Stretching into extra time

With the Brexit deal unlikely to witness an agreeable closure, an extra time of negotiations could well be on the cards.

Britain's love-hate relationship with Europe began in 1973 when a Conservative government under Ted (Edward) Heath joined the continent in its European Common Market (ECM) avatar. Two years later, the engagement was confirmed with a referendum backed by 67 per cent vote under Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Less than two decades later, doubts began to arise over the affair but Tory Prime Minister John Major not only papered the cracks but glued it further by making the country join the Maastricht Treaty with a deeper financial alignment.

Cracks began appearing again under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who began by declaring that Britain's destiny lay in Europe but ended up with strident demands for the return of cash from Europe, insisting that the country was paying far more in contributions to the European Union than it was receiving. Her 1988 speech in Bruges sowed the seeds of today's hardline Brexiters led by Boris Johnson, who quit Prime Minister Theresa May's Cabinet just days ago, supported by rebel MPs like Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group.

Brexiter Boris Johnson's countrywide bus tour, at the start of the Leave EU campaign blazoning slogans at a 70 million weekly cost, could be usefully spent on funding the entire needs of the cash-strapped National Health Service. The slogan proved a crowd puller and remains a potent force in the ongoing Brexit debate despite the powerful business, industry and the emotional Euro-cultural lobby. Though the 70 million pound figure has been dismissed as wishful thinking by economists, the lore persists.

Dire warnings about food shortages, clogged ports with jam-packed lorry parks and London's loss as an international financial centre don't seem to have cut much ice with the hardline Leavers. Even a prospective dilution of ties with America after President Trump's visit to Britain and America's prioritisation of ties with the EU rather than Britain has failed to soften the Brexit brigade, making May's job even more difficult. Her long fought Chequers White Paper, her government's final draft for negotiations with the EU, lies in tatters after she caved into a series of amendments and escaped a narrow defeat in the Commons.

Meanwhile, preparations for the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal at all are hogging headlines both in Britain and in Brussels. European Commission officials in Brussels last week were said to have advised member states to step up preparations for Britain crashing out on March 29 next year without any agreement. The French European affairs minister Nathalie Loiseau warned of a "brutal divorce" in view of "no real progress" having been made since last March. "On the day of the UK leaving the EU with 'no deal', we should start with new tariffs, controls and that means, of course, traffic jams in Calais and in each and every European port welcoming goods and people coming from the UK," she warned.

In Britain, supermarkets have asked suppliers to begin contingency planning in the event of Britain crashing out with no deal. German supermarket Aldi is reported to have alerted its British stores and suppliers against any breakdown of supplies from the EU. International trader Amazon has been among the first chains to alert British businesses and trade organisations on the need for long-term planning to meet any eventuality.

With the British Parliament now in recess till autumn, the Prime Minister has undertaken the task of selling her battered Brexit package to some European leaders individually rather than depending on her ministers and officials. Her new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, who was appointed only two weeks ago replacing the longtime negotiator David Davies, appears to have been sidelined to work out UK home preparations while she herself deals with EU negotiations. This emerged in her written statement to the Parliament on the last day of the Commons before the summer recess, in which she said, "I will lead the negotiations with the European Union, with the Secretary of State for exiting the European Union deputising on my behalf."

The Prime Minister's new stance is her response to hardening attitudes both at home and in Europe. The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, only last week told Dominic Raab, just before he was sidelined to homework by May, that the Chequers White Paper proposal for a "facilitated" customs deal in which Britain and the EU would collect tariffs for each other was not acceptable. This and other similar "rebuffs" are only the opening gambits from EU bureaucrats, not from EU top political leaders, which leaves room for negotiations which could go into several rounds at the highest level. With talk of both sides preparing for a "no deal" getting louder alongside a parallel desire to avoid crashing out, there are prospects of talks going into extra time in football parlance!

The extra time window opened with a suggestion by the Irish Republic's Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney stating that the two-year Article 50 process for the UK to exit the EU could be extended beyond the deadline in eight months. "If Britain asks for more time, and if that is necessary to get a sensible agreement, then we would support that, of course, we would," said Coveney, who is also the Republic's foreign minister. But the EU may not be able to covert this extra time into a long extension as it could affect the European Parliament elections in May next year.

With Germany as one of the strongest supporters of trading links with Britain, there is a fair chance that some last-minute deal could be struck, which British Prime Minister May desperately needs not just to save her job but also to avoid the greater chaos of a second referendum or a fresh parliamentary election.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

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