Last Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May made a statement to the parliament and, contrary to all expectations, failed to present any specific plan B for the country’s withdrawal from the European Union, making do with a promise to be more open and inclusive in further negotiations with the EU on the issue and in her future actions.
Last week, the parliament decisively voted against the draft withdrawal agreement proposed by May and already pre-approved by the EU and the British Cabinet. The agreement was criticized both by proponents of a “hard” Brexit, i.e. one without a deal with Brussels, and by Remainer MPs, i.e. those who want another referendum on EU membership. After the failure, the Cabinet announced that it would present a plan B on January 21, with debates and voting upon it to be held on January 29. But no alternative plan was offered by May on Monday.
Addressing MPs, the British prime minister only confirmed that she strongly opposed a new referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. It was hard to expect a different opinion from her on the issue, since she understands only too well that in the current situation, when 56% of the country’s population favors staying in the EU, the new referendum can slam the door on Brexit altogether.
Moreover, May flatly turned down the possibility of amending the Belfast Agreement of 1998 (also known as the Good Friday peace agreement) in order to resolve the problem of borders on the island of Ireland (the backstop), which is currently the main obstacle on the path towards Brexit. Indeed, the main achievement of the Good Friday agreement was prohibition of a border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. And it was this provision of the document that to a large extent helped to end the 30-year violent conflict between Catholics/Republicans and Protestants/Loyalists.
On Monday, apparently in an attempt to win over least some Labour Party members, May promised to pay special attention to protection of workers’ rights and compliance with environmental standards after Brexit. Also, European citizens applying for the “settled status” in Britain will no longer need to pay the initially planned fee of £65, she said. But there is no way this can be seen as a plan B.
Theresa May’s statement in the Commons on January 21 put an end to the fantasy she had been trying to create in the preceding two and a half years, insisting that Britain would be able to preserve the key privileges of the EU membership (e.g., partial access to the single market) and simultaneously use the advantages of being independent from Brussels (such as the ability to pursue its own immigration policy).
The reality is that this ambiguous compromise does not satisfy the overwhelming majority of the House of Commons. Many of its members, first of all the so-called Eurosceptics from the ruling Conservative Party, fear that London may become hostage of Brussels, which will be able to prolong the backstop infinitely, therefore postponing the country’s final withdrawal from the EU.
Remarkably, the EU leaders have repeatedly said that the Brexit deal agreed with London back on November 25, 2018, was not to be amended and there would be no new talks on the issue for a number of reasons, the main one being the same: other EU members must not see that a happy peaceful life is possible outside the close-knit European community. Last week, however, The Times reported that Germany and France seemed to be prepared to meet Britain halfway and prolong the Brexit timeline, which, in turn, implies a new round of talks between London and Brussels. Meanwhile, Brexit is due to take place on March 29, 2019.
Obviously, there is no time to hold new negotiations, so the most realistic scenario under the current circumstances is to ask Brussels for a respite. But Theresa May and many of her supporters, including ex Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who favors a hard Brexit, strongly reject this possibility.
It is now absolutely clear that the Brexit process has reached a dead-end, and its prospects are quite blurred. The British government has lost control over the Brexit policy, and now the United Kingdom is drifting, unsteered, towards an unknown future. The backstop will apparently be the most difficult problem to tackle, especially since Dublin has refused to accept the 5-year limit on the mechanism earlier proposed by Poland. Moreover, the Irish government completely rejects the possibility of signing a separate bilateral agreement with Britain that could resolve the border issue.
A likely scenario now is Britain’s no-deal withdrawal from the EU, i.e. a hard Brexit. But in this case, all laws and agreements of the European Union will cease to apply to London immediately, and its trade with Brussels will be regulated by the WTO rules with maximum tariffs and customs on the border. Bloomberg analysts estimate that the hard “divorce” scenario will cost London 7% of GDP by 2030 compared to other EU members. Even if the Brexit deal goes through, British GDP will drop by about 3%. And the EU is London’s biggest trade partner: before the 2016 referendum, it accounted for almost 44% of UK exports (or £223 billion) and 53% of imports.
It looks like the UK authorities were not ready for this turn of events, first of all, huge economic losses. As a result, the clueless and sometimes irresponsible actions of the ruling elites have driven the country into a deepest crisis with an unpredictable outcome.