Theresa May's elusive Brexit quest

Published 27.12.2018 02:02
Updated 27.12.2018 08:00

Ever since the U.K. electorate voted to leave the EU in 2016, sending shockwaves across the continent, the Brexit process and future trade between both parties have dominated the political agenda.

The continued uncertainty around the final "divorce" arrangement and the future shape of the U.K.-EU relationship has created an anxious business and political climate with many waiting to see how negotiations unfurl.

After months of tough negotiations between London and Brussels, the announcement on the withdrawal agreement with just months to spare before the U.K. formally leaves the bloc may have been met with a sigh of relief. However, the fierce backlash against U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and the 585-page agreement, underscoring how the hard work for an elusive agreeme

nt that needs to pacify so many different camps, has just started.

The making of the divorce

The withdrawal agreement essentially outlines how the U.K. will leave the EU; i.e. the "divorce" agreement between the two sides, but not what happens after the U.K. leaves.

May has been under severe pressure because of the deal and many Conservative members of the Parliament have been openly plotting her demise. If a no-confidence vote against the government can still be mustered, May would be the latest victim and the second prime minister to have resigned as a result of the highly-contentious Brexit process. Former U.K. Prime Minister, David Cameron, who was responsible for arranging the referendum, was an instant casualty of Brexit sparking political uncertainty that remains rife today.

The fact that the position of Brexit secretary was filled for the third time in mere months as Dominic Raab quit the post tells its own story. Raab resigned whilst stressing that he could not back a deal where the U.K. was being "bullied" by the EU into a flawed agreement.

May, on the other hand, has proven to be a determined and wily character, recently surviving a no-confidence motion within her party. She has vowed to press ahead with Brexit as well as her own position. However, whilst the political storms haven't quite swept her from power, danger looms close.

May and her Brexit negotiation team find themselves between a rock and a hard place. The Brexiteers continue their tough stance on negotiations and the future relationship with the EU.

Meanwhile, some Remainders are thrust into the position of supporting a Brexit that they emotionally never subscribed to. To make matters worse, May is faced with an inflexible EU that believes it has the upper hand and thus able to negotiate from a position of strength.

Of course, the EU, in spite of the united and tough image that it portrays, is hard without its own problems. It has faced many nationalist movements and Eurosceptic governments in recent years that have been an antagonist to the influence Brussels holds over their economy, laws or immigration. Italy is the latest country to have become increasingly hostile towards Brussels.

While the EU continues to stress that it wants a productive partnership with the U.K., in reality, its tough negotiating stance is also designed to deter other members from leaving the bloc.

Brexiteers were sold a dream that may never be achievable as the negotiations with the EU have illustrated. The U.K. does not have the luxury of making a clean break that puts it firmly in control of its destiny. On the contrary, as the withdrawal agreement and the controversial "backstop" agreement highlight, the U.K. may be tied to the EU in more ways than one after all.

Of all the sensitive topics between the U.K. and the EU, the Northern Ireland border with the Republic of Ireland remains by far the most contentious.

Although both sides clearly wanted to avoid a return to a hard-border and at the same time unravel the delicate Good Friday Agreement of 1998, there was no easy solution to keeping a frictionless soft border without great compromises.

And it is these compromises that have made May the subject of much anger at home. Facing a certain defeat in the Commons, May had no choice but to cancel the parliamentary vote scheduled for earlier this month and go back to the EU in hope of securing tighter assurances around the backstop.

However, May has a tough, if not impossible, job of convincing the EU to make key changes. Nevertheless, intense pressure on the EU for further compromises would at least serve as a publicity win for May as it would show that she fought for the best deal to the last minute.

The implementation of the backstop agreement, if needed, would see Northern Ireland aligned to some EU rules and effectively remain in the single market. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who prop up May's government, see this as a plan that would lead to a trade border in the Irish

Sea which has long been a red line.

Growing DUP anger at the agreement has repercussions beyond Brexit for May. The DUP, who support her government, have the power to deal the Conservatives a real blow. The sentiment towards the prospect of a U.K. wide custom agreement with the EU has hardly fared better.

If these backstop and customs union agreements became a long-term reality, then it would certainly prevent or greatly restrict U.K. trade deals and tariff setting on goods with other countries that the Brexit brochure promised. The backstop agreement has been criticized for the lack of control that it affords the U.K. Essentially, the U.K. can only leave the backstop if the EU agrees. Far from taking back control that the government has long touted, the U.K. is forfeiting control to the EU for 21 months that could yet be increased further. U.K. presence in the European Parliament, European Court of Justice or the European Commission effectively ends, yet the U.K. will still have to follow all EU rules and regulations.

The withdrawal agreement will be legally binding, but the shape of the actual future trade deal can still be amended. If the last two years since the referendum and the tense Brexit playground is anything to go by, then the rocky road of the future U.K.-EU relationship is not about to get smoother.

The final agreement on the Irish border, any extension on the transition period, increased "divorce" sums as a result of any extension are just a few hurdles. Many devout Brexiteers are already angry at the billions of pounds that will be placed in EU coffers without much of a guarantee in return for the U.K.

The next vote

The next milestone for the U.K. is the rescheduled parliamentary vote in January. In spite of May's recent efforts to put in place more favorable legal wording around the backstop, general sentiment still points to a rejection of her deal, which will put May in an awkward position as it would leave mere weeks before U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29, 2019.

May will continue ahead on her difficult quest of appeasing the Remain supporters, the Brexiteers, the Unionists and Brussels in the coming days.

In the end, placating such a diverse range of voices and factions means appeasing no one side, but ultimately, push the U.K. closer to the daunting no-deal scenario and the "hard Brexit" that all parties tried to avoid.

* U.K.-based Middle East analyst

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