Shahid M Amin
NEARLY two years have passed since British voters decided, in a referendum held on June 30, 2016, in favour of British exit (so-called Brexit) from the European Union (EU). The vote was 51.9% in favour of and 48.1% against quitting EU. Region-wise, Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to remain in the EU whereas England and Wales favoured exit from EU. Those in favour of Brexit had argued that the UK was being held back by too many EU rules. They wanted London to make its own laws rather than being ‘ruled’ by Brussels. They demanded restrictions on free movement to restrict immigration. On the other hand, those who favoured remaining in EU felt this gave the UK very profitable free access to EU countries. They feared that London might no longer be a crucial financial centre after Brexit and the UK’s status in the world would be damaged by going it alone rather than remaining as a leading member of the 28-nation club.
The referendum result forced the pro-EU Prime Minister David Cameron to resign. He was succeeded by Home Secretary Theresa May. Initially, she also wanted UK to remain in EU but, after the referendum, she took the pragmatic stance that Brexit was what the British people wanted. However, she has neither been an effective leader nor a charismatic figure like her only woman predecessor Mrs. Thatcher, the iron lady. As many as 12 of her Ministers have left the cabinet so far, due to one or other reason. She showed poor judgment in calling for a snap election in 2017, hoping to secure a larger majority, but ending up with fewer seats. It is said that she stays as Prime Minister because at this time no one else in the party wants this position.
Contradictory claims had been made by supporters of Brexit and its opponents at the time of the referendum. Prime Minister Cameron and Chancellor Osborne had predicted an immediate economic crisis if the UK voted to leave EU. However, the pound has retained its previous value against the dollar though it has declined against the Euro. Predictions of immediate doom were wrong. The economy grew by 1.8% in 2016, second only to Germany’s 1.9% among the world’s top G7 industrialized nations. It has grown by about the same margin in 2017. Unemployment has continued to fall and stands at a 40-year low of 4.2%. Inflation also remains stable at around 2.4%. But neither has the UK economy shown any notable gains, as hoped for by Brexit supporters. Negotiations for UK’s exit from EU have been painfully slow, perhaps because there was no precedent to follow. As required by EU constitution, Theresa May triggered the two-year process of withdrawal on March 29, 2017, which means that Friday March 29, 2019 has been set as the UK’s exit date from EU. The two sides provisionally agreed there were three main “divorce” issues: how much the UK owes the EU, what happens to the Northern Ireland border, and what happens to UK citizens living in the EU and EU citizens living in UK. Even after formal exit, there will be a “transition” period of 21 months, till December 31, 2020, to get everything in place, to allow businesses to prepare for the break, and aiming to smooth the way to post-Brexit relations. The slow pace of negotiations to secure British exit from EU had led to speculation whether or not Brexit would even take place. However, both the ruling Conservatives as well as the opposition Labour say that Brexit will happen. Their focus is on what kind of relationship the UK will have with EU after Brexit. On December 8, 2017, a provisional deal on the three main issues was reached between the two sides. They are now negotiating the permanent post-Brexit relationship, and the precise wording of the divorce issues. Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn says he would negotiate a permanent customs union with the EU after Brexit, similar to the situation existing now. The EU leaders, however, have warned that UK will not be allowed to “cherry pick” i.e. take what it likes and reject what it does not. Prime Minister May and the majority in her party are reconciled to a “soft” exit from EU rather than a “hard” exit in which the UK refuses to compromise on issues like free movement of people. She has accepted that the two houses of parliament will vote to approve whatever deal UK and EU agree upon, at end of the two-year process, as a kind of “take it or leave it” decision. But she has ruled out another referendum on this issue.
Theoretically, the UK could at a future date seek to rejoin the EU but in that case it would have to start from scratch. There has been speculation that after UK’s departure from EU, some other member countries might also quit. This could be why EU has taken a tough position in negotiations. If the UK were to get a fantastic Brexit deal, that could tempt some other EU members also to quit. Prime Minister May has lately asked her countrymen to face some realities. She said that after leaving the EU single market, life was going to be different and access to each other’s markets would be less than at present. Another hard fact was that UK would need to keep British regulations in step with EU rules in some areas.
The UK will have to make a strong commitment that its regulatory standards will remain as high as those of EU. The truth is that the Brexit issue has divided the British people and only time will reveal its long-term consequences. But it is clear that in the larger global context, Brexit is a retrograde step. In the historical evolution, since the end of Second World War, the world has moved towards regional collaboration and integration, whereas Brexit has been a reassertion of isolationist nationalism. This is ironic because it was the great British hero Winston Churchill who had first used the term United States of Europe in a speech at Zurich in 1946.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.