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U.K. careens into economic, political unknown as time runs short on Brexit

By Les Whittington      

Leaving the EU imperils Prime Minister Theresa May’s future, the U.K. economy, Britain’s standing in the world, and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, speaking in the House of Commons foyer during a September 2017 visit to Canada, faces backlash from Brexit hardliners in her divided caucus if she doesn't commit to a strong break from the EU. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia
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OTTAWA—Euroskeptics are worried that British Prime Minister Theresa May will allow her country’s historic Brexit endeavour to degrade into nothing more than Brino.

An acronym for “Brexit in name only,” Brino is a term used by British MP Jacob Rees-Mogg that encapsulates the angry concerns of anti-European Union stalwarts who are pushing for a clean break with Europe in the aftermath of the Leave victory in the 2016 referendum.

The decisive moment resulting from that vote will arrive in just about a year. As of 11 p.m. British time on Friday, March 29, 2019, the United Kingdom will no longer be part of the EU.

Unravelling 45 years of efforts to integrate the United Kingdom with the now-28-member European bloc has proven every bit as difficult as might have been imagined, imperilling among other things May’s future, the U.K. economy, Britain’s standing in the world, and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

The key question on what kind of economic and trade relations the U.K. will eventually settle on with the EU, which takes nearly half of all U.K. exports, is still very much up in the air.

With negotiations entering an intense phase, it’s hoped a series of high-level meetings of U.K. and EU officials will pave the way for the second stage of the divorce negotiations.

As part of the ongoing talks, May has reached agreement on a transition period of about two years after March 2019 in which the current state of affairs would largely remain in place while the final details of the separation are worked out. This would give the worried British business community assurance of an orderly transition.

But the U.K. will have to continue during the two years to abide by laws passed in Brussels and honour current rules on the free movement of people within the U.K. and other EU states—the latter being the very issue that inflamed the Leave campaign two years ago.

And progress has been seriously held up by the conundrum of how to avoid re-establishing the border-checking facilities that would be expected between Northern Ireland, as part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, once Brexit happens. It is feared that a “hard” border might reignite sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

Beyond that, it’s unclear what form of lasting U.K.-EU trade deal might be acceptable. May would like a special arrangement on trade and services that still gives the U.K. access to the EU market. But Britain rejects a semi-loose arrangement like Norway’s, which requires the Norwegians to live with EU laws, including free movement of people, without any voice in making the laws.

But officials in Brussels say May is trying to cherry-pick the best parts of relations with the bloc and suggest the U.K. may have to settle for an arm’s-length free trade pact like Canada has with Europe under CETA.

Meanwhile, the political turmoil in Britain from Brexit continues. It seems hard to know from one day to the next whether May, who unnecessarily lost a parliamentary majority in a snap election last June, will survive as leader. The Conservatives are split between the Brexit hardliners like Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and others who want to protect business by keeping the closest trade ties possible with the EU. A rebellion against May is building among the anti-EU forces around her and Johnson and Rees-Mogg are limbering up for a possible leadership bid.

At the same time, Rebrexit, a term for the regrets of those with buyers’ remorse about the Leave decision, appears to be on the increase. Polling shows a slim majority—the reverse of the results in the 2016 referendum—having second thoughts about Brexit, while there is also widespread support for a second referendum on leaving the EU once the terms of the U.K.’s departure finally become clear.

Les Whittington is an Ottawa journalist and a regular contributor to The Hill Times.

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