Brexit has been a major preoccupation for the EU and the UK for almost three years. But completing the process still has a long way to run.
Much attention on the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union has, rightly, centred on the government’s problems in Parliament. And even the most experienced political commentators cannot confidently predict the direction for the UK’s politics in the next few months.
The possibility of a “no-deal” Brexit cannot be ruled out. Under the terms of Article 50 the UK will leave the EU on 29 March, whether a withdrawal agreement is approved by the UK Parliament or not. Without such an agreement in place, the UK leaves the EU with all existing arrangements – including those covering trade, travel and citizens’ rights – expiring. Predictions about the impact on the UK’s economy, politics and society are no more than guesses as there is no precedent in recent history for a country entering into such a condition of legal and economic uncertainty. It would be an unprecedented act of recklessness by a democratic government.
The alternative is for Parliament to (eventually) approve an EU-UK withdrawal agreement. Alongside the proposed withdrawal agreement is a joint EU-UK political declaration. The political declaration sets out the aspirations for the future EU-UK relationship which will be negotiated after Brexit formally takes place on 29 March. The problem for the UK is that its Parliament doesn’t want to approve the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration negotiated by Theresa May. The EU’s 27 remaining member states are currently not minded to substantively renegotiate on the key sticking point of the “Irish backstop,” and the UK Parliament looks unlikely to approve the withdrawal agreement without changes to the backstop provisions.
Where there is a majority in the UK Parliament, it is to avoid a no-deal Brexit. EU member-state governments and the European Commission have never viewed a no-deal Brexit as a tenable outcome. Consequently, there may be a shared interest in seeking more time for negotiations. This could be done either by the UK withdrawing its intention to leave the EU (but there does not appear to be a Parliamentary majority for this course of action) or by the UK Government asking for an extension to the negotiating period (allowed for under Article 50). To do this, a British Government would need to be clear with the EU on three questions: What is the purpose of extended negotiations? How long does it require for the negotiations? How would it conduct itself as a country that would legally and practically remain a member of the EU for the period of extended negotiations?
The EU27’s interest would be for a time-limited extension of the negotiations and for specific purposes – rather than a wholesale renegotiation with the UK. The EU and its member states have other preoccupations. Elections for the European Parliament are taking place in May and the whole EU leadership will change in the autumn, with the appointment of a new European Commission, High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy and a President of the European Council.
If the withdrawal agreement enters into force then from the date of its departure from the EU, until the end of 2020, the UK will be in a period of “transition.” It will maintain adherence to EU policies, paying into the EU budget but be outside of its decision-making institutions. The UK will be the EU’s silent partner – having no say in the development of the EU but bound by its decisions.
But concluding the EU-UK withdrawal agreement will have been the easy part of the Brexit process. The transition period is intended to allow for negotiations on the terms of a future EU-UK relationship. The future relationship negotiations will have to square commitments to maintain a close alignment with the EU contained in the withdrawal agreement (such as the Irish backstop) with divisions on the ideal future relationship that exist within the Government, across Parliament and within public opinion. The UK may be on the road to leaving the EU, but the EU is not going to leave the UK’s politics anytime soon.
For the EU27, the consequences of Brexit are largely still to come. The departure of the UK sees the interests and instincts of a large member state removed from EU decision-making. For small EU member-states, the UK has been a balance against Franco-German determination of the EU’s strategic objectives. For those member states (and the EU’s trade partners) disposed towards deregulation and open markets, there is the loss of a powerful ally. And for countries nervous about an agenda to create an EU defence policy, there is the loss of Europe’s most militarily capable state, staunch Atlanticist and leading NATO member.
The impact of Brexit on the EU will be especially marked if the UK does not suffer lasting economic or diplomatic damage. In such circumstances, the UK would offer an alternative model that other European states might think about emulating.
Richard Whitman is a professor of politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. He is also a visiting fellow at Chatham House. His current research interests include the external relations, foreign, security and defence policies of the EU, and the governance and future priorities of the EU.
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