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How, When and What Terms: Brexit Still Befogged


An anti-Brexit protester carries flags opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, May 10, 2018.

“Brexit is actually about to get interesting.”

That was the view Thursday of the political sketch writer of Britain’s Daily Telegraph. For the past few months, British politics have been obscured by a mind-numbing fog of squabbling, irritability and bravado about how, when and on what terms Britain will exit the European Union and what the country’s relationship will be with its largest trading partner after Brexit.

So far there has been no clarity — no clear decisions taken by Britain’s ruling Conservatives, who hold office thanks to parliamentary support from a quirky Northern Irish party.

At war with themselves over Brexit, the Conservatives have been more consumed in internecine battling than with actual negotiations with EU officials, who have become more frustrated as British ambiguity has deepened and intransigent as London has demanded free and uninterrupted post-Brexit access to Europe for British goods and so-called “passporting” rights, which allow firms to do business in other European Economic Area nations - for the City of London’s banks.

Next week, Britain’s House of Commons will debate key EU withdrawal legislation. Lawmakers will also vote on amendments passed by the House of Lords that would tie Britain to the EU. The government is facing a rebellion by more than a dozen pro-EU Conservative lawmakers who, along with opposition parties, are likely to inflict a series of embarrassing parliamentary defeats. Those defeats may clarify how Britain exits out that could equally cloud the issue even more and throw doubt on whether Britain departs at all.

Hence Telegraph sketch-writer Michael Deacon’s excitement that something is about to happen after months of skirmishing!

Complex negotiations with Brussels since Britain voted in a referendum narrowly for Brexit have been largely left to civil servants . They complain privately that their political masters have given them no clear mandate. Meanwhile, the civil servants are portrayed as fifth columnists by pro-Brexit tabloid newspapers, which campaigned jingoistically to leave the bloc.

Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech on Britain's exit strategy from the European Union, at Mansion House, London, March 2, 2018.
Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech on Britain's exit strategy from the European Union, at Mansion House, London, March 2, 2018.

The suspicion of so-called hard Brexiters, those who want a sharp clean break with the European Union, is that the civil servants are treacherously preparing the ground for Britain to retain backdoor membership either by ensuring Britain remains a member of the customs union or its Single Market, which would require Britain to abide by EU regulations, observe rulings by the European Court of Justice and block it from negotiating individual trade deals with non-EU countries.

And there are suspicions May is maneuvering Britain into a position of backdoor membership. She has delayed publishing a formal White Paper outlining the government’s Brexit proposals, partly for fear of provoking a party rebellion. May was accused Thursday of deceiving ministers over Brexit and keeping eurosceptic members of her cabinet, including Brexit minister David Davis, in the dark over a key negotiation document concerning what happens to the border post-Brexit between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Britain's Secretary of State for Departing the EU David Davis delivers a speech on Britain's security relationship with the EU after Brexit, in London, June 6, 2018.
Britain's Secretary of State for Departing the EU David Davis delivers a speech on Britain's security relationship with the EU after Brexit, in London, June 6, 2018.

Allies say the Brexit minister has considered resigning over May’s plan for Britain to remain in the EU customs union until there is an agreement on the border, allowing "frictionless trade" between the two halves of the island of Ireland. So-called hard Brexiters fear that could be extended indefinitely, enmeshing Britain with the EU.

May’s Cabinet is sharply split between ministers led by the country’s finance minister, Philip Hammond, who want Britain to maintain close ties, like Norway, with the EU post-Brexit, including maintaining membership of the bloc’s customs union and/or membership of the single market, and ministers like the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and environment secretary Michael Gove, who favor a total break allowing the country to become what they term “global Britain.”

The country’s embattled prime minister has made various stabs at trying to define what the terms of exit the government wants and what kind of future relationship Britain should have with the European Union, only to be undermined by her warring Cabinet, or by EU officials. Earlier this year, May and her Cabinet ministers outlined collectively Britain’s Brexit future, as far as they see it, in a series of confusing and contradictory speeches that left questions unanswered and baffled EU officials.

And since then, negotiations within the cabinet and with the European Union have gone nowhere. Decisions keep being deferred. Internecine fights within the Cabinet are started, but then shelved for fear it will collapse the government, trigger a snap general election that the opposition Labour Party is poised to win.

“It has become a shambles,” a Conservative official admits. “If Rubik invented another cube, he should call it Brexit; but I am not sure anyone would be able to solve the puzzle,” he told VOA.

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