The thorny issue of Britain’s departure from the European Union is top of the world’s news agenda again. Brexit has divided public opinion in the United Kingdom and precipitated a deep political crisis. It is also significant internationally because of the likely effects on the economies of other countries - ourselves included - arising from disruption and uncertainty in relation to trading patterns.
What is now sparking renewed interest is the claimed breakthrough in the Westminster parliament that could lead to a final agreement between the EU and the UK on the terms of the latter’s withdrawal from the bloc.
A series of votes in the House of Commons earlier this week on amendments to Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed deal - already agreed with the EU but which had been rejected by a huge parliamentary majority - have worked in her favour to the extent that some are saying she has snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. She has now received a mandate from Parliament to renegotiate her deal in relation to the intractable issue of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland which is part of the UK.
Public dissatisfaction in Britain about Mrs May’s handling of the apparently endless Brexit process has grown steadily as the date of the nation’s departure from the EU rapidly approaches. It is enshrined in British law that the United Kingdom will leave on March 29 this year which is exactly two years since Mrs May’s government triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start withdrawal negotiations.
Voters were asked in a referendum in 2016 whether they wished to remain in the EU or to leave. In a high turnout, 52 percent -- 17.4 million people - voted to leave against 48 percent voting to remain. The nation was therefore split on the issue. The Prime Minister pledged to honour the result of the referendum despite the narrow majority. But over the last two and a half years there has been endless controversy amidst efforts by ‘Remainers’ to reverse the Brexit process.
It has now emerged the Irish border question is the main impediment to securing enough support amongst MPs for Mrs May’s deal. Britain does not want a hard border because that would violate the Good Friday agreement of 1998 which brought the Northern Ireland peace process to a successful conclusion. But Brexit means the border will become an external frontier for the EU and, in the absence of a deal, there would be pressure to enforce customs and immigration controls. The proposal on which the EU is insisting in the deal is to have a so-called ‘backstop’ that would mean no change in the existing arrangements until the EU and the UK had successfully negotiated a permanent trade relationship post-Brexit. This has been opposed by ‘Leave’ supporters because it is seen as being open-ended and, in effect, could keep Britain in a customs union ad infinitum.
Mrs May now has two weeks - before she has to return to the Westminster parliament for another vote on her deal – to secure a solution to the Irish border issue that will be acceptable to MPs. She has stated there is now a route to a deal that can get a sustainable majority in the House of Commons; and, if she can persuade the EU to agree to a time limit for the ‘backstop’ or to have it removed, it seems that is likely to be the case.
A transition or implementation period would follow to ensure Britain’s orderly withdrawal from the EU. Continuing uncertainty over Brexit is already affecting investment decisions and upsetting trade and supply chains but leaving without a deal would cause widespread major disruption.
However, EU leaders have stated categorically the terms of the withdrawal agreement are final and non-negotiable. So the prospect of real concessions about the Irish border remains unpromising. Thus, even though a ‘no deal’ is not in the EU’s interest because it would seriously affect the economies of the other 27 member states, the Brexit saga may be far from over.
For The Bahamas, an important benefit of Brexit will be Britain’s likely renewed interest in Commonwealth countries, including her former colonies in the Caribbean. This should mean greater focus on bilateral relations with our traditional British friends that could bring increased investment and trade, together with new co-operation in various fields like education, training, the environment and others.
One helpful development is the promised re-opening of a British diplomatic mission in Nassau. This was announced officially in London some time ago and we hope to hear further news about it soon.