By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
Even her greatest admirers rarely accuse UK Prime Minister Theresa May of swift, decisive decision-making. She tends to delay, analyzing every angle and detail, frequently way beyond obvious necessity. On Brexit, she may have finally finished her own internal policy tussles and settled on a path for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Will others now follow?
For months, the various warring parties in the British Cabinet have competed, leaked and briefed against each other on this, the most significant series of decisions on Britain’s future.
The smoke from the chimneys of the PM’s country residence at Chequers on Friday had finally turned white after 12 hours of Cabinet ministers hammering out the proposal. Two years since the vote, the Cabinet had agreed, belatedly, a common vision for a post-Brexit relationship with the EU.
Yet, did this end the rancor or sharp objects being inserted into rival backs? Not a chance. When US President Donald Trump turns up this week at the same venue, he might be able to inspect the damage and check for any bloodstains.
Having shown as much indecision as the PM, on Monday morning the man in charge of negotiations on Brexit, David Davis, resigned. He had threatened to do this so many times one wondered if he had the courage. Joining him was his deputy Steve Baker.
Perhaps Davis had little choice. May had reimposed collective responsibility for ministers — this meant that they all had to back the government policy on Brexit or resign. But Davis is ambitious and he wants to put himself in pole position to replace May should she be forced out, even though he has looked ill-prepared and outmatched in talks with the EU. That he has left Britain’s position in chaos and ruin does not seem to concern him.
The negotiations with the EU have to be finalized by October, prior to all individual states agreeing the deal, as well as the European Parliament. That is a tight timetable, one that might not be met even if the pace and intensity of these talks increases tenfold. It is probable that May will now lead the British negotiations personally.
What is this new British position? It envisages an EU-UK free trade area just for industrial and agricultural goods, based on a “common rule book” and a “combined customs territory.” It aims to ensure that no physical border appears between Ireland and Northern Ireland. It would surely mean that Britain, for such goods, would have be a rule-taker, not a rule-maker. British courts would have to take account of the rulings of the European Court of Justice. Hints were given that EU nationals may be given preferential access to Britain to visit, live and work. A full white paper will be published on Thursday.
May has opted to find the closest relationship she could with the EU without breaching the red lines she had outlined, namely the control of laws, borders, trade and money. That said, these lines appear somewhat fuzzy, not least as Britain would, in many areas, still have to bow down to the ECJ. Just how much leeway there would be to establish fresh new trade deals is far from clear. The US, for example, would surely wish to ensure access for agricultural goods to the UK given its huge farming industry — something that looks impossible under the proposed arrangement.
Watching from the sidelines, EU leaders and negotiators may at least be relieved that a common vision has surfaced, but with mixed feelings on Davis’ departure. May has shifted some of her red lines in this offer, but is it enough to convince them? She will expect the EU to be positive in response and show a similar degree of flexibility. As it stands, the EU does not look likely to agree to separate arrangements for goods and services. The next round of negotiations is due to start next week, assuming Britain is ready.
Will Davis be the Pied Piper who leads the rats from the sinking ship? Things are unraveling fast and May has to see off this mutiny. On Monday afternoon, with his credibility dwindling as every hour passed, leading Cabinet Brexiteer and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson followed Davis in resigning. Once again, the media is awash with rumors that the minimum of 48 Tory MPs — 15 percent of the Parliamentary party — writing to the 1922 Committee calling for May to go will be reached, thereby triggering a leadership contest. If May cannot defeat this, the chances of any form of a deal with the EU may just vanish.
We will now either see the Conservatives rally around the PM in the national interest, wary of the risk of not procuring a deal, or the party tearing itself apart in what would be political suicide. For certain, many elements of the proposal will be indigestible to the party rank and file. Labour may be the main beneficiary but, here too, the main opposition party still lacks a consistent, coherent vision.
The trouble is the Tories are seen to be owning Brexit — it is their success or failure alone. The party will be defined by it. Right now, 69 percent of the British population thinks it is going badly.
May has opted for a softish Brexit, which she hopes will be just enough to keep her party together and businesses still in Britain.
*Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech