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Britain needs to be careful

  • Published at 12:01 am October 6th, 2019
A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson giving a statement on the governement's proposed Brexit deal in the House of Commons in central London on October 3, 2019 AFP

The Brexit route will not be easy

After months of indirect threats, former UK Prime Minister David Cameron demanded a renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU. Four years on and three PMs later, we may be about to see the completion of Brexit. It is not yet certain how Brexit will be completed. There still appears to be “bumps in the road,” as British PM Boris Johnson calls them, before the UK’s final relationship with the EU is stabilized. In this context, we have to wait and see what actually takes place at midnight on October 31 -- deal or no deal.

We all know that many sceptics and cynics think that the efforts undertaken by Johnson might not end with the desired outcome. At the same time, many analysts have also been pointing out that Johnson knows that Brexit without a deal might be very harmful for the British economy and society. In fact, the threat of No Deal has split his own party. The government’s decision to prorogue parliament has also dragged the Queen into the constitutional furor. 

The new law directs Johnson to write to Tusk requesting an extension of Article 50. This has been done in the case of either No Deal having been reached by then, or if there has been no agreement by then, fixing a date for a No Deal exit. The act states that the purpose of the extension is “in order to debate and pass a bill to implement” the Withdrawal Agreement, “including provisions reflecting the outcome of inter-party talks as announced by the PM on May 21, 2019, and in particular the need for the UK to secure changes to the political declaration to reflect the outcome of those interparty talks.”

That last clause was tabled by Stephen Kinnock MP, a leading Labour figure on the side of compromise. Significantly, the amendment was accepted by the government without a vote. At this point, Boris Johnson also needs to understand that the concessions in the Kinnock package guarantee no regression by the UK from the highest EU social and environmental standards. This will enable him to gain support at Westminster from the moderate majority. 

These evolving circumstances have also persuaded some British MPs to suggest that Boris Johnson should seriously consider jettisoning the political declaration entirely, and then inviting the Commons to vote only on the Withdrawal Agreement. 

If a deal on these lines can be done at the European Council, the House of Commons might then be able to deliver a positive “meaningful vote” consistent with the terms of the EU Withdrawal Act 2018.  After such an evolving Brexit has taken place and the legal aspects have been handled carefully, it would be logical to believe that the next step would be a new British general election. There is also another alternative scenario. 

If a No Deal situation emerges, the October European Council will be faced with a desperate British PM forced by the parliament to seek an extension to Article 50. The last time, the European leaders needed eight hours of discussion in order to agree, by unanimity, for an extension. This time round it might not be that easy. However, many British parliamentarians think that the European Council, this time, might agree to grant a third extension if convinced that the request is serious. 

One aspect has nonetheless become quite clear: Different political parties have indicated that the UK as a third country must not expect more rights than it had as EU member state. Consequently, British access to the EU internal market would depend on its ability to respect, and be seen to respect, the principle of a level playing field. 

The UK, whether or not there is a deal under the terms of Article 50, will have to sit down with the responsible authorities of the EU without delay to discuss their future association. Even a minimal free trade agreement will require an EU-UK treaty that will deal not only with tariffs but also with non-tariff barriers.  

Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]