Britain’s Brexit secretary David Davis said in January that the United Kingdom wanted to have “the exact same benefits” after its departure as it did before. It is a comment that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t forgotten. If the UK isn’t as well positioned with the EU on trade and customs as it was before Brexit, his party won’t approve the Brexit deal, he told parliament on Wednesday.
If Corbyn means this seriously — his parliamentary group, after all, approved the motion for Brexit — it suggests that he has lost touch with reality. The EU position — backed by the European Commission, the European Parliament and EU member states — has been crystal clear for months: Following Brexit, the UK cannot end up in a better situation than EU members, if only to avoid giving EU-skeptics in other countries a boost.
Theresa May, by contrast, finds herself in a position that could hardly be weaker. In only two years, she must lead the highly complicated negotiations to a successful conclusion — a task which is, to put it mildly, rather ambitious. It’s made even more complicated by the fact that she must fight on multiple fronts: Scotland, Northern Ireland, Brussels, the British economy and domestic British politics. If she doesn’t succeed, a so-called “dirty Brexit” looms, the departure from the EU without a trade deal. Were that to happen, British trade with the EU would then be conducted on the basis of WTO rules. For the EU that would be unpleasant; for the UK it would likely be a catastrophe. The British Treasury has predicted that the country’s gross domestic product could shrink by 7.5 percent in such a scenario and tax shortfalls would amount to 45 billion pounds.
The pro-Brexit press seems unperturbed. “The EU is on the verge of the abyss,” the Daily Telegraph wrote on Wednesday. The growth of populism on the Continent, the strength of the British economy and Europe’s terrorism fears, the paper claims, strengthen the UK’s odds for a good deal. It argued that May needs to “go all in.”
But the British are also afraid of terrorism and are likewise dealing with a rise in populism, as the racist undertones of the Brexit campaign recently proved. Furthermore, the fact that the British economy has not plunged yet is due to a simple truth: Nothing much has changed so far. The UK is still an EU member and it still has access to the common market. Two years from now, however, things will be different.
May knows this too. On Wednesday, she warned “there will be consequences for the UK of leaving the EU.” The country would lose influence over the European economic rules to which British companies would have to adhere in the future. It’s not for nothing that May’s stated goal wasn’t the “exact same benefits” but the “best-possible deal.”
A section of May’s Brexit letter demonstrates the true weakness of her position. If there isn’t a deal at the end of the negotiations, the letter to the EU states, the UK wouldn’t just be reduced to following WTO rules — it would “mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened.” On this subject, unlike economic issues, disadvantages would be equal for both sides. The danger of terrorism would grow for the UK just as it would for the EU. The fact that May has issued such a threat seems desperate.
Will Brexit negotiations end with a punishment for Britain? It is an impression that will be difficult to avoid in the UK. The EU was demonized in the country for years, allowing EU-skeptic politicians and media to claim that Brexit would allow the UK to regain its lost greatness. The Brexit deal can only disappoint such expectations. And it seems likely that Brexiteers will seek to portray those shortcomings as an EU effort to punish Britain. Otherwise, after all, they would have to take responsibility themselves.
The seeming rejection by the EU of trade negotiations taking place in parallel with the main divorce settlement is grist to the mill for people like Markus Becker, the author of the piece above. The EU is going to punish us or at least impose such a bad deal that this is what it will look like. Is this the truth, however?
Not according to Vincenzo Scarpetta of Open Europe, who has seen a draft of the EU Council President Donald Tusk’s Brexit plans. They look “anything but punitive” and leave “the door….wide open for parallel negotiations, albeit not from the very beginning.” In other words, claims that the final divorce settlement must be agreed before any trade talks can start seem to have little foundation in reality. The argument that EU claims about non-members not enjoying the same benefits as members is facile. As Scarpetta rightly says, “what else could EU27 say?”
Exactly. Damage limitation is the name of the game. The UK cannot be seen to be doing better by being out of the EU as it would encourage anti-EU parties in the other countries to jump on the exit bandwagon. Furthermore, there is much truth too in Der Spiegel’s argument that crashing out of the EU on WTO rules would be unpleasant for the EU but a catastrophe for the UK.
But this is highly improbable. There will be some agreement – if only an agreement to extend the negotiating period. Especially since the election of President Trump, who is no friend of the EU project, the EU would not want to be seen as a punisher of dissent. After all, whatever the truth in the claim that Article 50 was inserted into the Lisbon Treaty but never meant to be used, we have played by the EU’s own rules – taking advantage of what was available to us under a treaty of which we were one of 27 (now 28) signatories. Would the EU wish to align itself with the Inquisition, the Soviet Union or North Korea in treating dissent as a heinous crime for which no restraint need be used when dealing with offenders?
Ultimately, we have made a democratic decision to leave an organisation which was never to the taste of many people in this country. There are good reasons to be grateful we left, as Lee Rotherham pointed out a few days ago. However, there will inevitably be trade-offs as the price for regaining our freedom. We have some strong cards in the negotiations, notably the expertise of our security services and the possibility of closing our waters to EU vessels if there is no agreement on fisheries. There are also areas of vulnerability. At the end of the day, however, even the recent sabre-rattling over Gibraltar cannot hide the fact that there is so much to be lost by a acrimonious divorce that common sense must prevail on both sides – at least, we hope so.