Prag­matic in Lon­don

The gov­ern­ment and main op­po­si­tion in the U.K. are fi­nally com­ing around to a soft Brexit

The Hindu - - EDITORIAL -

The Labour Party’s sur­prise an­nounce­ment that Bri­tain should con­tinue in the Euro­pean sin­gle mar­ket, at least for some time af­ter the March 2019 Brexit dead­line, re­flects the late dawn­ing of re­al­ism over dis­en­gag­ing with the Euro­pean Union. It im­plies an ac­cep­tance of the prin­ci­ple of free move­ment of peo­ple from the bloc, a con­tentious is­sue that had alien­ated the op­po­si­tion party’s core sup­port base dur­ing the 2016 ref­er­en­dum. Equally sig­nif­i­cant is the rul­ing Con­ser­va­tive Party’s sud­den ac­cep­tance of the pos­si­bil­ity that the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice may still have a role af­ter Bri­tain’s exit from the EU. In­de­pen­dence from the ju­ris­dic­tion of the Lux­em­bourg court had all along been equated with the as­ser­tion of na­tional sovereignty by the Leave cam­paign. This hard line was also the cen­tre­piece of Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May’s Lan­caster House ad­dress in Jan­uary. For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son, a staunch Brex­iter, has also made a strik­ing de­par­ture. Last month he made news with his “go whis­tle” com­ment to Euro­pean lead­ers over Lon­don’s out­stand­ing dues, but has since said that as a law-abid­ing coun­try Bri­tain would in­deed pay its bills. There are thus good chances that Euroscep­tics in both the par­ties will be fur­ther iso­lated within and out­side Par­lia­ment, al­low­ing di­vi­sions be­tween the U.K. and EU ne­go­ti­at­ing po­si­tions to be nar­rowed. The bot­tom­line for Brus­sels is to en­sure that Bri­tain’s exit does not set a prece­dent. A nec­es­sary im­pli­ca­tion of this premise is that the terms of a fu­ture part­ner­ship would be vastly in­fe­rior in com­par­i­son with the ben­e­fits of full mem­ber­ship. Con­versely for Bri­tain, to con­form to a set of rules and reg­u­la­tions with­out a real voice in their for­mu­la­tion would be far from an ideal ar­range­ment.

This late prag­ma­tism does not de­tract from the con­tentious round of ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the U.K. and the rest of the bloc. Brus­sels has, ever since the June 2016 ref­er­en­dum, in­sisted upon ad­her­ence to a se­quen­tial process of un­wind­ing the long part­ner­ship. The with­drawal agree­ment de­duced from Ar­ti­cle 50 of the Treaty on Euro­pean Union en­tails three dis­tinct el­e­ments. It in­cludes a de­ci­sion on the sta­tus of Bri­tish and EU mi­grants res­i­dent in their re­spec­tive ter­ri­to­ries, the fi­nan­cial set­tle­ment of €60-100 bil­lion, and re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of the bor­der be­tween North­ern Ire­land and the Repub­lic of Ire­land. Any mean­ing­ful ne­go­ti­a­tions on a fu­ture trade agree­ment be­tween the two par­ties hinges on a res­o­lu­tion of these out­stand­ing is­sues. Lit­tle progress has been achieved so far on many of these crit­i­cal mat­ters. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and some EU mem­ber-states have ex­pressed con­cern that Lon­don is not do­ing enough to has­ten the process. The emerg­ing shifts in the U.K.’s ne­go­ti­at­ing stance the EU should be read against this over­all back­drop.

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