Never Mind Strength and Stability: The Progress of Brexit

By Charlie Smith

Artwork by Louis Byrne

This article is part of our UNKNOWN series. Next piece to be published on 4th December.

Brexit. That old chestnut. Its name is now familiar, but its progress is slow. There are many things to sort out concerning the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, yet recently negotiations between the UK and EU seem to have ground to a halt.

After accepting, however bitterly, the result of the EU referendum and after the dust had settled on such a historic vote, people began to properly think about the future of it all. Well, they did after all the business of ‘will they, won’t they’, ‘is it legally binding?’ etc. Despite all the delays, there emerged a consensus that Brexit was going to happen. Everybody knew that acting on such a huge decision would be a lengthy process, but negotiations seem as though they haven’t really moved forward at all. With many sources reporting that we are in a state of deadlock, there remain major unknowns for businesses, farmers and many other stakeholders who will be affected by the results of a Brexit deal. And it is about money.

Theresa May invoking Article 50 left two years for the UK to agree with the EU about the terms on which it leaves. So by Friday the 29th March (the scheduled leave date) the UK needs to have secured its future relationship with the EU in several key areas. However, in order to sort out the future EU-UK trading relationship and whether the UK will remain in the customs union, both sides still need to agree on several things. These things are: the so-called “divorce bill”, the Irish border and the rights of EU citizens in the UK. The government has been told repeatedly by Michel Barnier, Jean-Claude Juncker and several European leaders, that the ball is very much in the UK’s court, with regard to negotiations. Europe’s view is clear: that until progress has been made on these three important matters, then the UK can’t begin to start talking about what it really wants – trade and the customs union.

The government appear to be stubborn about making progress in talks. Take the issue of the divorce bill for example. The EU say ‘you’re paying it’ and the UK have sort of said ‘no we’re not’. In her speech in Florence in September, Theresa May did offer to pay the EU €20 billion. However, former president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, dismissed the figure as peanuts, saying instead that the UK should pay the much-quoted figure of €50-60 billion. The back and forth nature of it all is confusing, and is why for a while I kept well away from any Brexit news, only recently having ventured back in.

The UK isn’t actually legally obliged to pay the EU any money when it leaves, as Jacob Rees-Mogg and other MPs have pointed out. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty does not mention a required payment, as a country leaves the union. Therefore if the UK and EU did not reach an agreement the UK wouldn’t be obliged to pay anything. Head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker is, however, very clear on this matter: he compared the UK refusing to pay to being in a bar and ordering 28 beers, only for a colleague to leave without paying. If the UK intends to be that one person who leaves without paying, then its intentions should be made clearer. This really sums up the whole Brexit process so far – everything being a bit shrouded and bullshitty. Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, demonstrated the simultaneous European understanding/frustration, by saying that the UK Prime Minister didn’t need to name a figure, but did need to state her intentions. We do not know the UK’s stance on a “divorce bill” payment.

With citizens’ rights, meaning EU citizens in the UK and vice versa, we are, according to Theresa May, very, very close to some form of deal. Which, given the whole situation we should probably take as comforting. May has said that she wants urgency on a deal for citizens’ rights. Angela Merkel has said there has been encouraging progress, but not sufficient to begin talks about trade. And so it goes on, back and forth. For EU nationals in the UK who are uneasy about their future residency, Theresa May has promised that those with permanent residency can, in as easy a way as is possible, swap this for a settled status. This is something to cling to, but like the divorce bill issue, the public are the ones, crucially, who are none the wiser.

Despite Theresa May suggesting the possibility of not getting a deal with the EU, this surely can’t be considered. For the sake of many affected by Brexit, like businesses and farmers, not getting a deal is unthinkable, as it prolongs the unknown, and throws forward more uncertainty for people’s livelihoods, making it likely that UK goods would be subject to heavy tariffs, and even potentially planes not being allowed to leave for EU countries – though that seems like a scare story. That is why at parliament there is a rebellion brewing against this “no deal Brexit” mantra the Prime Minister is peddling. With Theresa May losing her majority in the last general election, it wouldn’t take many Tory MPs to join those of Labour and form a majority, in order to block a “no deal” in a House of Commons vote. Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, says that Labour won’t accept a “no deal Brexit”. Jeremy Corbyn has weighed in, and perhaps more positively, has asked the UK and EU sides to come together and sort things out so that a deal can be done.

On Monday Theresa May and the head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker dined together in Brussels. Brexit secretary, David Davis and chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier were also present, along with Oliver Robbins, a Brexit civil servant, and Martin Selmayr, a German lawyer and Juncker’s chief of staff. Whether a PR opportunity or not the opportunities to build positive relationships are there. You can endlessly analyse the hugs and kisses on cheeks between those involved, but something concrete to come out of these meetings would do wonders for Theresa May’s public image, as well as for dispelling some of the myths inevitably floating around the myriad unknowns of Brexit.

The ball is very much in the UK’s court. By not moving forward in the three key areas according to the EU – divorce bill, rights of EU citizens and Irish border – there is nothing to be achieved. To secure a rosy-looking future for UK-EU trade and the economy we have to accept what the EU is saying about these three areas. We know that the UK’s exit will be a lengthy process, but the negotiations really need to speed up. All the symbols and rhetoric being thrown back and forth between the UK and the EU is tiresome and unhelpful. Getting down to business in these talks would give us at least some little seed of hope, and the government a modicum of credibility, never mind strength and stability.

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