, not even under the leadership of D. Trump, in what concerned the rapid conclusion of a free trade agreement that would have represented an extremely powerful weight in the negotiations with the EU. Theresa May’s Cabinet, installed almost right after the referendum, had to deal with a series of mini-crises regarding the management of the EU exit dossier, which could have meant snap elections and an entirely different political dynamic in what concerns Brexit’s continuity.

The public voices asking for another referendum were not few, and hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions for the repeat of this manner of direct consultation. Increasingly frequent and consistent news on the Russian interference in the referendum, in favour of Brexit, has recently heated the atmosphere even more and has deepened the fault line already solidly delimited between the two camps. Could it be – the question was directly raised – that the “remain” camp is sabotaging the smooth progress of the already decided democratic process of detachment from the EU? The issue of redoing the referendum was raised in this context, but was abandoned for obvious reasons – the same favourable results for “leavers” could be registered again –, but the suspicion that the political landscape could be severely deteriorated by the mass-media’s potential revelation of some politicians’ ties with Russia remains.

The developments occurring in Brexit negotiations, if we are to select just a main trait, have amplified this political fault line in the United Kingdom. At first, Scotland made it known that, given the score registered at the referendum there, it will not leave the EU, and the pro-independence party reaffirmed itself. This issue, somewhat simmering down, its re-kindling not being ruled out though, was just a first sign rendering visible the aforementioned fault line between the two camps established by the referendum. Negotiations with the EU have raised the issue of Northern Ireland, which does not accept the United Kingdom’s border with Ireland – hence two independent actors and members of the EU for the time being – becoming a border of the EU, thus separating the two parts of the Irish island.

Last but not least, the haemorrhage of European institutions toward the continent, aside from the economic losses entailed, taxes the UK from the standpoint of international image, and London is losing qualities that give it the statute of global metropolis. The switch to the second stage of Brexit, which entails the triggering of negotiations on the final agreement, involves the dossier of the single market and of the free movement of people, which is essential for the implementation of the result of the referendum.

This necessary conclusion of the first stage and the tackling of the final stage stopped for almost a month over the issue of the EU’s border with Ireland, and over the size of the sum that the UK must pay for the divorce.

The agreement reached in negotiations on Friday, 8 December 2017, recognises that the issue of Ireland’s border could have an overwhelming importance in the final result. The agreement states that “the United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives [an open border with Ireland] through the overall EU-UK relationship.” Which means that – given that it is difficult to image the EU would accept an open external border that would be to the UK’s advantage in the bilateral relationship – either a final agreement will not be reached in 2019, or the UK already considers that it remains a member of the single market and customs union.

That is why some British newspapers in fact considered Friday’s agreement the UK’s “capitulation” before the EU. Because, once again, it is difficult to understand that, in case of Switzerland and Norway, despite the geographic position of at least one of them, such an open border is accepted, while in the UK’s case such an exception would be made. Thus, a recent analysis shows that “At some point in the next few months, the UK will reach the fork in the road. The government will have to decide what promise to break: its ‘overarching’ commitment to an open North-South Irish border, or its opposition to an East-West border between Ulster and the British mainland, or its determination to ‘take back control’ of the UK’s laws by leaving the customs union and the single market.” If this analysis is correct, then Brexit will be a constant factor in UK’s domestic politics even more so, the fault line noted between the two approximately equal halves registered at the 2016 referendum already growing deeper.

Because, on one hand, the “leave” camp will not accept this, which in its view is equivalent to the diktat of Brussels, and, on the other hand, to consider Friday’s agreement the start of a “civilised divorce” is illusory. Such a divorce – to continue the metaphor used in some analyses – leaves it up to the judges to establish what is the weight of each of the parties involved, being notorious that such impartial courts do not exist in the EU-UK bilateral relationship.

Both parties consider that there is no such judge in their bilateral relationship, the two of them having to solve the separation by themselves, via negotiations. UK’s domestic political fault line may grow deeper.

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