Eye of London
Brexit Britain struggles with EU withdrawal symptoms, writes Subhash Chopra.
Badly battered Prime Minister Theresa May, whose image suffers daily media blows, is finding herself out-maneuvered at the European Union negotiation tables in Brussels by the regional constituents of the United Kingdom. The leaders of Scotland and Wales have been quick to gang up against May who is increasingly being seen as a leader of England only. Northern Ireland, the other constituent, of course, has managed to have the first bite of the cherry by extracting the one billion pound bung for its support to the government.
The First Ministers of Scotland and Wales have revealed their hand by issuing a joint declaration on the "European Union Withdrawal Bill" – the official title of the Brexit or Repeal Bill -- that their governments "cannot recommend that legislative consent is given to the bill as it stands." The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones have both questioned London government's authority in Brussels talks and dubbed the bill as a "naked power grab." Edinburgh and Cardiff governments want to dictate their own terms to safeguard their regional interests.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was equally swift to pre-empt any deal by Theresa May's government when he flew to Brussels to hold talks with Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator. At his flamboyant best, Corbyn presented his football club Arsenal's jersey and a copy of the Labour election manifesto to Barnier. Corbyn's 150-minute meeting with Barnier is said to have indicated Labour's search for a potential compromise on the UK's access to the EU single market after Brexit. Of course, both Corbyn and Barnier denied that their talks amounted to any parallel negotiations or undermined formal government talks, which will continue over the next weeks and months.
The Liberals like Sir Vince Cable, the next probable party leader who has family connections with India, are asking for a second referendum to reverse the entire Brexit project. "I'm beginning to think Brexit may never happen," he told a BBC TV show. The whole question of EU membership would once again arise if living standards suffered and unemployment rose, he said. But after the battering received by the party at the June elections, its voice doesn't carry much weight.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Tony Blair has jumped into the fray by suggesting a compromise with EU. Himself a pro-European, he believes that Brexit need not be too hard and claims that EU can be persuaded to offer some leeway or concession to Britain over the right of free movement of workers (EU migrants). At the same time, Blair has paid a left-handed compliment to Corbyn for boosting the labour party at the general election while warning that an "unchanged Corbyn programme" would prove to be disastrous for the country.
"I pay tribute to Jeremy Corbyn's temperament in the (election) campaign... and to the enthusiasm it generated." But his supporters "shouldn't exaggerate it," and "his critics, including me, shouldn't understate it." Blair is known for his opposition to Brexit, which he has previously urged his supporters to overturn.
However, overturning Brexit doesn't seem to be anywhere on the horizon; the die has been cast and Britain must grapple with making the best of the choice of its own making. And this looks to be a long haul.
The confusion is being further confounded by differing voices within the ruling Tory party. Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, said the other day that the EU could "go whistle" if it demanded too high a price for withdrawing from the bloc. There is talk about the divorce bill costing as high as one hundred billion euro. Johnson's remarks drew an immediate retort from Brussels boss Barnier who said, without mentioning any figures that he was "not hearing any whistling, just a clock ticking."
Elaborating on the EU stand, Barnier said: "People have used words like ransom... It's not an exit bill, it's not a punishment, it's not revenge, it's simply settling accounts."
EU officials have made it clear that failure to acknowledge the principle of continuing budget obligations would prevent talks from proceeding at all and could stop discussions on issues like a free trade deal. "The three priorities for the first phase are indivisible," declared Barnier. He was referring to the divorce bill, EU citizens' rights in the UK and issues like the Northern Ireland border.
The British Chancellor, Philip Hammond, who was being reviled in the Tory press before the election, has suddenly regained listeners in the party for his soft stance on Brexit to retain London's place as a financial centre and to stop the exodus of banking sector jobs to Europe. Trade and industry organisations have already voiced their support to the Chancellor's strategy. Another sector which has been warned against any hasty decisions concerns the Euratom treaty, on the movement of European scientists and materials. Leaving Euratom in haste could see the loss of as many as 5ooo highly skilled jobs. Other issues, including security and the role of European Court of Justice, are grave causes for concern.
It's just the start of divorce talks, how it unravels is anybody's guess.Private Eye, Britain's leading satirical magazine which has delighted, informed and alerted its readers for more than 50 years, in its irreverent take on 'Britain's Brexit Strategy' carries in its latest issue a mock-up of two people with food in their hands, one under the sub-heading 'THEN' showing 'Cake and eat it' and the other under tag line 'NOW' telling 'Eat humble pie.'
Britain's dress-down spree, which started with the House of Commons Speaker making tie an optional that can be dispensed with, has moved to broader fields. London Transport's Tube or metro rail has dropped its centuries old greeting phrase
'Ladies and Gentlemen.' From now on it is 'Good morning everyone,' in deference to the gender-neutral campaign of LGBT groups, blessed by Mayor Sadiq Khan.
(Subhash Chopra is a freelance journalist and author of 'India and Britannia – an abiding affair'. Views expressed are strictly personal.)