Hurdles galore for Brexit
Hurdles galore for Brexit|Photo credit: France24

Brexit: The Nightmare Is Not Over

From trade deals to the European Court of Justice, negotiations are tough between EU and UK

TP Sreenivasan

TP Sreenivasan

The silence and speed with which Brexit was accomplished and Britain celebrated its independence in a muted way, it appeared that the fun and games that lasted three and a half years were hardly over.

It was too good to believe that all the problems were resolved with such speed. Sure enough, as the negotiations on a trade deal opened, the talks ahead appear to be as intractable as those held earlier, except that Brexit is now irreversible.

Britain has embarked on an uncertain journey after leaving the largest trading bloc after nearly half a century and many hurdles still remain. The new identity of Britain itself is in the making and the British government has yet to decipher what Brexit really means.

Like a divorced couple haggling over their material and emotional assets, the UK and the European Union will have to live with the nightmare for some more time, at least till the end of the year.

Britain must still negotiate its future trade relations with the European Union, a thorny process that could take a whole year, if not longer. Britain and the European Union are already at loggerheads over a future trade deal, setting the stage for months of negotiations to refashion their economic and political ties.

Many Britons had hoped to finally put the nightmare behind them and there was a sense of relief and a desire to get on with it. For the next 11 months, Britain will continue to abide by the European Union’s rules and regulations, while it decides what sort of Brexit it wants for itself. That will be in talks with the bloc’s leaders in Brussels over trade relations — negotiations that could prove as divisive and traumatic as the political fight over the withdrawal.

In remarks in Brussels, Europe’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, sternly insisted that Britain must commit to preventing unfair competition if it wants access to the European market. Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded from London by threatening to walk away from talks if the European Union tries to tie Britain too closely to its rules as a price for a free-trade agreement.

The Europeans are concerned about the deals that Britain might make with the US for food imports. Analysts had expected both sides to adopt tough opening positions on trade, as after decades of membership, Britain is becoming an economic competitor to the European Union.

If the recent combative exchanges are any indication, those discussions will be hard fought and acrimonious. Both sides are likely to take firm positions as the negotiations proceed and appeal to domestic audiences.

PM Johnson has hinted at allowing genetically modified food to be imported from the US after Brexit as he called for an end to “hysterical” fears about American products coming to the UK as part of a trade deal.

In a speech setting out his goals for trade after Brexit, the Prime Minister said the UK would not accept a “diminution of standards” on food hygiene or animal welfare as a result of a deal with the US. He also said Britain would be “governed by science, not mumbo-jumbo” when looking at whether imported food was acceptable for consumption in the UK.

Johnson criticised “America bashers” who take a “hysterical” attitude towards US food and view it as “inferior”. The possibility of US imports replacing European products is a matter of concern for the European Union.

It is alleged that the only way Johnson can get his treasured trade deal with the US is to give away British standards and allow US multinationals to have a bonanza at the expense of the people and the planet. There is a deep-seated opposition to allowing the import of meat made in atrocious conditions, GM foods, higher medicine prices, cancer-causing chemicals, and handing over vast swathes of British society to big business.

The pound fell soon after Boris Johnson warned that Britain would not accept alignment with EU rules in any Brexit trade deal, while Brussels threatened to put tariffs on UK goods unless he complies.

Sterling sold off sharply after the PM Johnson and the EU’s chief negotiator outlined tough opening positions for post-Brexit trade talks, dipping by more than two cents against the dollar and about a cent against the euro. The currency dropped by more than 1.3% to trade at $1.30 against the dollar and by about 0.9% to just below €1.18 versus the euro, as business groups warned that any disruption to firms from higher new trading barriers would harm growth in the UK and the EU.

In the opening clash over trade since Britain’s formal withdrawal from the two sides outlined competing opening positions at odds with one another. The two positions show how much divides the two sides at the opening stage of talks, which are due to conclude by October, meaning the UK will exit the transition period on 31 December 2020.

But the UK government statement on negotiating objectives appears to spurn the agreement Johnson signed with EU leaders last October. “There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policies, subsidies, social protection, the environment or anything similar, any more than the EU should be obliged to accept UK rules,” he said.

The UK government also stresses that the UK will be “an independent coastal state by the end of 2020 and any agreement must reflect this reality”.

The future role of the European Court of Justice is another area of contention.

The EU has said only the European Court of Justice can arbitrate on questions of European law, but has not spelled out any process for deciding what is a European law question, or whether it considers the Luxembourg court should be responsible for settling disputes in the future relationship between the EU and UK.

The EU has also said future co-operation in security must rest on the UK’s continued membership of the European convention on human rights, the 1950 treaty that set up the European court of human rights, whose members span Albania to Ukraine.

The EU has said the future relationship deal will not cover Gibraltar, a British overseas territory since 1713, claimed by Spain. The EU and UK could reach separate agreements on Gibraltar, but this will require approval from Madrid – a role reversal from the time when Spain, seeking to enter the European Economic Community in the 1980s, had to accept the status quo on Gibraltar.

The UK government does not accept Gibraltar’s exclusion from the deal: it states it will “be acting on behalf of the UK crown dependencies and overseas territories: the whole UK family”.

The situation today looks like a divorced couple struggling over their assets to which they are not only financially, but also emotionally attached. The fact that the divorce is already done makes the negotiations poignant.

As the departing partner wants as much freedom as possible, the one who stays behind clings on to the past, trying to bind the other person down to the vestiges of the past.

We can only hope that as reality dawns on them, both sides will try for pragmatic solutions to the remaining problems.

The Lede