Brexit deadline knocking, but deal’s still up in the air
The current state of play is this: both sides of the Brexit divide are opposed to the agreement, which has no hope of being passed in parliament.
If you wonder what is happening in the UK over ‘Brexit’, you are no different from the vast majority of the British people. They are equally baffled, often giving vent to ennui at the political contortions in Westminster.
Technically, the UK is due to leave the European Union on March 29, 2019, but even the most imaginative political columnists dare not put their money on it.
Anything can happen: a mid-term election, another referendum, a change of prime minister, a blind Brexit (without anything agreed by the deadline), or a halt to the Brexit process and more talks in Brussels under a different dispensation in London.
After a lull in London due to Christmas and New Year holidays, another political storm is inevitable, as lawmakers return to parliament on January 7, when the stalled withdrawal agreement will again occupy centre-stage, awaiting parliamentary approval.
The current state of play is this: both sides of the Brexit divide are opposed to the agreement, which has no hope of being passed in parliament. The key irritant is the so-called ‘backstop’ applicable to Ireland (EU country)-Northern Ireland (UK), which will potentially hock the UK to EU rules indefinitely.
Now the crunch: top EU officials insist there is no scope for renegotiations to assuage the British MPs’ concerns; that the agreement reached after over two years of tough talks is all that is possible. But Prime Minister Theresa May is equally insistent that talks are on with Brussels on the ‘backstop’.
The Brexit debate will resume in the House of Commons in the week beginning January 7. If May does not bring to parliament the promised legally binding clarifications on ‘backstop’ to allay concerns, the agreement will not be passed, rekindling conflict and taking political turmoil to a new high.
It may well be a negotiating position, but the May government has put in place emergency plans for a blind Brexit scenario, or leaving the EU on March 29 without anything in place to oversee ties with EU from March 30 onwards. EU has also initiated similar plans.
This is the worst-case scenario, since rules and regulations governing every aspect of life in the UK are governed by EU-wide norms put in place since 1973, when the UK joined the group. Recession, price rise, shortage of medicines and flight disruptions are possibilities.
Companies and trade lobbies – including the nearly 1,000 Indian firms based in the UK – with supply chains, personnel and operations across Europe are “watching in horror” the impasse, putting on hold investment and expansion plans. Many have opened offices in EU or moved staff to continue functioning in the large single market, whatever the fate of Brexit. As the Brexit deal dominates public discourse, and – as Liberal Democrats leader Vince Cable puts it – ‘sucks’ all the energy of government departments, factional politics is increasingly getting on the nerves of many: within the ruling Conservatives, within Labour, between opposition parties as well as in May’s cabinet.
“Britain is now the butt of global mirth and cringe-making sympathy,” wrote John Kampfner, former head of the Creative Industries Federation, in The Guardian.
“Brexit has already deeply damaged the British brand…We have been here before. I remember the 1970s as a young boy. Britain was a laughing stock, the ‘sick man of Europe’…Whatever transpires with Brexit, the British brand is tarnished”.
Brexit, if and when it happens, in the end is a damage-limitation exercise: for the UK and Europe. Both stand to lose or diminish in various ways. For now, no one is even contemplating what life will be beyond Brexit in a UK that has never been so deeply divided.