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How Will British Dig Themselves Out of Their Brexit Hole?


A man walks past republican posters referring to Brexit in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, Feb. 28, 2017.

“I can’t negotiate with myself,” Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, told reporters in Brussels this week.

He’s not alone among Europeans in being impatient.

“We are waiting for the UK to come to the table and to lay out exactly what they are after,” said Mairead McGuinness, vice president of the European Parliament. “The clock is ticking towards Brexit. It is a mess, but it is not an EU mess.".

Britain was supposed to begin formal negotiations on its break from the EU next week, but according to officials, no firm date has been set as Prime Minister Theresa May tries to form a minority government and agree on a voting arrangement with Northern Ireland's Unionists to secure a small working majority in the House of Commons.

Negotiations

For the next few days — and possibly weeks, the British will be negotiating with themselves about what they want, nearly three months after May invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty announcing Britain’s intention to leave the EU.

Under Article 50, Britain has two years to agree on a financial settlement and the exit terms or leave the EU with no deal. That would mean tariffs on goods exported from Britain to the EU, Britain’s largest trading partner.

No longer is Brexit about what people want — it is also about what’s possible.

Negotiating Britain’s departure was always going to be complicated, but last week's indecisive British election has made it more so.

May will be leading a minority Conservative government divided over Brexit with her own job in doubt and with a challenge to her party leadership possible at any time. Her Cabinet — as is her parliamentary party — is sharply split between hard and soft Brexiters.

So-called hard Brexiters want Britain not only to exit the EU and to be outside the bloc’s single market and customs union, but to negotiate unique non-tariff access to the single market without having to contribute to the EU budget or abide by rulings of the European Court of Justice or allowing Europeans to live and work freely in Britain.

Soft Brexiters are eager for a much closer relationship with the EU. They want to maintain single market and/or customs union membership much as Norway or Switzerland now enjoy and are prepared to pay into the EU budget. May somehow has to shape a negotiating position with the EU that both sides of the Brexit rift can agree on.

No majority

Prime Minister May also faces a House of Commons where there’s no majority for a hard Brexit and a House of Lords that was spoiling for a fight with her own immigration-curtailing hard Brexit vision even before the election.

Suddenly, Brexit has become a series of complex interlocking negotiations — between the Conservatives themselves, between the Conservatives and Northern Ireland’s Unionists, who favor remaining within the customs union, between the Conservatives and opposition parties, also soft on Brexit, as well as between Britain and the EU.

Cross-party talks in the House of Commons to get a broad consensus on Brexit are already under way with several major politicians, across the political spectrum backing a parliamentary commission to help craft a Brexit plan. Advocates for a commission include William Hague, a former Conservative party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, and senior Labour lawmaker Yvette Cooper.

And increasingly, the buzz in the parliament is about what’s being called a “jobs-first Brexit,” a description first used by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, on the election campaign trail.

The idea is that Britain would retain a close relationship with the EU and even retain single market and customs union membership but that the EU wouldn't hold the country to full freedom of movement of Europeans into Britain.

Some “jobs-first Brexiters” are pushing for Britain to join the European Economic Area, which unites EU states with three non-EU members, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, in an internal market governed by the same basic Brussels-overseen rules.

Writing in a British newspaper Tuesday, Hague said on freedom of movement that one possibility would be to introduce “work permits for workers from the EU but agree to grant them to anyone who gets a job in Britain…They would not receive any support if out of work, and the same rights would have to apply to British citizens throughout the EU.”

Negotiating position

Hague, however, acknowledges building a Brexit consensus will be difficult. And the big questions are whether the Europeans will give Britain the ability to shape a negotiating position that has broad domestic support and how ready will they be for Britain, as is likely, to seek a tailored deal.

Barnier on Monday warned Britain risks crashing out of the EU in March 2019 without any deal if it “wastes” more time. “We haven’t negotiated, we haven’t progressed. Thus we must begin this negotiation,” he said. Barnier made clear — as have national leaders across the continent — that the EU is particularly sensitive to the terms for any single market participation, from European court oversight to free movement of labour. “It’s not a supermarket,” he said.

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