DESPITE the continuing opposition in Britain of so-called ‘remainers’ following a referendum in 2016 in which a small but decisive majority voted to leave the European Union (EU), the process of Brexit is moving forward inexorably. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government invoked in March last year Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which gives the EU and Britain two years to agree the terms of a split. Thus, the nation is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019 which means an agreement about the future relationship between the two sides has to be reached within the next 12 months.
Brexit has been described as one of the most momentous happenings in the bloc’s 60-year history because it involves the departure of one of the richest and most influential of its 28 member states with a combined population of some 500 million. This will not only affect the EU itself amid growing ‘euroscepticism’ but it will have far-reaching repercussions in the wider world.
While Britain disentangles itself from its EU membership – for good or ill depending on a realistic assessment of the pros and cons of belonging to the bloc – it will be able as an independent nation again to take back control and, in particular, negotiate its own trade agreements. As the world’s fifth largest economy and with significant influence in so many respects on the international stage, its prospects appear to the outsider to be good.
One result will be a strengthening of the UK’s ties with Commonwealth countries as it seeks to develop a new global role freed from what many regard as the constraints of the EU with the endless interference of the European Commission in Brussels in the shape of directives and excessive regulations – and this ought to bring new trade and investment as well as other opportunities to former colonies in the Caribbean and elsewhere which should work to our advantage here in The Bahamas. So it behoves us to watch what is going on in Europe.
The original European Economic Community (EEC) has expanded and developed over the years into an EU whose clear and well publicised objective is ever closer political union towards a federal superstate and the dismantling of the nation-state. After the horrors of two world wars, the vision of the founding fathers was a European project to create a peaceful and united continent with its own identity and common policies together with supranational institutions designed to achieve convergence and solidarity amongst its member states working towards a common destiny. This was conceived as a direct response to nationalist rivalries which were regarded as having precipitated conflict and ultimately led to war.
While the EEC, and later the EU, were limited to economic cooperation and trade and investment within a customs union -- together with collaboration on issues like security, counter terrorism and policing, transport, education, science and technology -- the organisation seems to have worked well to the benefit of its member states. But the single currency is now said to be faltering and discord has arisen over problems like the migrant crisis and immigration quotas after the removal of borders within the EU under the Schengen agreement. One result has been increased opposition among its member states to the whole EU project to the extent that the future of the bloc following Brexit may now be in serious doubt.
Seen from afar this side of the Atlantic, it is not practicable to follow the intricacies of the complex Brexit negotiations. But they seem to have reached yet another important stage as efforts to agree the details of a transition deal or implementation period after March, 2019 should be completed next month and approved by an EU summit meeting. This will be followed later by negotiations about the future long-term partnership between the UK and the remaining so-called EU27 countries.
Despite calls for clarity about what Britain wants from Brexit, to the outsider its objectives look to have been spelt out unequivocally – it wants to leave the EU, take control of its own borders, money and laws and be free to make trade deals with the rest of the world. To do this, it has to leave the single market, which requires free movement of people, and the customs union as well. So it wishes to leave the institutions of the EU but wants to continue to trade and cooperate with the EU27 in every other practicable way for their mutual benefit. Whether or not it is possible to negotiate a bespoke trade agreement remains to be seen. But it is clear that Germany, in particular, which has a bilateral trade balance in its favour, will wish to continue to trade with the UK on mutually advantageous terms.
The arguments for and against Brexit are finely balanced. To many people, it makes no sense to walk away from cooperation within an EU which is a powerhouse in the world and apparently commit economic suicide by voluntarily leaving its massive single market and customs union that is right on Britain’s doorstep. To others, the whole Brexit debate is about sovereignty and control of Britain’s own fortunes as an independent nation-state including being able to establish trade relationships worldwide which will directly benefit the country’s economy.
Britain’s success in the negotiations with Brussels depends to an extent on the unity of Mrs May’s ruling Conservative Party government which remains split on Europe, and she is hoping to iron out differences amongst her cabinet at a special meeting of ministers this week. Some want a complete break in March next year while others argue for a long implementation period and what is termed ‘managed divergence’ from EU policies and regulations in order to avoid unnecessary uncertainty for the UK economy.
What is for sure is the coming negotiations will be difficult and the eventual outcome will have widespread effects. There will be indirect repercussions in our part of the world, so we need to keep track of developments.