None the wiser as Brexit draws nearer

China Daily European Weekly - - Comment - Harvey Mor­ris The au­thor is a se­nior me­dia con­sul­tant for China Daily. Con­tact the writer at editor@mail.chi­nadai­lyuk.com.

As the clock ticks to­ward Bri­tain leav­ing the Euro­pean Union, it still isn’t clear what form the ‘di­vorce’ will take

As the United King­dom marks the se­cond an­niver­sary of the elec­torate’s de­ci­sion to quit the Euro­pean Union, vot­ers on both sides of the de­bate are still none the wiser about the shape of their post-Brexit fu­ture. That was the para­graph that opened this col­umn a year ago, ex­cept that the word “first” has been re­placed by the word “se­cond”.

In short, noth­ing has changed. Al­though that is not quite ac­cu­rate. If any­thing, “Brex­iters” and “re­main­ers” are even more iras­ci­ble and un­rec­on­ciled than they were a year ago; politi­cians from all sides are more di­vided.

And, with the clock tick­ing to­ward Bri­tain’s sched­uled de­par­ture from the 28-mem­ber Euro­pean Union in March 2019, the other 27 seem more con­fused than ever over what the Bri­tish ac­tu­ally want.

There is lit­tle doubt that the nar­row time frame means the UK will need an in­de­ter­mi­nate tran­si­tion pe­riod in which it will have to fol­low many EU rules if trade and other sec­tors are not to seize up.

But, on that is­sue, even the most ar­dent Brex­iters in govern­ment can­not seem to agree.

On the se­cond an­niver­sary of the June 23 ref­er­en­dum, For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son urged Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May to get on with the process and de­liver “full Bri­tish Brexit”.

In­ter­na­tional Trade Sec­re­tary Liam Fox, mean­while, said he did not mind if the tran­si­tion pe­riod was ex­tended be­yond 2020, as long as the deal was the right one. Fox is the man who once pre­dicted that a post-Brexit free-trade deal with the EU would be the “eas­i­est in hu­man his­tory”.

Ri­val Brexit and Re­main demon­stra­tions took to the streets of Lon­don, with the lat­ter de­mand­ing a se­cond ref­er­en­dum, as big busi­ness con­tin­ued to echo warn­ings of the per­ils ahead for the Bri­tish econ­omy.

Govern­ment min­is­ters pounced on avi­a­tion gi­ant Air­bus for sug­gest­ing pub­licly that it would be pre­pared to end its op­er­a­tions in Bri­tain if the coun­try left the EU with­out any deal in place on the fu­ture re­la­tion­ship.

One con­se­quence of the cur­rent un­cer­tainty is that Bri­tain is likely to want to re­in­force its links with China as the fu­ture re­la­tion­ship with Europe re­mains in doubt.

Fig­ures this year showed that Bri­tain is China’s se­cond-largest trad­ing part­ner within the EU, while China is the UK’s se­cond-largest non-EU trad­ing part­ner. Bi­lat­eral trade rose to $79 bil­lion last year, up by more than 6 per­cent from 2016, with Bri­tish ex­ports to China ris­ing by al­most 20 per­cent.

Zhu Qin, Bei­jing’s charge d’af­faires in Lon­don, told Bri­tain’s Cen­tre for Pol­icy Stud­ies think tank in the week of the Brexit an­niver­sary: “This is a time of new and his­toric op­por­tu­ni­ties. Our two coun­tries need to seize these op­por­tu­ni­ties to deepen our mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial co­op­er­a­tion and shift the China-UK ‘golden era’ into a higher gear.”

Robert Colvile, di­rec­tor of the free mar­ket think tank, said that post-Brexit Bri­tain should be a place that cham­pi­ons as­pi­ra­tion, en­ter­prise, op­por­tu­nity and own­er­ship. The na­ture of Bri­tain’s re­la­tion­ship with China, both com­mer­cial and po­lit­i­cal, would do much to shape that fu­ture, he be­lieves.

Be­fore em­bark­ing on that op­ti­mistic fu­ture, how­ever, there is still the small mat­ter of Brexit to re­solve. By this time next year, the UK will of­fi­cially be out of the EU, al­though for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses it will still be in it for an as-yet-un­de­fined pe­riod.

As for how long it will en­dure in this limbo, not even the ne­go­tia­tors in charge of the process have much of a clue.

As this year’s Brexit an­niver­sary dawned, var­i­ous me­dia did the rounds of politi­cians and celebri­ties to ask their rec­ol­lec­tions of where they had been on Brexit night 2016.

Oth­ers fo­cused on get­ting the lat­est views of Brex­iters and Re­main­ers, which ap­peared to have changed lit­tle in the past two years. We are all two years older but none the wiser, it seems.

There was a hor­ri­ble feel­ing that this an­niver­sary jam­boree of ill will could be­come one of those hal­lowed an­nual com­mem­o­ra­tions so beloved of the Bri­tish, and that we will be re­liv­ing Brexit for­ever.

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