Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The long good-bye

Britain has formally started the process by which it will exit the EU. It will not be fast, and it may not happen at all

The long good-bye
The long good-bye

So, Britain has formally triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which will begin the process of the UK leaving the European Union.

It is a historic time in the UK with significant consequences and ramifications that will affect generations to come. There is a lot at stake, not least for the future of Britain and the unity of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales). It is also a very emotional process.

For some, it is the day they have been waiting for. The EU for them is an “undemocratic superstate” it is better leaving sooner rather than later. But for others it is an agonising and unbearable nightmare. For them, especially people aged between 18-49, the majority of whom voted to remain in the European Union, the EU is all that they know. For them the danger is not only leaving the EU, but also the kind of country Britain will be after Brexit.

What is the economic model to be adopted after Brexit? How will labour laws be impacted? What will the social welfare system look like down the line? What will be the effect on health services that are heavily reliant on foreign doctors and nurses to fill chronic staff shortages? And above all, what social changes will follow exiting the EU, especially after so much anti-immigration and xenophobic rhetoric? Will Britain continue to be open, tolerant and plural?

Triggering Article 50 will start a two-year negotiation process and it is expected to be a long, difficult and complex journey for all parties involved.

Britain has already submitted its withdrawal letter to EU leaders. A month after triggering Article 50, to show where EU priorities lay, European leaders will meet 29 April (without the UK) to agree to give the European Commission a mandate to negotiate with the UK. Also, the European Commission is expected to publish the negotiating guidelines based on the mandate the EU leaders give it.

Formal exit negotiations between British and European officials are expected to start between May and June 2017, while the completion of negotiations is expected by October 2018.

Between October 2018 and March 2019, the British houses of parliament, the European Council and the European Parliament are expected to vote on the final deal.

By March 2019, the UK should be formally out of the European Union. However, the negotiations could be extended if needed, but this is subject to the approval of the other 27 EU member states.

The challenges ahead are immense as everyone can see. Sir Ivan Rogers, who was the UK ambassador to the EU till last January, said that the task of extricating Britain from the EU would be an “unprecedentedly large negotiation on a scale we have not experienced probably ever and certainly not since the Second World War”.

There are many issues to be negotiated, including trade, immigration, expatriates, sovereignty, laws and borders. For many, the two-year negotiation timeframe is no way near enough to conclude such tough and complex talks. If separation talks were completed within the two-year deadline, the future relationship would take longer to negotiate. The former head of the Foreign Office, Sir Simon Fraser, emphasised that “the EU side wants to start with negotiating the terms of the separation. The British side, on top of that, wants to move rapidly to discuss the future relationship — both political and economic — between Britain and the EU. And that is a very complex second set of negotiations.”

The British government will have to juggle many balls at the same time. Beside negotiating with the EU, British Prime Minster Theresa May needs to deal with the expected “summer of discontent” within the UK, and in Scotland and Northern Ireland in particular.

Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and disagree fundamentally and deeply with Mrs May’s negotiating aims and tactics. For Scotland, leaving the single market is a catastrophic mistake. And the Scottish government is ready to break away from the UK if London did not ensure Scotland a distinctive Brexit deal to ensure open and free access to the EU single market.

A day before triggering Article 50, the Scottish Parliament voted to hold a second independence referendum, after expressing frustration about Mrs May’s inability to make any concessions to Scotland’s demands.

While Mrs May repeated her opposition to an independence referendum during the Brexit process, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that a fresh vote was needed ahead of any Brexit deal to allow the people of Scotland to choose which path to follow.

This conflict is already putting both leaders and both nations, England and Scotland, on a collision course.

The discontent, however, is wider than Scotland’s complaints. Days before triggering Article 50, tens of thousands of anti-Brexit demonstrators marched in London under the general banner, “Unite for Europe”, waving the EU flag and carrying placards reading: “We want EU to stay” and “We love the EU.”

A protester told Al-Ahram Weekly, “all what I want is another referendum on the final deal. We cannot allow the government or parliament alone to have the final say on the Brexit deal. I am worried about the economy. The government seems confident about our survival with or without a free trade deal with the EU. But I think without a free trade deal with Europe we will suffer.”

MP Nick Clegg, one of the Remain leaders, gave a passionate speech about the EU, concluding with, “thank you for standing for the principles of openness, tolerance, pluralism and a European Union that of course is not perfect but has done so much for protecting us from tyranny.”

“Like many of you I was profoundly saddened by the outcome of the referendum but that sadness has given way to a perpetual sense of anger about the choices that Theresa May and her government have taken since. It was a choice to pull us out of the customs union, it was a choice to embark on that demeaning bout of transatlantic obsequiousness,” Clegg said as he accused the prime minister of “threatening to turn our country into a bargain basement cowboy economy”.

For many in the Remain camp, they lost the battle but not the war. Many of them believe if they challenge the Brexit process hard enough, the British public will realise very soon that Britain inside the EU is better than outside it.

Campaigning lawyer Jo Maugham said his recent legal action against Brexit was about giving people a democratic voice. “Starting Article 50 is like a journey, a journey we can turn back from,” he told the “Unite for Europe” rally.

It is a sentiment expressed by MP David Lammy who still sees a way back into the EU for Britain. “In the end this is about the people. We are hearing a lot of stuff about the will of the people and it is complete spin. There are a lot of people against Brexit in this country, and people are changing their mind.”

“We are living in a dictatorship. In democracies people are always allowed to change their minds. Over the coming months and years, we will fight,” Lammy added.

Britain will have a multi-front battle on her hands, but so too the EU.

Head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker announced during the EU’s 60th birthday celebration last week, where the Rome Declaration was signed by 27 nations, that “we will act together, at different paces and intensity where necessary, while moving in the same direction.”

“The atmosphere is now such that we can approach this with confidence,” Junker said. “What we achieved in the days before Rome, and in the last few hours here in Rome, conveys something of an incipient optimistic mood because, contrary to what was assumed, there was no clash, no big dispute between several conceivable paths.”

The reform of the EU, empowering NATO, fixing the relationship with the Trump administration and proceeding with Brexit talks with the UK, are all on the EU agenda for 2017. Plus, battling the rise of the right-wing parties and ultra-nationalist sentiment in Europe.

The outcome of the French presidential elections (23 April and 7 May) and the German parliamentary elections (24 September) will determine the future of the EU.

In an attempt to remind the French people about their contribution to the EU project, Juncker told French voters to remember the key role their country plays, together with the European Union, when they vote in next month’s presidential elections in which the anti-EU candidate Marine Le Pen is a strong contender.

Juncker was asked at the EU summit in Rome about Le Pen’s antagonism towards the EU. He said: “I would tell the French, do not forget to be France, which knows how to speak to the rest of the world.” He added: “I would tell the French, stay French.”

There is no underestimating what is ahead for the UK and the EU. Brexit, which was described by Juncker as “a failure and a tragedy”, is the toughest challenge in the EU’s 60-year history. As EU Council President Donald Tusk put it, Europe “must do everything it can to make sure the process of divorce is the least painful for the EU. Our main priority for the negotiations must be to create as much certainty and clarity as possible for all citizens, companies and member states that will be negatively affected by Brexit.”

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