Brexit: Can the UK Dive Across the Finish Line?    

Objavljeno : 21.11.2018. Štampa El. pošta bookmark
 

One and a half year has passed since the government of the United Kingdom (UK), led by Prime Minister (PM) Theresa May, activated Article 50 of the Treaty on EU (TEU). By doing so, as of March 2017, the UK started the countdown timer and initiated a two-year period to settle its divorce from the Union. Fast-forward to mid-November 2018, after long and uneasy negotiationsthe UK and EU negotiators managed to finally reach an agreement on the entirety of the draft Withdrawal Agreement.

 

Strahinja Subotic, a researcher at the European Policy Centre - CEP Belgrade

 

Yet, the Brexit process is now at a turning point, as it remains uncertain whether PM May will succeed in obtaining UK Parliament’s political support for this Agreement, or even survive a possible no confidence vote. This happens amid resignations of her ministers, most notably her Brexit secretary DomicRaab, which occurred just moments after the deal was agreed to by the UK Cabinet.

 

The aim of this article is to examine how and why Brexit negotiations have turned out to be such a difficult and demanding task. Hence, in the following parts, the key issues of negotiations are presented and analysed, with a special focus on the question of Northern Ireland as it has turned out to be the biggest and almost unsolvable issue.

 

Brexit is Far from Over

 

Throughout the negotiating process, boththe EU and the UK have been well aware that no post-Brexit option could meet or outmatch the benefits provided by EU membership. Nevertheless, the process continued, and right from the beginningit became clear that the following issues would represent key and essential areas which wouldrequirethe utmostattention: issues related to citizen’s rights, the issue of financial settlement, and the Northern Ireland border issue.

 

After six rocky rounds of negotiations in 2017, both parties reached an agreement in principle in all three areas under consideration. First, a common understanding wasfound on introducing reciprocal guarantees to safeguard the status and rights of (three million) EU citizens and (one million) UK citizens, derived from the EU law.  Then, the UK made a commitment to honour its share of financial obligations undertaken while it was an EU member  – it is estimated that the size of the financial settlement will amount to around 40 billion euros (£37.1 billion). Finally, the UK essentially agreed to keep an open border with the Republic of Ireland, by accepting the so called ’backstop’ solution, which would act as a binding guarantee that there would be no hard border unless and until another solution is found.So far so good? Well, not really.

 

What made the whole process especially difficult was the UK’s stated intention to fully withdraw both from the EU Customs Union and Single Market after the end of the transition period. With its strict red lines, the UK government essentially made Northern Ireland the single greatest issue of the negotiations, as having no borders with the Republic of Ireland is hardly possible without remaining in the EU Customs Union and Single Market.

 

The Issue of Northern Ireland - Raising the Stakes

 

In 2017 April guidelines, the European Council indicated that “flexible and imaginative solutions” will be required in view of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. Namely, what made Northern Ireland such a sensitive issuewas the fact that it hadgone through a three-decade long conflict dubbed “the Troubles”, during which around 3500 people had been killed. Simply put, the fighting had broken out between the Unionists (Protestants) and Republicans (Catholics), whereas the former wanted to keep Northern Ireland as part of the UK, while the latter had desired to reunify the whole island of Ireland.

 

Meanwhile, the year of 2018 marked exactly two decades since this violent period was brought to an end with the signing of the EU-supported Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement).  Since then, Northern Ireland has witnessed occasional turbulence and instability, but the Good Friday Agreement nonetheless stood the test of time. With its enactment, not only has the conflict seized, but the military surveillance posts and border controls were done away with as well, thus allowing the normalisation of life on the Island and gradual mitigation of divisions among the post-conflict communities to take place.

 

Therefore,Brexit puts the reconciliation process and peace of the Island at stake, asit not only violates the Good Friday Agreement’s assumption of a continued joint UK-Irish membership of the EU, but also goes against the basic principles upon which it was founded - free movement of people, increased social and economic cooperation, and further integration of the Island as a whole.Knowing this, many have warned that thereintroduction ofa hard border could in factdrive a wedge between the communities, as they still bear the scars of the conflicts from the past.

 

To prevent such scenario from occurring, in February 2018, the EU proposed establishing a “common regulatory area” across the island of Ireland, which would effectively keep Northern Ireland within the EU Customs Union and Single Market, whilst excluding the rest of the UK. This proposal was, however, refused by PM May under the rationale that it would create an unacceptable “customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea”.Moreover, the UK’s reluctance to make compromises on Norther Ireland is probably best explained by the fact that PM May’s coalition partner, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has used its bargaining power to strongly advocate for a fully integrated UK and to oppose making any concessions in that matter. Furthermore, a large number of UK ministers as well as conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) have shared the same concerns and demands. Hence, the significant divisions among UK’s political eliteshave made the negotiations all the more difficult to handle, which is why PM May has constantly struggled to findtheright balance between advocates of a “soft” and a “hard” Brexit.

 

Preventing the ‘No Deal’ Scenario in the Last-minute Negotiations

 

The latest Withdrawal Agreement caused significant turbulence in London, as the negotiating sides agreed that the backstop solution for Northern Ireland would be in fact consisted of a single EU-UK customs territory, whilst keeping Northern Ireland aligned with a certain number of rules that are related to EU’s Single Market. Even though such an arrangement may indeed contradict some of PM May’s originally establishedred lines, it nevertheless represents a solution which ishighly likelyto sustain peace in Northern Ireland, as it would in fact ensure that the status quo is kept, i.e. open borders, free flow of people and frictionless trade.

 

All in all, whereas the Brexit negotiations function under the principle that ‘nothing is agreed until everything agreed’, the issue of Northern Ireland has the potential to disrupt all the work done thus far if PM May ends up being unsuccessful in getting a green light from her ministers and MPs, as well as EU27 leaders, in the upcomingdays.In that case, given that the UK is running out of time, the ‘no deal’ scenario would become a very realistic option.Whether PM May will manage to overcome her last and biggest obstacle in the whole process, it will be known soon enough.

 

Photo: Beta/AP

 

 
 
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