How far is far away? And just how much is Britain prepared to carry out its negotiations with the European Union to establish the terms for future Brexit arrangements after its departure from the community? A summit of the European Council next week, October 17-18, had been scheduled as a crucial meeting , but London seems as far as ever from submitting substantial terms for negotiations.
March 29, 2019 is the cut-off date for British withdrawal, marking the beginning of a new era in relations with ‘the continent.’ With a real time span of only a few weeks now and less than that in political time, Prime Minister Theresa May has let it be known that her Conservative government hopes to clarify how the UK proposes to handle cross-border checks if no free trade deal can be reached. There has been speculation that Britain would be prepared to join a common customs area to avoid the possibility of a closed border with Northern Ireland and an even more complex situation for trading with the Republic of Ireland by routes that are alternative to current practice.
Prime Minister May indicated to party followers at the Conservative conference in Birmingham last week that she felt she had come clear of undermining opposition from her former foreign secretary and the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson. But as last Monday dawned over London and speculation on the timing of any move seemed as uncertain as the PM’s surname indicated, it was obvious that the whole British political spectrum – whether prepared to admit it or not – are hoping that regulatory proposals for the upcoming changes will simply take shape as the expiry dates demand.
Membership of the European Union has always had the appearance of a temporary arrangement to the British, never a certainty as the decision might have required. Even when former Conservative prime minister Edward Heath took the UK into Europe in 1973, the subject was not an issue in his election victory. Finally, that referendum vote on June 23, 2017, put Britain on the way out. Then-prime minister David Cameron had planned for a clear break from the issue. He was wrong, and he subsequently resigned. The millions who thought that Britain should stay in for a wider view and share of events in the world, in spite of the cost of market membership, were those who did not vote either way, expecting the issue to be a failure.
Now, what is becoming clearer is that Prime Minister May is having to seek sympathy and support from soft-line members of Parliament (MPs) in the Labour Party, when much of Labour does not have a position and never really has had much to say on foreign affairs. Meanwhile, within the Conservative party, 34 MPs have declared that they will not vote through a soft-line negotiation, and their number could prevent Theresa May from getting a parliamentary proposal approved by her party and allies. This could mean a defeat for the Conservatives and even a call for a general election.
The issues are many and varied and the dangers to the British economy are adding up. For example, President Emmanuel Macron, of France, last week hosted a lunch with the leaders of major European automobile companies based in Britain. The indication was clear: the French leader was seeking British-based companies to move to France. And the uncertainties range down through a long list. The Residential Landlords Association (RLA) last week warned that citizens from European Union member countries might find difficulties in being able to rent rooms or flats, given that a “hostile environment” policy could arise when landlords are required to check the immigration status of potential tenants.
There was also a plan, later described by many as absurd, of the creation of a “super-Canada” project where the relationship between Ottawa and the EU could be translated into something brokered with the UK. The reaction from many groups, including the main party, was that such an idea is ridiculous. Canada sells 76 per cent of its products to the US, hence standards are set to meet EU requirements under the terms of a “comprehensive economic and trade agreement” (Ceta). Hence, what might go to Europe from within the remaining 24 per cent of Canadian exports has to conform to rigorous European regulations. That deal took years to reach, mainly with France as the principal European critic, but in many cases was the result of Britain’s abandonment of its former dominions in the old empire. Not a very friendly situation to be recalled.
Aside from history and the clock now ticking into a new world arrangement, the most alarming circumstance is the failure of an agreement within the political body of Britain. People avoid talking about Brexit in the knowledge that there is nothing much to talk about. There is no certainty in any of the government announcements and even less in the political commitments. Parliament shows a body of hard-line Brexit supporters, but it is not clear if either Theresa May believes in any solution other than one which might allow her to finish this second term in office, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is watching his flock disband or abandon politics all together. For Labour it would be simply a confirmation that it never had a foreign policy and is not really up to finding one now.
And “now” begins next week, on October 18, when the economic and political leaders of the EU set about finding agreements and solutions. However, there will also be many wanting to punish the UK for its defection.