In June 2016, the British people voted to leave the European Union in the single biggest democratic exercise of the United Kingdom’s (UK) history. The two main political parties, the Conservatives as well as Labour, both declared they would do all they can to implement the people’s decision. Yet, the Kingdom was due to leave the EU at the end of last March, which never happened, so much so that it is still a member of the EU and even participated in the European elections last May.
Alas, the sinister hotchpotch of the British Government’s incompetence and the vindictive and destructive spirit of the EU pushed the negotiating parties to postpone Brexit many times and jeopardised British democracy. As for now, the official divorce date is 31 October, well chosen to concur with the day of the Dead, also know as Halloween. For sure, negotiations were not advancing steadily with Theresa May’s Government in place, with the Prime Minister being herself a “remainer” at the time of the referendum. The more negotiations made progress, the more the hopes of a real departure from the EU were vanishing. Things have nevertheless changed recently: Brexit’s dynamic took a totally different dimension at the end of last May.
Brexit is particularly interesting to tackle at the moment indeed and deserves a vivacious attention for quite a few reasons. First of all, Prime Minister Theresa May has admitted to have failed to attain her objectives and quit in a tearful declaration. The head of Government will leave her function on 7 June. Second, we already know that her replacement is expected to be in place in the week 22 July and the candidates are pretty well known. Furthermore, the equilibrium of power within the EU was shaken up after the EU elections of 26 May: Eurosceptic parties gained important power. More over, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party became Britain’s first political party. And finally, high EU Commissioners and other high-ranking EU staff will leave office in 2019, including the current President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Junker. How can one interpret these events? And what does it mean for Brexit’s future?
May ends in June – the quibble was tempting. Her departure signifies a major shift in Brexit’s dynamic. It is fair to remind here that she took office during a time of uncertainty and crisis and that she worked really hard and courageously to defend her ideas. But the few major mistakes she made lead her directly to the abyss. Among these mistakes, her lack of resoluteness and perhaps harshness in negotiations with the EU; and her stubbornness to push her dreadful deal to pass in Parliament three times in a row. Indeed the “deal” she concocted with the EU was noting else than another EU treaty that would have put Great Britain in the state of vassalage for a long time. Only a country having to surrender after a war defeat would have signed such a flawed agreement. Another major mistake has been the exclusion of the “no deal” option: because in a difficult negotiation, one should always keep all options open. But Theresa May has been so desperate to find an agreement and avoid disagreement that the EU representatives blatantly took advantage of her. If she had put more pressure on them and played the no deal option, she would perhaps have got a better deal. And finally, she did not manage to keep her word as she said – 108 times in total! – that Brexit would happen on 29 March, and not one day later. The confidence she enjoyed quickly dilapidated after that date.
Her departure also signifies that her “deal”, on which she worked during her entire mandate, will be consigned to oblivion, and so much the better. The United Kingdom will hence leave the EU on another basis that the text negotiated by 10 Downing Street: it will either be a win-win free trade agreement between the two parties or a “no deal” exit. The first option would of course be better, although an exit without deal would mean that the relations between the EU and UK would automatically be based on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the successor of Ms May will be able to negotiate a free trade agreement as the EU formally rejected any new negotiations, hammering home that “the withdrawal agreement remains the best and only deal possible (…) the withdrawal agreement will not be renegotiated”. Taking into account that British Parliament rejected the aforesaid text three times in a row, the disagreement on the agreement seems total. The conclusion that most Tory candidates make, and rightly so, is that serious preparations for a no deal scenario should be mad.
The mission of the next Prime Minister is already very clear: to deliver an unambiguous and clean Brexit. If he/she fails to deliver Brexit on 31 October on favourable terms for the UK, it might mean the end of the Conservative party. Although most candidates who came forward seem very competent, one can separate them into two different groups.
The first group includes the heirs of Theresa May; people who have repeatedly supported her deal, like for example Michael Gove, Kit Malthouse, James Cleverly, Matt Hancock, Rory Stewart, Jeremy Hunt or Sajid Javid – note that amongst the last cited were some “remainers”. What is certain is that if one of them is elected, he will have to avoid implementing the same strategy than Ms May.
The second group is composed out of those who clearly detach themselves from the heritage of Ms May. Amongst them, Dominic Raab, former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, having quit his Government position because he could not support Ms May’s strategy. In his capacity of chief negotiator with the EU, he was the one who lead the talks with the European Commission in 2018. For many months, the EU was “bullying and bossing around”, he said in a recent interview to Good Morning Britain. During the negotiations, the EU led an arrogant campaign of “blackmailing”, according to the terms of Mr Raab. He supports a free trade deal with the EU and sees a “technological” solution to the Irish border issue. Furthermore, he would support a no deal in the case of failure of negotiations, as he would refuse to postpone Brexit beyond the date of 31 October: “we don’t need more time, we need more decisions”, he says. One can also name Esther McVey in this group, who worked as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in Ms May’s Government, and also resigned due to disagreements with its management of Brexit. Another lady, Andrea Leadsom, defends similar ideas. And finally, we have the widely known Boris Johnson, who is prepared to negotiate with the EU using his peculiar sense of diplomacy, or leave the EU without deal.
Political faces will not only change in the UK but also in continental Europe, and more specifically in Brussels. The ballot was closed on Sunday 26 May and immediately announced a succession in the equilibrium of power within the EU. The 2019 EU elections enjoyed the highest turnout in twenty years, although it was declining steadily since the late nineties (over 50% in 2019). But higher turnout is not necessarily synonymous with higher consent, on the contrary: the Eurosceptic movements have vigorously gained in power, whilst the traditional left and right wing parties have suffered great losses. Certain alternative parties, like the Green party or the Lib Dems, are also victors of the contest. In this context, the Socialists lose 40 seats and the centre right loses 37 seats, whilst the Eurosceptic movement gains 37 seats. The Greens gain 17 seats and the Lib Dems conquer 41 additional seats. It is not possible to determine at this point the influence these changes will have in the dynamics of European politics, but it will surely be interesting to observe. One should also keep an eye on imminent changes of high profiles within the EU commission.
On the national level, however, the results of the elections indicate one can take a realistic glimpse at the future of Brexit. The reason for that is very simple: Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party became the first political party in the UK just six weeks after its creation. Having secured close to 32% of the votes, the 45 days old party sent a clear message to the Government and mainstream media: it seems like a majority of the people still wish to leave the EU and did not change its mind, in spite of all the apocalyptic prophesies of media, who try to reverse the course of Brexit. It is also interesting to note that electors voted for Brexit Party for only one single reason: Brexit. One can have many reasons to vote for the Green party or the Lib Dems as they have a vast and varied political programme. But one votes Brexit Party for one reason: people want to leave the EU, they said it in 2016 and are repeating it now. In the improbable event in which the UK would not leave the EU on 31 October, one can expect Mr Farage’s party to enjoy huge success in the general elections. The Conservatives play for high stakes in the coming months: either the party delivers Brexit and will survive, or it will be overtook by alternative political movements.
All candidates for the Tory leadership are ready – officially or unofficially – to renegotiate an agreement with the EU. The EU Commission will hence have the choice either to go back to the negotiating table with its neighbour from across the Channel, or face a no deal scenario, which would be as problematic for the British than for the EU.
What is certain, however, is that the punitive strategy of the EU towards the UK has not worked. It is now improbable that the Kingdom will sign any surrender agreement in favour of the EU. It is really much more probable that Albion [old term for British Isles or Great Britain, editor’s note] will renew itself, open up to the world successfully and enjoy a long standing and stable economic growth, whilst Old Europe, prisoner of her own bureaucracy, goes on “United in mediocrity”. •
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