Brexit Negotiations Move Into Crucial Phase

Prime Minister Theresa May addresses delegates during a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, England on Wednesday, Oct. 3 , 2018. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

(CN) – British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Union leaders appear to be getting closer to a deal on Brexit, but it remains far from clear whether any agreement will be accepted by British lawmakers.

Negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal from the EU are entering a crucial phase. The talks have largely stumbled over establishing the economic parameters for the break – details regarding customs, duties, standards for goods and the free movement of EU citizens.

Next Wednesday, the European Council, which is made up of the heads of state in the EU, will meet in Brussels to review the state of the negotiations. EU leaders have said they are getting close to a deal.

Analysts expect a tentative agreement may be reached in time for the upcoming meeting and then completed at a meeting in mid-November.

Carsten Nickel, a researcher with Teneo Intelligence, a London-based political risk advisory firm, said Monday a likely agreement will include seeing Britain stay within the EU’s duty-free customs union and see Northern Ireland remaining within the EU’s economic zone.

Such a deal is precisely what many hard-line Brexit supporters in Britain fear – one designed and crafted by the EU to suit the EU.

To appease opposition and help May’s chances of getting a deal approved by the British Parliament, Nickel said the agreement would likely include a provision about the future relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom “that is vague enough to allow for rosy interpretation in the UK.”

“The unfolding choreography in Brussels, in fact, has mainly one purpose: to engineer sufficient support for parliamentary sign off in Westminster,” he said in Monday’s briefing note.

Both the British and EU parliaments must approve any eventual deal.

In 2016, Brits voted in a referendum to leave the EU. Britain has set a March 29, 2019, deadline for its exit.

May has proposed a limited break with the EU that keeps Britain part of Europe’s free trade area. This plan is meant to avoid heavy economic repercussions. But her plan calls for stopping the free movement of EU citizens, ending payments to the EU and an end to EU jurisdiction in Britain. The EU rejected her proposals.

At home, her plan outraged those who want Britain to make a bold break with the EU and begin looking for new trade agreements around the world.

Europe has appeared to hold the stronger hand in the negotiations so far, in large part due to its unity and economic clout. About 12 percent of Britain’s gross domestic product is derived from exporting goods and services to the EU. By comparison, about 3 percent of the EU’s GDP comes from exports to Britain.

Few EU politicians have supported Britain’s cause to break with the bloc and as a whole are united in demanding concessions from Britain. By comparison, politicians and the public in Great Britain are deeply split and fractured over Brexit.

Those divisions in Britain are not any closer to being ironed out.

Dogs and their owners gather in Parliament Square after marching in a “Wooferendum” to demand a People’s Vote on Brexit, in London, Sunday Oct. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)

On Sunday in London, about a thousand dogs and their owners marched on parliament in opposition to Brexit and demanded a new referendum on whatever deal May makes with the EU. The event was called the “Wooferendum” march.

A growing chorus has called for a second referendum, an idea that has the support of the Labour Party, the main opposition party.

The Brexit referendum was close, with about 52 percent voting to leave the EU. But opinion polls show that support for Brexit has fallen, with about 47 percent of Brits now thinking Brexit was a mistake and 42 percent saying it was the right decision. Polls in Britain also show deep frustration and disappointment with the negotiations.

May’s deal-making with the EU is facing opposition from members of her own party, the Tories. Many conservatives feel that she has offered too many concessions to the EU and in effect led Britain into a deal in which it would be trapped within EU laws and rules. Brexit supporters want to leave the EU to be able to negotiate new trade deals around the world and to extricate Britain from the EU’s rule-making.

The political maneuvering, heated rhetoric, taunts, threats, uncertainty and confusion that have accompanied the negotiations for months haven’t quieted down and look likely to continue.

It was much of the same on Tuesday when the British media focused on a member of May’s cabinet, the international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt. She was not explicitly and wholeheartedly supporting May’s Brexit plans, British newspapers reported. She was a supporter of Brexit, something the prime minister wasn’t back in 2016.

Also on Tuesday, May’s chief Brexit negotiator, Dominic Raab, was expected to appear before the House of Commons to quell concerns and anger among Conservative Party members.

A major sticking point in the negotiations is over what will happen to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

After Brexit, this 310-mile border will become the only land border between the EU bloc and Britain. The negotiators are trying to find a way to keep the border free of customs and passport checks, but this has proven to be very tricky and politically fraught due to the region’s bloody past.

One idea has been to include Northern Ireland into Europe’s economic sphere, but this has upset Protestant pro-Brexit factions there, in particular the Democratic Unionist Party. Its 10 parliament members in the House of Commons play a critical supporting role in the conservative government and wield a lot of power.

On Tuesday, Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, was in Brussels to tell the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, that Northern Ireland should not be “treated differently” from the rest of Britain in terms of customs and “regulatory alignment.”

“That’s to protect not just the constitution of the United Kingdom but also the economy of Northern Ireland,” she said at a news conference after meeting with Barnier.

She said “there cannot be barriers to trade” between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Her party has threatened to pull its support for May’s government if there are new checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom.

In the Brexit referendum, 56 percent of voters in Northern Ireland voted against the move. Political parties representing the anti-Brexit vote also met with Barnier last week. Those parties, which include Sinn Fein, support making Northern Ireland align with the EU market.

Meanwhile, Scottish leaders too are voicing concerns about what will happen.

Over the weekend, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, has called for Scotland to be aligned economically with the EU after Brexit in a way Northern Ireland could be.

Her party is also backing a second referendum on Brexit and renewing calls for a vote to break away from the UK and become independent. As in Northern Ireland, Scotland too voted against Brexit, and by an even larger margin – 62 percent against and 38 percent in favor of Brexit.

Cain Burdeau is a Courthouse News reporter based in the European Union.

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