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Monday, May 29 2017, analysis by analyse van Prashant Sabharwal, promovendus, aangesloten bij het Montesquieu Instituut in Maastricht

Instead of moving anywhere near compromise, upcoming Brexit negotiations are fraught with pitfalls

Komende brexit-onderhandelingen zitten vol valkuilen

In de Britse campagnes voor de landelijke verkiezingen wordt het “B-woord” nauwelijks in de mond genomen. Prashant Sabharwal, promovendus en aangesloten bij de het Montesquieu Instituut in Maastricht, legt uit dat belangrijke discussies over de implicaties van brexit nauwelijks gevoerd worden. Daarentegen bereidt de Europese Unie zich wel goed voor. Tijdens de EU-top in mei heeft de Europese Raad richtlijnen aangenomen voor harde onderhandelingen. Sabharwal duidt aan dat de Europese onderhandelingsstrategie een vriendschappelijke oplossing in de weg kan staan.

In these late days of spring, thanks to the sunshine now enveloping large parts of Europe, the spirits are finally lifting. The summer holidays, with their promise of rest and relaxation, are approaching for many Europeans who are ready for some time off after what has been a crisis-riven year for the continent and the wider world. Time has proceeded at a fast pace, so quickly that one could almost forget that it’s been nary a year since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Much ink has been spilled on the reasons, motivations and thoughts of Leave voters – from economic insecurity to a spot of xenophobia or general concern about the role of Britain on the international stage. But this is the stage at which the proceedings move from the 'Why?' to the 'How?'.

Brexit and the British Elections

Barring a major upset, not to be discounted in the age of Trump, Prime Minister Theresa May and her Conservative Party will be returned to office with a decisive majority after the general election scheduled for 8 June. However, it is difficult to overlook that whilst Mrs May called the early election with the stated need for a strong popular mandate for the upcoming withdrawal negotiations with the European Union and its Member States in mind, the present election campaign has managed to avoid a substantive discussion on Brexit itself. This is certainly connected to the reduced media scrutiny faced by this prime minister: Mrs May essentially paid no political price for refusing to participate in TV election debates – and wishing to sit on the Conservative Party’s healthy poll leads. Simultaneously, the current Labour Party leader, left-of-centre MP Jeremy Corbyn, also appears loathe to mention the B-word, let alone engage in a substantive discussion. His relative silence illustrates Labour’s core dilemma – whilst much of the institutional Labour Party supported the Remain campaign in the 2016 national referendum, many working-class Labour voters in England’s northern regions voted to leave the European Union.

Whatever the reasons may be, this election campaign so far represents a missed opportunity to engage in a real, meaningful discussion about the implications of Brexit. It’s almost as if May and Corbyn recalled former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell’s maladroit adage about election campaigns not being the time to discuss complex issues. Regardless of the final result, a great disservice is being done to British voters, particularly against the backdrop of a referendum campaign that presaged much of the wishful thinking holding sway in Downing Street and the government benches these days.

The Guidelines of EU27

Meanwhile, the European Union – hardly a paragon of unity and effectiveness at the best of times – actually is getting its house in order on Brexit. Just a few days ago, the EU27 approved the negotiating directives proposed by the European Commission. The Council Decision enshrining the EU’s negotiating strategy essentially boils down to the European Union (whose team will be led by former Commissioner Michel Barnard) driving a very hard bargain in the withdrawal talks. According to the strategy, the EU will pursue a number of goals completely anathema to Prime Minister May’s various public pronouncements on Brexit

  • The EU wants to ensure that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) remains able to hear proceedings involving the UK lodged prior to the withdrawal date; and that the UK remains legally bound to follow rulings of the Court, whilst also being compelled to pay penalties and damages for infringements of the European Treaties prior to the withdrawal date. One can see how this might be a major point of contention, especially since Mrs May expressly outlined that ECJ jurisdiction would end with the UK’s departure.
  • The status of EU citizens in the UK and of UK citizens in the EU: The EU wishes EU citizens to essentially retain the full catalogue of permanent residence, worker, self-employment, social security and pension rights even after withdrawal; this also includes the right of workers’ to be admitted to universities and vocational training institutions at the same conditions as UK nationals.
  • Reiterating the Council’s draft guidelines, this negotiating strategy also asserts that the Withdrawal Agreement shall only apply to Gibraltar if the Spanish government gives its assent.
  • Finally the EU will insist on a single financial settlement including the settling of all financial dues and obligations on part of the UK (including from structural funds and assistance given to third countries, including Turkey).

Any of these points is highly contentious in and of itself. However, in this combination, these goals (if fully incorporated into the EU’s negotiating strategy) have the potential to seriously threaten the chances of an amicable solution ensuring an orderly withdrawal.

Prime Minister May could very well be left wishing that she could keep campaigning forever.