LAST week in this column, we referred to a court hearing in London about parliamentary sovereignty in face of the British government’s decision to start the process of leaving the European Union (EU) following the nation’s referendum in June. Today we address the important broader issue of Brexit which is likely to have repercussions around the world as well as being a seismic event in Europe itself.
While new Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has made it clear that the wishes of the majority of the British people will be respected, the final shape of the country’s changed relationship with Europe will not be determined for some time. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty provides the formal procedure for a member state to leave the Union and allows for a two-year period of negotiations. These will start no later than the end of next March because Mrs May has announced that she will trigger the process in the first quarter of 2017.
It will come as no surprise to all concerned, and in particular political commentators, that the narrowness of the victory of the Leave campaign has resulted in the implementation of Brexit being seriously contested. The so-called Remainers have been forced to accept the result of the referendum, but they argue that a hard Brexit, defined as leaving the single market and thus ending the free movement of workers, will have a bad effect on the UK’s economy and is not in the country’s overall interest. They regard retention of access to a customs union and single market of some 500 million customers as essential even with the fundamental EU requirement of linked immigration; but a complicating factor is that control of immigration was a key issue determining the result of the referendum.
The Government now faces not only a recalcitrant EU unhappy with Britain’s decision to withdraw, but also a domestic opposition of Remainers who are equally dissatisfied because of the referendum result, while the eurosceptics and Leavers believe that the EU will cooperate with the UK in relation to the single market. Britain is in a strong negotiating position because of its importance as an export market to the eurozone so that to risk denial of access to it would cause EU countries economic damage.
Furthermore, the Director General of the World Trade Organisation has stated that Britain will not suffer major trade disruption even if it pursues a hard Brexit, since trade with the EU would simply continue on WTO terms. However, given that the first priority of the EU is to stop other member states from leaving, it is unlikely to give the UK any concessions lest that might encourage others to follow their lead.
It is clear that government ministers and their civil servants in London face a daunting task in securing the best deal possible allowing access for British companies to trade goods and services with the EU, not least because the latter’s stance may be politically motivated.
As the UK progressively frees itself from EU institutions and brings an end to the supremacy of EU law over domestic law in managing the nation’s affairs, the government has pledged to be more outward-looking and, as a newly independent country with fresh vigour, ready to engage with the rest of the world, including the Commonwealth. It will take time for the effects of this to work their way through, but it is to be hoped that former colonies in the Caribbean region like the Bahamas will benefit through new trade and investment as well as increased assistance leading to greater technical, educational and cultural cooperation.
One of the tasks of the Fourth Estate is to place politicians under scrutiny and hold them to account on behalf of the people. This newspaper makes no apology for doing just that, without fear or favour, here in The Bahamas. But in the case of Brexit we can truly sympathize with Mrs May and her ministerial colleagues as they wrestle with the hideously complicated job of disentangling the UK from more than 40 years of EU membership.