Brexit: No exit yet

Greater Kashmir

The United Kingdom (UK) is in the throes of a comprehensive political crisis over Brexit. Prime Minister Theresa May’s agreement with European Union (EU) for the country’s departure from the Union was roundly rejected by Parliament for the second time on March 12 by a margin of 149 votes. The next day Parliament also voted that the UK should not leave the Union without a deal. This means that its scheduled departure from the EU is now likely to be delayed but there is simply no clarity beyond that. As the term the UK often causes confusion it is prudent to mention that it denotes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Island as a totality; the first three together are generally called Britain.

May warned Parliament, after the defeat of the deal on March 12, that if it wants an extension of the departure date from the EU “what use we want to make of such an extension. The House will have to answer that question. Does it wish to revoke Article 50? [ As that article of the EU charter allows a member-country to leave it what May asked was if Parliament wanted to override the 2016 referendum result.] Does it want to hold a second referendum? Or does it want to leave with a deal but not this deal? These are unenviable choices, but thanks to the decision that this House has made this evening they must now be faced”.

Some pointers may emerge in the next few days but uncertainties are likely to continue. Meanwhile EU leaders are getting restless and unhappy.  Their exasperation was obvious when a European Commission spokesperson said on March 13 after Parliament rejected a no-deal exit, “To take no deal off the table it is not enough to vote against no deal—you have to agree to a deal. We have agreed a deal with the Prime Minister and the EU is ready to sign it”.  He was actually indicating what May also wants that the deal she has worked out goes through but after two defeats in Parliament she is weak and the opposition Labour party wants the country to go to the polls so that it can take charge of the entire Brexit process.

While the British political class cannot get its act together the people are losing patience. This was reflected by the media in its reportage of the second vote. The Daily Mail echoed popular exasperation with Parliament when it commented “They vowed to deliver the Brexit Britain voted for—and had it in their grasp. But last night contemptuous MPs chose instead to plunge our despairing nation into chaos”. For good measure it called Parliament “The House of Fools”. The question is when did this folly begin?

I have earlier mentioned in these columns that Britain has historically never been able to settle its attitude towards Europe. It wants to assert a European personality when it suits its purpose but also sets itself apart when it feels that that is in its interest. This approach has also been at play since the beginning of its membership of the European project as it evolved from the European Commission into the EU. As EU led by Germany and France decided on common European policies which meant an erosion of sovereignty, Britain’s contradictions towards the EU split the country.

Clearly, in the present age Britain’s future demanded that it decided its dilemma over Europe perhaps through an assertion of its continental personality. That would have required far seeing, determined and patient leadership working to ensure that the British people did not live in the past but made compromises as other European countries were doing on sovereignty. However, Prime Minister David Cameron committed his party to holding a referendum on the issue of Britain’s EU membership during the 2015 election campaign. This was folly especially as he had felt that the people had to exercise strategic patience. In the referendum held in June 2016 a slim majority of 51.89% of voters decided that Britain should leave the EU. These slim majorities are sufficient for normal democratic processes but when fundamental and historic decisions have to be taken it is essential for the political class to foster much larger majorities. Otherwise expediency takes charge causing lasting damage.

Except for a few, break-ups whether between individuals or between countries, bilaterally or multilaterally, are invariably messy and Brexit is proving to be no exception. As in many dissolutions of relationships one party wants more than its share and here it seems to be Britain. EU too has stakes in wanting sound post-Brexit ties with. Thus, there is hope still that it would be willing to compromise on the main sticking point which relates to the trading arrangements that will be made at the land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The UK wishes that the present soft border remains for it will permit a seamless movement of goods. However, the EU has insisted on the UK as a whole continuing in the Customs Union rules abiding by EU rules till a full EU-UK trade deal is worked out. In reality there is no guarantee when this will be so; hence, the angst in Parliament.

Whatever may finally emerge the UK’s prestige is taking a great hit. The question that inevitably follows is: should such a country remain as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council?

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Whatever may finally emerge the UK’s prestige is taking a great hit.