Since the British people voted by a narrow margin in the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union, the protracted negotiations have produced numerous twists and turns, setbacks, deadlines and disagreements.
Most of these have been overtaken by events as the consultations ebbed and flowed. But, finally, the Brexit process has reached a pivotal moment with crucial voting expected next week in Britain’s House of Commons.
In January, the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU by Prime Minister Theresa May was overwhelmingly rejected in the UK Parliament. Since then, it has become clear an important objection of the ‘Leavers’ is the so-called backstop provision that is intended to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland in the absence of a future trade agreement.
None of the parties involved wants a hard border between the Republic of Ireland as an EU member state and Northern Ireland as part of the UK. But the backstop would keep the whole of the UK in the EU customs union until new post-Brexit trade arrangements between Britain and the EU have been concluded at some unspecified future date. Despite EU assurances that the backstop would be temporary and only used as a last resort to keep the border open, this is opposed by Brexiteers because staying in the customs union would prevent Britain striking trade deals with the rest of the world.
Mrs May is hoping to secure legally binding assurances that the backstop will not be indefinite and that these will allow MPs to support a meaningful vote in Parliament on the Withdrawal Agreement on 12 March. But, if the government loses this vote, there will be another one the following day on leaving the EU without a deal; and, if that is rejected, there will be a vote the day after on whether to delay Brexit beyond the agreed departure date of 29 March which is now enshrined in UK law.
Thus, the stage is set for a showdown next week. Subject to last minute talks, the indications are Mrs May is facing a second defeat on her Withdrawal Agreement. If this happened, the second vote would probably fail as well. A disorderly exit without a deal would be severely disruptive because trade would be impeded by new customs checks without any border infrastructure, and delays and uncertainties could bring about chaos and spark a recession. Since Britain is an important trading partner for many countries, this could spill over not only into Europe but the wider global economy as well.
If there are no last minute guarantees about the Irish border and a no-deal exit is also voted down, the likely outcome of next week’s voting will be an extension of the Brexit process beyond 29 March. This would allow more time to find consensus and resolve the impasse. But, even if Mrs May’s agreement is approved by MPs, the Brexit saga will continue during an implementation period which will apply until at least the end of 2020.
These are tumultuous times in Europe. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has now claimed, in a letter circulated throughout the EU setting out his vision for Europe in advance of the forthcoming European Parliament elections, that Brexit has thrown the continent into danger and is a retreat into nationalism. Some disregard that as being different from the populist movement sweeping across Europe – including in countries like Hungary, Poland, Italy and even Germany itself – and that the majority no longer want a centralised Europe that is pressing ahead with ever-closer political and economic union.
Despite the downside of leaving the EU single market and customs union, Britain is seen by some as leading the way in departing from the four key principles at the heart of the EU project – the free movement of goods, services, capital and people. The nation has made it clear that in restoring its sovereignty it wants to take back control of its money and its borders as well as its laws and end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over its affairs.
Given that events in Europe will affect us in The Bahamas even indirectly, it is important to keep abreast of developments. One happy result of Brexit is likely to be renewed UK interest in Commonwealth countries. We noted recently that this has included an announcement in London of the re-opening of a British diplomatic mission in Nassau. We hope that will happen soon.