Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1387, (29 March - 4 April 2018)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1387, (29 March - 4 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

From Suez to Brexit

Britain’s Brexiteers have warned that a bad Brexit would be a humiliation for the country comparable to the Suez Crisis in 1956, reports Manal Lotfy from London


From Suez to Brexit
From Suez to Brexit

Some 21 months after the UK voted to leave the European Union in the so-called Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May has arrived at a transition agreement that will theoretically protect the UK from a cliff-edge Brexit.

Or has she? The most difficult point in the agreement, the border issue between Northern Ireland, part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, has been postponed to later stages, which means that a key sticking point is still looming and threatening the outcome of the difficult negotiations.

For many in May’s ruling Conservative Party, the transition agreement, a 21-month transition period after the UK’s exit from the EU on 29 March 2019, and guidelines for the next phase of talks on future economic and security relations between the UK and the EU, brings little happiness.

For many in the party, it was a sell-out as May had had to surrender to the EU on just about every issue.

On the issue of freedom of movement, a sticking point for hard Brexiteers such as Foreign Minister Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis, the government abandoned a pledge to end freedom of movement in March 2019, with EU citizens given effectively the same rights that they enjoy now until the end of 2020.

UK citizens will also maintain full freedom of movement within the EU until the end of the transition period.

On fishing rules, the EU will retain control of fishing rights during the transition period, with Britain only “consulted” on quotas to the dismay of the fishing industry in the UK. The European Court of Justice will also be able to issue instructions to British courts for at least another decade.

On top of all that, the UK will be paying billions of pounds over to the EU despite having no say in its decisions.

The only concession May gained was when Brussels agreed that the UK could negotiate, sign and ratify its own trade deals during the transition period. The so-called “punishment clause” stating that the EU “may suspend the benefits” of the internal market if it considers the UK has not respected the agreement or EU law, was also watered down.

The two sides agreed to a joint committee to ensure both sides “act in good faith”.

This was too much for some Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party. Tory MP and leading Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the European Research Group of 60 strongly Eurosceptic MPs, did not hide his unhappiness with the transition period deal.

 In a speech on Tuesday to mark a year to go until Brexit, Rees-Mogg criticised May’s compromises in the negotiations with Brussels and savage dthe EU for a “bullying” approach to the talks.

He warned May that failure to deliver on the verdict of the 2016 EU referendum would be a “national humiliation” comparable to the foreign policy fiasco over Suez that wrecked prime minister Anthony Eden’s time in office in 1957.

“What would that mean for this nation? If we were not to leave, if we were to find a transition bound us back in? Well, it would be Suez all over again. It would be the most almighty smash to the national psyche that could be imagined,” Rees-Mogg said.

“It would be an admission of abject failure, a view of our politicians, of our leaders, of our establishment that we were not fit, that we were too craven, that we were too weak to be able to govern ourselves and that therefore we had to go crawling back to the mighty bastion of power that is Brussels. Suez affected the nation’s view of itself until Margaret Thatcher became prime minister” in the 1980s, he said.

Rees-Mogg also raised concerns about moves to continue free movement rules for EU citizens after Brexit, saying that the open border policy had had a negative impact on Britain’s least well off because they “have found that their jobs have been taken by migrants from the EU. By controlling unskilled EU migration, living standards for the poorest in the UK could rise by 15 per cent,” he said.

Rees-Mogg, a potential candidate to succeed May as a leader of the Conservative Party, called for the UK to walk away from the negotiations and move to a deal based on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules if the EU tries to force the UK to back down, arguing that the UK is more prepared for a no-deal scenario than the EU.

This is a position with very little support outside the Conservative Party’s right wing.

Shadow Brexit Secretary and Labour MP Keir Starmer described the stand as “totally unacceptable.”

According to Starmer, the opposition Labour Party would like a bill to state that if the Brexit deal collapses, MPs should pass a motion setting out the government’s next steps in which he would like to include going back to the negotiating table with Brussels.

“This would provide a safety valve in the Brexit process to safeguard jobs and the economy. It would remove the possibility of a no vote leading to a no deal. It would bring back control to parliament,” he said.

“If parliament rejects the prime minister’s deal, that cannot give licence to her – or the extreme Brexiteers in her party – to allow the UK to crash out without an agreement. That would be the worst of all possible worlds.”

“That is why in the coming days, Labour will ensure that an amendment is tabled to the EU withdrawal bill to strengthen the terms of parliament’s meaningful vote,” Starmer said.

In the face of this, May prepared to mark a year before Britain formally leaves the European Union on Friday with a day-long tour of visits to England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to explain to the British people what they have to look forward to outside the European Union.

However, with the continuation of the status quo during the transitional period and with no legal certainty because of the postponement of the Irish border issue, the business community will need convincing that the UK is on the right track.

“Negotiating such a seismic change was never going to be easy, and so that has proved. But the fact that three-quarters of the text is now locked down and agreed to show how far the UK and the EU have come,” wrote Davis in an article in The Daily Telegraph newspaper.

“Leaving the EU isn’t about short-term gains – it’s about the long-haul and the opportunities that come from taking back control of our laws, money and borders,” he said.

His words will do little to comfort many British people and the business community, however. Until there is an agreed solution to the Irish border issue, firms will have to assume that March 2019 is the UK exit date.

A survey by the law firm Pinsent Masons found that 51 per cent of companies had triggered their plans for a no-deal Brexit, including shifting work abroad to European subsidiaries.

The transition agreement thus did not achieve real progress, and the coming days and weeks will determine if progress is possible, avoiding a crashing-out scenario without a deal as a dreaded outcome.

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