None the wiser as Brexit draws nearer
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 That was the paragraph that opened this column a year ago, except that the word “first” has been replaced by the word “second”.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.