The politics of Brexit continues to move on at a rapid pace, ranging from conditions for an exit and a trade deal to the position of Gibraltar and the recurring question of independence in Scotland.
In the last week, the Scottish parliament voted, on Tuesday 28th March, to ask Westminster for a ‘section 30’ order to hold a second independence referendum. On Wednesday, Theresa May sent her Article 50 letter. By that afternoon, the European Parliament responded with its draft resolution, setting out its tough criteria for a deal and a short transition period. On Thursday, the UK government published its white paper on the Great Repeal Bill intended to take EU laws wholesale into UK legislation – another bone of contention between Westminster and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
By Friday, when the European Council’s draft guidelines were issued – repeating the key red lines on the four freedoms, the role of the European Court of Justice in any transition process, and the need for the UK to pay its outstanding budget liabilities – UK politicians and commentators were so overloaded that some took until the end of the afternoon to notice the politically explosive statement saying Spain and the UK must agree before Gibraltar could be included in an EU27-UK deal. By the weekend, the far right of the Tory party had caught up enough to start making extraordinary threats on Gibraltar, linking it to the Falklands war in 1981.
On Friday too, Nicola Sturgeon penned her letter to Theresa May asking for Holyrood’s vote on the section 30 order to be accepted. May’s new mantra on a second independence referendum is ‘no, not now’. Sturgeon, currently on a business and diplomatic tour in California, has threatened unspecified steps by the end of April if May does not say ‘yes’ to her request – something as unlikely as May deciding to hold a second EU referendum.
It is dawning on many parts of the UK political establishment and commentariat, that the EU27 hold most of the cards in the negotiations ahead. As expected, there is going to be a stand-off between the EU27 demanding that the exit talks have made serious progress, not least on the rights of EU citizens and on the UK’s budget liabilities, before moving onto the discussion of a future EU-UK trade deal, while the UK wants talks in parallel. Perhaps May has a strategy for how she will persuade the EU27 into parallel talks on these issues but if so it has been kept well hidden.
Talks may not start until early June, and if they do make progress through the second half of the year, it is anticipated that the December European Council will turn its attention to the outline framework of a future EU-UK trade deal. That would leave 9-10 months both to discuss that outline and to agree a set of transitional periods connected both to the UK’s exit and to its future trade deal, before the European Council, European Parliament and Westminster ratify the deal (or not).
A future comprehensive trade deal – or indeed a broader deal also incorporating foreign and security policy cooperation – is likely to take several years, perhaps 5-10 years including ratification. So, while Theresa May has been talking to her UK audience as if a full deal can be done by autumn 2018, it is clear it will at best be an exit deal and an outline of the goals of a future trade deal by then.
Autumn 2018 is not far off
UK politics in the meantime is partly gearing up to debate the huge set of issues thrown up by the Great Repeal Bill – not simply taking EU law into UK law but working out how to set up a range of regulatory and supervisory bodies to mimic or replace current EU bodies. But UK politicians are also, by and large, acting as if there might be a full trade deal done by autumn 2018.
For Labour, Brexit shadow minister Keir Starmer has insisted that, unless the deal done gives the UK exactly the same benefits as the single market and customs union, Labour will oppose the deal. This is despite the EU27 making clear repeatedly – and again in its draft guidelines – that there is no deal as good as membership available. The LibDems still hope for a second referendum on the deal. But not only is there no support from either Labour or the Scottish National Party (SNP) for a second referendum on the deal, there will by autumn 2018, only be an exit deal to vote on.
Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon wants a second independence referendum between October 2018 and March 2019, so that Scotland has made its future choice between staying in the UK outside the EU, or staying in the EU as an independent state. Theresa May has insisted a second referendum has to wait until a deal is done and be seen to be working – but if by that she means a full trade deal, then a second independence referendum could be a very long way off indeed. Meanwhile, Sturgeon and other senior SNP politicians are being very cautious on what they say about future EU membership – not wanting to put off pro-independence supporters who voted to leave the EU (a not insignificant minority).
But that is no way to win over those who have been pro-EU and pro-staying in the UK. Spain’s foreign minister has added to the internal UK debate by saying that Spain would not veto an EU membership application by Scotland.
Any way back for the UK?
The UK has embarked on a quixotic mission to disentangle itself from the EU only to then attempt to rebuild complex trade and political relations in ways that will be less good economically, less influential politically and that will absorb major amounts of political and civil service time. The absence of serious political party opposition to Brexit in England and Wales – in the face of the imploding main opposition party, Labour – and the simmering constitutional crises across Scotland, Northern Ireland and to a lesser extent Wales, means the UK is entering turbulent waters indeed.
UK public opinion remains divided on the EU. And with no political leadership asking the public to think again, for now it looks like the Article 50 Brexit path is irreversible. But two years is a long time in politics, perhaps as the evidence mounts and more Gibraltar-style shocks are encountered, some political resistance will develop. For now, in the absence of serious opposition, the UK’s tangled departure from the EU will continue.
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