British Brexit mess over Europe

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British Prime Minister Theresa May (Screenshot via YouTube)

The agreement between the British Government and European Union, and the fight over it which has paralysed politics in the United Kingdom, has proved complicated and dangerous for Theresa May, says Media editor Dr Lee Duffield.

THE 11TH-HOUR MOVE by the British Prime Minister, to hold the vote and try to get some concessions from Brussels, was in the face of obvious defeat for the Draft Withdrawal Agreement on the table.

European leaders have agreed to look at it during their annual “Christmas” summit this week – 13-14 December – but have reiterated that after getting the deal through their own drawn-out processes, it was not for changing.

That reminder illustrates a certain British blindness to the fact that negotiating a goodbye from Europe was not just up to the United Kingdom, but that the negotiating partners had power and had to be considered.

The EU acknowledges that a British exit without any deal would cause massive economic and other harm, especially but not only to Britain; at the same time, they never want to encourage any break-up of the Union and keep spelling out the limits to compromise and delay.

The blindest “Brexiteer” in England might have seen the trouble coming, because by leaving they would end up with exactly what they had always accused the European Union of doing and what they most feared. The United Kingdom would need to be “in” Europe to get financial and trading access, it would, therefore, have to comply with EU rules and pay to do so — but without having any say in making the rules.

Gone would be sending members to the European Parliament, which today approves the EU budget and key policy settings. Gone, also, would be sending the Prime Minister to summits with other national ministers to vote in European Councils — such as on finance, fisheries, agriculture or the environment. Gone would be having a member, a “European Federal Minister” on the powerful executive body, the European Commission.

It might resemble Norway — a non-member that needs full access to European markets, pays levies the same as any EU member state, but cannot vote on any policy.

As it stands, because of treaty undertakings already made, it’s agreed that on leaving, the UK will need to pay Brussels 39 billion (AU$61.7 billion) to settle their share of the joint civil service or costs of other institutions.

Still, the proponents of secession have gone ahead, with a mixture of motives, objections, pitches and plans, bringing it to a win in the 2016 Referendum, and now the negotiated Draft Withdrawal Agreement is on the table this week.


It is an agreement that has exactly pleased nobody and has paralysed British politics for much of the past year, with not much sign of a settlement, even if (unlikely) it got passed by the British Parliament.

Prime Minister Theresa May has battled doggedly and courageously to get the agreement which the European Council, made up of heads of government of the member states, agreed to on 25 November at Brussels.

If she could get it through it would be her “Falklands Boudica” moment — a great triumph setting her up as chief Conservative for a long time.

Both sides, May and the head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, have declared it to be the only possible deal.

Prime Minister May this week warned members of her Party who wanted more, that without that deal they might find themselves in Opposition and also still in the EU.

But the deal as proposed has been condemned on all sides, with even seven ministers, among them the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Dominic Rabb resigning, as soon as it was printed up.

Among leading Conservative Party advocates for an exit, the former Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who resigned earlier, said he would vote against it:

"We will have to accept rules and regulations from Brussels over which we have no say ourselves." 

He also said May should “go back to Brussels” to negotiate again, so on that, he got his own way this week, up to step one.

His confrere, Jacob Rees-Mogg, baulked at the cost and the concessions, saying:

"The proposed agreement will see the UK hand over €39-billion for little or nothing in return and lock us in to the EU customs union and EU laws."

Nigel Farage who led the “ethno-nationalist” United Kingdom Independence Party campaign for secession declared it was the worst deal in history.

Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn said the minority government had produced a “botched negotiation” that could only be settled by a fresh popular vote — either a general election or a new referendum on the terms of the agreement, now that they are known.


In the lead-up to this week’s vote, the House of Commons voted 311-293 to force Ministers to disclose legal advice to the government on the British exit – a "contempt-of-parliament" motion unprecedented in modern times.


What is this hard won agreement that pleases almost nobody?

The chief problem, apart from the UK having to pay massive amounts to leave, is the so-called “back-stop” arrangement that would keep Britain in a customs union with the EU for an indefinite time. That is the chief sticking point on which May’s Conservative Party has split and her numbers have collapsed in the House of Commons — the part she is trying to somehow get the Europeans to adjust once more.

The “back-stop” was needed because of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, set to be the only land border between the UK and EU. Closing it to free movement and free commerce would be a throw-back to times when it provided bottlenecks against normal business among neighbours and during “The Troubles” — days when it became a military frontier.

Up to the peace accord known as the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, crossing between North and South meant queuing through police check-points on the road; in places, British soldiers would stand guard on top of a block-house with machine guns. Fears are it might get back to that.

So there is much opposition, including on the part of the Irish government and the conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) providing Prime Minister May with a majority in Parliament.

An alternative might be to have an internal customs border, “in the sea” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. There is even more opposition to that, from the DUP and from British patriots in the “Leave” movement.

The “back-stop” alternative sees the whole of Britain staying in the EU customs union, meaning a continuation of free trade in goods and two problems:

  • eventually getting out of that would require Europe’s consent — an idea most hated by the “leave” forces; and
  • the UK could not make separate free trade deals, in the meantime, which those same forces had been dreaming of with outside countries like Australia and the USA. None of the aggrieved parties have liked May’s talk of having “instruments” to try and quell disputes that would arise, like an independent panel of judges.

The massively detailed agreement – over 580 pages plus a supplementary Political Declaration with proposals for future cooperation – does satisfy other demands from the UK side.

As Theresa May has pointed out, it would finally end Britain’s collaboration with Europe on subsidising agriculture and regulating fisheries — restoring “national” fishing grounds instead of having a controlled sharing of the seas and joint protection of stocks. It would mean “less regulation from Brussels”.


It would ditch Britain’s participation in the European Single Market, meaning no more open borders, and as the Prime Minister says, therefore “no more free movement”

  • that would be an answer to so many Brits’ loathing of Eastern Europeans coming over to work, which led many of them to vote to leave the EU;
  • the British would have guaranteed control of their “own money, own laws and defence”, much as they do at present with Sterling currency (though bound by treaty to go to the Euro one day), criminal law (and currently democratic participation in making other, European law), and defence and foreign policy (plus, currently,  cooperation in joint EU foreign policy initiatives);
  • there are fairly liberal provisions for guaranteeing the rights of 3.5 million European nationals who may continue to live in the UK, and 1.2 million British nationals living in mainland Europe;
  • British participation in the European Court of Justice which hears many pleas from individuals would be phased out over eight years, billed by the Prime Minister as a great financial saving; and
  • the documents also set up a transition period, with no further disruptive changes between a commencement date, 29 March 2019 and 31 December 2020.


The British-European divorce must get costly to all parties, especially the partner wanting to go.

The London finance industry has been haemorrhaging personnel for over a year, mostly deployed to company offices in other member countries like Germany and Ireland. The trend is a precaution and a recognition that the trade in financial services will take a hit with the separation, and British firms’ loss of the European financial “passport” that permits free trade in such services across borders. The City of London, such a dominant entity in world banking, is not primed to evaporate but its competitors in Europe are waiting.

The management consulting firm Oliver Wyman, drawing on disclosures from banks, has estimated that a hard “Brexit” where UK banks lost privileged access to the EU would drive 31-35,000 jobs out of Britain across all financial services, of which 12–17,000 are in wholesale banking.

Broader economic costs have been foreshadowed in a study by the Bank of England, on the lines that British exit under the Draft Withdrawal Agreement will cause an immediate 3% contraction in the size of the British economy and a “hard” separation, with no agreement, would extend that to beyond 8% in a year. Other projections include higher household bills due to import costs, falling home values and growth of unemployment.


A strong body of British Members of Parliament on both sides want to stay in the EU, with notionally 49.1% of the population behind them.

A similar, overlapping group are rigid about obeying the public will as expressed by referendum and might have gone along with a compromise something like the agreement now proposed — except for great drawbacks like cost and the “backstop”.

The minority “ethno-nationalist” parties, like UKIP, drawing a good bit of their support from popular racism, delight in keeping out the Eastern Europeans, but can’t tolerate any continuing connections with Europe at all.

A minority within British Labour has always been shy of the EU because of traditional concerns about free trade and open labour markets destroying workers’ rights and livelihoods. Those concerns are mollified by advantages to the economy demonstrated by the single market and customs union, and European labour conventions. They are moderated, also, out of respect for party discipline and the chance of Labour coming out of the present mess as the government party.

Members of the far-right “Eurosceptics” and “Brexiteers” groups within the Conservative Party put their emphasis on either a surviving, insular Empire patriotism – as they never did think much of foreigners – and “neo-cons” or “neo-liberals” like Johnson, who see secession as a chance to bring on a general deregulation.

In the 1980s style of “sell-off the government and build billionaire apartments on Hyde Park”, this would see a severance of all regulatory ties with Europe, abrogation of labour rights, no unions and scrapping of environmental protections — plus a “unilateralist” foreign policy, meaning probably a military build-up, and country-to-country trade agreements only. It’s similar to the Republican Party Government in the United States under Donald Trump.


None of the dissatisfied, pro-secession parties has come up with a convincing manifesto for saying how they would get what they want.

Johnson said, “go back to Brussels” to negotiate again — but that is a closed option so far as both the Europeans and, up to this week, the British Government are concerned.

Over 40 years of resistance to being in Europe the “exit” camp failed to work up a plan or a program for how it might be done. They failed to grasp that they could not get away with just thinking of British interests, but would also need to consider the point of view of the European partners.

The European Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier issued a reminder on that point – that it’s a two-way street – last week:

"If there is no treaty there is no transition period nor is there the basis of trust with the British that we need to build the future relationship." 

In Britain, The Observer's Chief Political Commentator Andrew Rawnsley argues that EU membership is the best deal obtainable and the options are weak for Britons still opposing it:

May is in an impossible position, because a good Brexit never existed outside the glib fantasies of its proponents. There has never been a deal available that would allow the United Kingdom to enjoy all the many benefits of its partnership with the European Union, as the Brexiteers once promised, from the outside … There are no terms more favourable to Britain than those it now enjoys.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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