Essay: Brexit Drama Continues As Britain & Europe Struggle

Dec 1, 2018

British Prime Minister Theresa May has been on a campaign trail of sorts in recent days.  She's trying to convince members of Parliament to approve her plan to go forward with Brexit - Britain's departure from the European Union.

Lake Effect foreign policy contributor Art Cyr says the plan's future is unclear, and May has her work cut out for her:

“Fog in channel, Continent cut off,” is an old British joke about a newspaper headline regarding weather over the English Channel. Current developments regarding the European Union (EU) underscore the enduring reality that Britain is “in” but not “of” Europe.

On November 25, at a summit meeting in Brussels Belgium, EU representatives formally confirmed the negotiated departure of Britain, known as “Brexit.” President Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Commission expressed diplomatic “sadness” at the prospect.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands spoke favorably of the Brexit agreement as “the best we can get.” Historically, the smaller nations of the EU have been most committed to ambitious supranational integration.

The withdrawal agreement reached between the British government and the EU is both long and complex. The 599-page document is guaranteed to keep lawyers, diplomats and political staffs (and politicians who do their own reading) up late.

The main elements reflect concessions by Prime Minister Theresa May’s government in Britain, reflecting understanding the reality that the nation is part of Europe. The new treaty guarantees EU citizens free movement within the United Kingdom (i.e. England, Scotland and Wales – the regions comprising Britain, plus Northern Ireland). Likewise, UK citizens will have the same rights within the EU.

There is explicit agreement that Britain will leave the EU on March 29, 2019, but with flexible conditions. The nation will remain inside the important customs union that was the initial basis of European integration.

This transition period will last until December 2020, and longer if both sides agree that is necessary. Additionally, Britain has agreed to pay approximately 39 billion pounds to cover employee pension costs and other financial commitments already made to the EU.

Northern Ireland is especially important, and the agreement includes a guarantee to avoid any hard border separating that volatile region from the rest of Ireland. Imposition of any restrictive border controls could spark renewed violence by the Irish Republican Army.

Now Britain’s beleaguered, dedicated Prime Minister May must persuade her nation’s Parliament to accept the agreement, and that may prove impossible. Some members of her own Conservative Party as well as the other parties in the House of Commons oppose the terms.

Brexit has been at the center of the nation’s political debate for two and one-half years. In June 2016, a referendum initiated by Prime Minister David Cameron resulted in a narrow 51.9 per cent of those voting opting to leave the union.

In the face of this surprise result, Cameron resigned as head of the government. Successor Theresa May called a general election for early June 2017. In another surprise, the Conservatives lost their narrow House of Commons majority. The party has governed since by cooperating with the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, also opposed to the Brexit accord.

In recent decades the Conservative Party, which led Britain into the European community, has shifted position. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was famously a Eurosceptic. The 1997 general election brought into Parliament a younger generation of Conservative politicians who reflected her views, including Theresa May.

Britain stayed aloof from the original European Economic Community, founded in the 1950s. However, since World War II the nation’s trade and investment have become heavily concentrated in Europe.

That fact of life will not change, inside or outside the EU. British pragmatism and the importance of that economy to the rest of Europe likely will result in a workable agreement – eventually.

Lake Effect contributor Art Cyr is a professor of political economy and world business and director of the Clausen Center for World Business at Carthage College in Kenosha.