Di­vided UK, un­cer­tain elec­tion could put the brakes on Brexit

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Lucy Har­ris thinks Bri­tain’s de­ci­sion to leave the Eu­ro­pean Union is a dream come true. Nick Hop­kin­son thinks it’s a night­mare. The two Bri­tons - a “leave” sup­porter and a “re­mainer” - rep­re­sent the great di­vide in a coun­try that stepped into the un­known just over a year ago, when Bri­tish vot­ers de­cided by 52 per­cent to 48 per­cent to end more than four decades of EU mem­ber­ship.

They are also as un­cer­tain as the rest of the coun­try about what Brexit will look like, and even when it will hap­pen. Since the shock ref­er­en­dum re­sult, work on ne­go­ti­at­ing the di­vorce from the EU has slowed to a crawl as the scale and com­plex­ity of the chal­lenge be­comes clearer. Har­ris, founder of the pro-Brexit group Leavers of Lon­don, says she is hope­ful, rather than con­fi­dent, that Bri­tain will re­ally cut its ties with the EU.

“If we haven’t fi­nal­ized it, then any­thing’s still up for grabs,” she said. “Ev­ery­thing is still to play for.” She’s not the only Brex­i­teer, as those who sup­port leav­ing the EU are called, to be con­cerned. Af­ter an elec­tion last month clipped the wings of Bri­tain’s Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment, re­main­ers are gain­ing in con­fi­dence. “Since the gen­eral elec­tion I’ve been more op­ti­mistic that at least we’re headed to­ward soft Brexit, and hope­fully we can re­verse Brexit al­to­gether,” said Hop­kin­son, chair­man of pro-EU group Lon­don4Europe. “Ob­vi­ously the gov­ern­ment is tough­ing it out, show­ing a brave face. But I think its brit­tle at­ti­tude to­ward Brexit will break and snap.”

Many on both sides of the di­vide had as­sumed the pic­ture would be clearer by now. But the road to Brexit has not run smoothly. First the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment lost a Supreme Court bat­tle over whether a vote in Par­lia­ment was needed to be­gin the Brexit process. Once the vote was held, and won, Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May’s Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment of­fi­cially trig­gered the two-year count­down to exit, start­ing a race to un­tan­gle four decades of in­ter­twined laws and reg­u­la­tions by March 2019.

Then, May called an early elec­tion in a bid to strengthen her hand in EU ne­go­ti­a­tions. In­stead, vot­ers stripped May’s Con­ser­va­tives of their par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity, se­verely dent­ing May’s au­thor­ity - and her abil­ity to hold to­gether a party split be­tween its pro-and anti-EU wings. Since the June 8 elec­tion, gov­ern­ment min­is­ters have been at war, pro­vid­ing the me­dia with a string of dis­parag­ing, anony­mously sourced sto­ries about one an­other. Much of the snip­ing has tar­geted Trea­sury chief Philip Ham­mond, the most se­nior min­is­ter in fa­vor of a com­pro­mise “soft Brexit” to cush­ion the eco­nomic shock of leav­ing the bloc.

The re­sult is a dis­united Bri­tish gov­ern­ment and an in­creas­ingly im­pa­tient EU. EU of­fi­cials have slammed Bri­tish pro­pos­als so far as vague and in­ad­e­quate. The first sub­stan­tive round of di­vorce talks in Brus­sels last week failed to pro­duce a break­through, as the EU’s chief ne­go­tia­tor, Michel Barnier, said Bri­tain must clar­ify its po­si­tions in key ar­eas.

Barnier said “fun­da­men­tal” dif­fer­ences re­main on one of the big­gest is­sues - the sta­tus of 3 mil­lion EU cit­i­zens liv­ing in Bri­tain and 1 mil­lion UK na­tion­als who re­side in other Eu­ro­pean coun­tries. A Bri­tish pro­posal to grant per­ma­nent res­i­dency to Euro­peans in the UK was dis­missed by the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment as in­suf­fi­cient and bur­den­some. There’s also a fight loom­ing over the multi­bil­lion-euro bill that Bri­tain must pay to meet pre­vi­ous com­mit­ments it made as an EU mem­ber. Bri­tish For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son re­cently as­serted the bloc could “go whis­tle” if it thought Bri­tain would set­tle a big exit tab.

“I am not hear­ing any whistling. Just the clock tick­ing,” Barnier replied. EU of­fi­cials in­sist there can be no dis­cus­sion of a fu­ture trade deal with Bri­tain un­til “suf­fi­cient progress” has been made on cit­i­zens’ rights, the exit bill and the sta­tus of the Ir­ish bor­der. “We don’t seem to be much fur­ther on now than we were just af­ter the ref­er­en­dum,” said Tim Bale, pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at Queen Mary Univer­sity of Lon­don. “I’m not sure any­body knows just how this is go­ing to go. I’m not sure the gov­ern­ment has got its ne­go­ti­at­ing goals sorted. I’m not sure the EU re­ally knows what (Bri­tain’s goals) are ei­ther.

“I think we are go­ing to find it very, very hard to meet this two-year dead­line be­fore we crash out.” The prospect of tum­bling out of the bloc - with its fric­tion­less sin­gle mar­ket in goods and ser­vices - and into a world of tar­iffs and trade bar­ri­ers has given Bri­tain’s econ­omy the jit­ters. The pound has lost more than 10 per­cent of its value against the dol­lar in the last year, eco­nomic growth has slowed and man­u­fac­tur­ing out­put has be­gun to fall.

Em­ploy­ers’ or­ga­ni­za­tion the Con­fed­er­a­tion of Bri­tish In­dus­try says the un­cer­tainty is threat­en­ing jobs. The group says to ease the pain, Bri­tain should re­main in the EU’s sin­gle mar­ket and cus­toms union dur­ing a tran­si­tional pe­riod af­ter Brexit. That idea has sup­port from many law­mak­ers, both Con­ser­va­tive and Labour, but could bring the wrath of pro-Brexit Con­ser­va­tives down on the al­ready shaky May gov­ern­ment. That could trig­ger a party lead­er­ship chal­lenge or even a new elec­tion - and more de­lays and chaos.

In the mean­time, there is lit­tle sign the coun­try has heeded May’s re­peated calls to unite. A post-ref­er­en­dum spike in hate crimes against Euro­peans and oth­ers has sub­sided, but across the coun­try fam­i­lies have fought and friend­ships have been strained over Brexit. “It has cre­ated di­vi­sions that just weren’t there,” said Hop­kin­son, who calls the forces un­leashed by Brexit a “night­mare.”

On that, he and Har­ris agree. Har­ris set up Leavers of Lon­don as a sup­port group af­ter find­ing her views out of synch with many oth­ers in her 20-some­thing age group. “I was fed up with be­ing called a xeno­phobe,” she said. “You start this con­ver­sa­tion and it gets re­ally bad very quickly.” She strongly be­lieves Bri­tain will be bet­ter off out­side the EU. But, she pre­dicts: “We’re in for a bumpy ride, both sides.”

LON­DON: In this Satur­day, June 25, 2016 file photo, the front pages of Bri­tain’s news­pa­pers re­port on the EU ref­er­en­dum re­sult. —AP

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