Britain nears chaotic Brexit endgame

On Tuesday, December 11, as India awaits the results of five crucial state Assembly elections, Britons will know the fate of the make-or-break vote in British Parliament over Brexit.

Published: 08th December 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th December 2018 05:06 AM   |  A+A-

amit bandre

On Tuesday, December 11, as India awaits the results of five crucial state Assembly elections, Britons will know the fate of the make-or-break vote in British Parliament over Brexit.The 585-page withdrawal agreement signed recently by 27 members of the European Union (EU) after two years of tortuous negotiations between Britain and the EU is seen by many as a betrayal of the 2016 Brexit referendum. In essence, British MPs will vote next Tuesday on whether to accept EU jurisdiction as a compromise between continuing seamless trade with the EU and restricting free movement of people.

From the beginning, Brexit has been about xenophobic Britain. Ordinary Britons who voted 52-48 per cent to leave the EU worried most about three things. First, losing jobs to EU migrants who currently have the right of free movement and work in EU member states. Second, sacrificing British sovereignty to EU laws; and third, following EU rules decided by the Brussels bureaucracy on everything from the environment to food storage. 

British Prime Minister Theresa May has succeeded in protecting only the first of these concerns: free movement to Britain of, for example, Polish plumbers and Czech farm workers. EU migrants have already started leaving Britain as Brexit nears, causing labour shortages in manual jobs local Britons do not want. But the reason May’s Brexit deal could be voted out in the House of Commons on December 11 is Britain agreeing to continue accepting EU jurisdiction over a slew of standards that govern the manufacture and distribution of goods even after it leaves the EU. 

One of the thorniest issues is Northern Ireland. It is part of Britain but has a border with the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU and, having benefitted enormously from membership, intends to stay in the Union. When Britain and Northern Ireland leave the EU as per the Brexit agreement on 29 March 2019, hours-long customs checks on goods-laden trucks crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would become mandatory.  

Given the history of violence in Northern Ireland between those who want to merge with the Republic of Ireland and those who want to continue to be a part of Britain, a “hard” border separating the two parts of Ireland is political suicide. May has therefore been forced to accept EU sovereignty and stay in the customs union to ensure the soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland stays open to seamless trade movement. 

What if, as seems likely, May loses the parliamentary vote on December 11? Two possible outcomes may follow. One, Britain crashes out of the EU with a no-deal Brexit. EU leaders have made it clear that renegotiating the agreement is not an option. Two, the British government holds a second referendum (a people’s vote, as it has been dubbed) in the hope that the earlier “Leave” vote can be reversed as Britons wake up to the economic downside of leaving the EU. 

At the heart of Britain’s dilemma over the EU is a complex mix of xenophobia, British exceptionalism and the desire to carve out an identity of ‘Global Britain’, ready to trade with the rest of the world without the straitjacket of European laws imposed by bureaucrats in Brussels. At the G20 summit in Buenos Aires last weekend, May was busy selling the idea of ‘Global Britain’. US President Donald Trump had days earlier poured cold water over the EU-UK withdrawal agreement, suggesting the UK would be unable to negotiate a separate US-UK trade deal due to the agreement.

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit vote in British Parliament next Tuesday, India-UK trade is likely to benefit. Moreover, if Britain exits the EU, skilled Indian workers could replace EU migrants as job opportunities open up. After Brexit, ‘Global Britain’ will need skills in areas that Indian workers are especially proficient in: healthcare, education, software, life sciences and finance. While Donald Trump’s United States is tightening visa rules for Indian workers, post-Brexit Britain will be compelled to open its doors to skilled Indian migrants. 

The danger of course is that regardless of Britain leaving the EU with a bad deal or no deal, its economy will face years of turbulence. The 2016 Brexit vote created so much uncertainty that the pound sterling has since fallen by nearly 14 per cent against the dollar and GDP growth has wobbled. If May loses the vote and, in the absence of an alternative strategy, Britain crashes out of Europe without a deal, the result could be dire. 

The Economist wrote recently that “the disruption caused by an unmediated exit would be far more dramatic than the economic harm caused by the Brexit vote.” A no-deal Brexit could have a very tangible impact, the newspaper said. “Essentials drying up, travellers stranded, motorways gridlocked: these things bring down governments and undermine faith in democratic politics.” When over half the population of Britain voted xenophobically to exit Europe, it did not realise that despite the English Channel, Britain’s economic fate is tied to continental Europe, not a post-imperial myth of British exceptionalism. 

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