Return with a vengeance
The Brexit fiasco is back again and this time, the stakes will be even higher for all the concerned parties as tense discussions inevitably move towards a ‘no-deal’ scenario
The United Kingdom and the European Union were on loggerheads again last week when they resumed talks on the Withdrawal Agreement signed in January this year. Fresh fuel to the fire was added this time with Britain openly declaring that it could no longer abide by the January agreement to protect what it called the internal market of Britain, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Ominously they look set on an escalating collision course.
Deepening the divorce chasm, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Government has introduced an 'Internal Market Bill' to protect the interests of the four constituents or nations of the United Kingdom. British Government's chief negotiator David Frost let it be known that the two sides could no longer go over the old deadlocked talks and that the EU needed to show more realism about the UK's status as an independent country.
Needless to say, the European Union leaders were aghast at Britain's sudden provocation. European Council President Charles Michel hit back saying the EU was in no mood to budge on its demands. " Europe is a world power and we are ready to defend our interests." Earlier Ursula von der Leyden, head of the EU executive, said: "I trust the British Government to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, an obligation under international law and a prerequisite for any future partnership."
A report in the Financial Times estimated that without a deal, about $900 billion worth of annual trade between the EU and Britain could be thrown into uncertainty, including rules and regulations ranging from financial data, car parts, medicines and fruit and vegetables.
The UK-EU acrimony comes as no surprise to observers. The two sides have never been the best of friends in spite of nearly 50 years of EU membership. This writer in his 2003 book 'India and Britannia — an abiding affair' had described the British as 'Reluctant Europeans' which appears to be heading for confirmation, not wished for then or now by this writer. But that's life. And that looks like being the choice of the people of the United Kingdom under the country's new Internal Market Bill.
One of the core objectives of the bill includes the protection of fishing rights in British waters by keeping out the European member states from sharing it as hitherto enjoyed by them. Another area where the UK will have the unfettered right to give state aid to its own industries and business entities in Northern Ireland. The EU, however, would like to ensure that British businesses do not enjoy any unfair advantage because of lax social, environmental or subsidy rules.
Perhaps the hottest issue between the two sides concerns Northern Ireland, part of the UK and the Republic of Ireland which is a hardcore member of the European Union. Britain's Internal Market Bill aims at ensuring that goods from Northern Ireland will continue to have unfettered access to the UK market. At the same time, it will make state aid available to Northern Ireland, though not to the rest of the UK.
While Britain claims its new bill will keep the free flow of people and goods between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a hard-fought peace deal under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between the two parts of Ireland. The EU authorities fear it will do exactly the opposite and severely damage peace prospects after decades of strife and bloodshed in the partitioned island.
The EU has toughened its stand by bluntly asking the UK to scrap its plan to breach the Withdrawal Agreement divorce treaty signed in January or face the prospect of being hauled up for breaking international law. But Britain appears to be adamant on pursuing its goal declaring that its parliament is sovereign and above international law.
Home critics of Prime Minister Johnson's policy include towering personalities like former Prime Ministers John Major and Theresa May who have argued that flouting international agreement and law flies in the face of Britain's reputation as a law-abiding country. In her forthright comment, Ms May said that any attempt to bypass previous commitments could adversely affect Britain's international stature. In fact, one of the first to openly oppose such a policy was Britain's chief Brexit Law Officer, Jonathan Jones, who promptly put in his resignation over the issue.
EU officials have reminded their British counterparts that the 27-nation bloc could take legal action against Britain over the next four years if there is no resolution during the transition period which expires at the end of this year. One EU source reminded Britain that it would not succeed in its attempts to extract concessions by threats to walk away from the Withdrawal Agreement. It would fail if it tried to do that, the EU source underlined. A note circulated among the 27 member states said that the Withdrawal Agreement allowed the bloc up to four years to launch legal proceedings against Britain if it violated EU rules during the transition period up to the end of this year.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier signalled that the bloc was strengthening its preparations for the eventuality of a 'no deal' with Britain after his talks in London seemed to make little headway. "The UK has not engaged in a reciprocal way on fundamental EU principles and interests," Barnier said. "Nobody should underestimate the practical, economic and social consequences of a 'no deal' scenario."
To queer the pitch further, the US Democrats have waded into the controversy by reminding Britain that its chances of a trade deal with the USA could be in jeopardy if it failed to honour its wider international law obligations. A trade deal with the USA is one of Britain's major planks which it could ill afford to lose.
The writer is a freelance writer and author of 'India and Britannia — an abiding affair' and other writings. Views expressed are personal