British caught in EU cul-de-sac

It is turning out to be a most difficult divorce in recent British history. After two years of excruciatingly painful negotiations, the British cannot seem to agree on the best terms on which to part with the EU. The red lines set by the EU cannot be assailed. And the British are so confused, so divided that Prime Minister Theresa May evokes pity, not sympathy, for displaying a singular lack of leadership in this momentous hour in modern Britain’s history.

The British people decided in a referendum two years ago to leave the EU. They might have been misled by false promises and tall claims about the benefits set to flow if they reclaimed their own sovereignty from the bureaucrats in Brussels. The reality was somewhat different. Membership of the EU was not without its positives. It was the biggest single economic bloc able to negotiate with other trading countrieswith a degree of strength unavailable to individual members-states singly.

Free movement of goods and services and, above all, people throughout the 27-member Union was a huge plus. As was the uniform standards on food, pharmaceuticals, and other goods and services. Close coordination in security and strategic affairs was another plus. Though the UK did not join the currency union, the euro reflected the economic strength of the collective union.

There were obligations which often riled politicians in member-countries to try and break the mould and play by their own rules. Brussels insisted on fiscal discipline. Politicians keen to loosen the purse strings and cross the deficit limits were liable to be rapped on the wrists by EU. Italy and Greece a few years ago were up in arms because of the stringent constrains imposed by the EU at a time of severe economic hardships. Eventually, things turned out to be right for both the stressed economies.

In the case of Britain, former Prime Minister David Cameron came under pressure from an anti-EU lobby to order the referendum. The result was a narrow victory for leavers. He quit. May succeeded him. Ever since, she has been negotiating the best possible terms on which to respect the people’s mandate. Her best deal has been rejected thrice by the MPs. Her own ruling Conservative Party is badly divided. Some MPs have left to form their own core group, others have openly defied her to vote against the deal.

May relies for majority on the support of a regional Scottish party which is unwilling to support her. Even the Opposition Labour is riven by dissensions. The sticking point is what is called the Irish backstop. Most MPs are against it, arguing it would keep Britain bound to the EU customs and single market perennially. Without the backstop the EU would not grant the divorce to Britain. Also, Ireland, an EU member, would not accept a hard border between Northern Ireland and itself, adding to the woes of May.

The backstop has proved a deal-breaker, though a section of the MPs are keen on a continuing a customs union with the EU, others would like the Canadian model of a free trade agreement. But a simple majority has eluded the British Prime Minister despite her seeking the nod of the Commons on more or less the same deal twice in the last few weeks. She might have hoped that the MPs would fall in line as the deadline for effecting the divorce came near. This did not happen.

From March 29, the deadline for formalizing the separation has now been moved to April 12, but MPs have shown little interest in going along with May. Such is the disarray in British politics that MPs for the first time have taken upon themselves to ‘direct’ what the government should do. That is what they intended to do by undertaking to vote on various proposals in the Commons on Wednesday.

The ‘indicative votes’ were meant to set the course of action for the government to take if it were to effectuate divorce with the EU. It is another matter that the EU may not agree on the new terms. Meanwhile, later in May the EU election becomes due. If by then, the British cannot settle the terms of divorce they will have to necessarily participate in these elections. May is so desperate that she has agreed to step down if her deal is approved.

Truly, Britain finds itself in a right royal mess of its own making. Allowing lay people to be uninformed about the intricacies of complicated trade, customs and currency policies and what gains and losses flow from them, to settle policy is not always wise. Domain experts and permanent bureaucracies frame government policies. Britain is paying for that ill-considered decision to allow in or out of EU to be dictated by an uninformed and misguided people.

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