Brexit: PM May must hush Boris Johnson to unlock the negotiations

From left to right: Emmanuel Macron, President of France, Angela Merkel, German Federal Chancellor, Christian Kern, Austrian Federal Chancellor. Shoot location: Tallinn – Estonia. Shoot date: 29/09/2017 Copyright: European Union.

Last Thursday night in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, the French President Emmanuel Macron, backed by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told the British Prime Minister Theresa May, there will be no change in the agenda of the Brexit talks; first the terms of the divorce will be agreed and then the future trade relations between Britain and the European Union will be discussed. The UK has been insisting that the two subjects must be discussed and decided in parallel. Obviously, London counts on tough bargaining for a future more or less full access to the EU internal markets, against a least costly Brexit for Britain in money and political terms.

Currently, the negotiations are rather stuck in regard to those terms. What May said on Friday 22 September about a transition period, in her much advertised speech staged in Florence, Italy, doesn’t seem to have broken the stalemate. And this despite that it “created a new dynamic”, as the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier conceded. He added though that “the transition should be discussed in the second phase of negotiations”.

A Florentine proposal

From Florence the British MP proposed a two year interim period after March 2019 for the full Brexit terms to be applied. The European Sting followed her there. According to May, during this period, presumably until March 2021, Britain will continue as if it were a member of the EU, with full access to the European internal market and normal participation in the Customs Union. She clarified that the UK is ready to pay for this provisional arrangement the equivalent of the country’s contributions to the EU Budget, amounting to around €20 billion. Understandably, this sum is on top of the ‘cost of the Brexit’ for UK, as Brussels estimated it at anything between €40bn and €60bn.

At this point, we should sum up the state of the Brexit discussions. The EU insists – the 27 leaders have taken unanimously a relevant decision – the talks must first clarify three key issues related to the exit terms and then negotiate the future trade and otherwise relations. 10 Downing Street demands that the exit terms and the future trade agreement should be negotiated in parallel. This was and still is the reason the talks are stuck. Now, Barnier says that not even the ‘interim period’ proposal can be discussed, if the exit terms are not agreed. Let’s dig a bit into those three issues Brussels wants to be agreed first.

It’s always the sovereignty

The future status of mainland citizens who live and work in Britain and vice versa for the Brits in the Continent is the first subject that Brussels wants to be settled. Of the same opinion are the British trade unions representing workers (TUC) and the employers (CBI). London says none will have to leave Britain. There are a lot of details though which have to be clarified in this respect, like the rights of family unification, deciding who has that right, etc. Last Friday, Barnier once more said that those cases have to be judged by the European Courts. Britain denies the jurisdiction of the EU Court after March 2019 and insists it will be the country’s legal system to decide on similar cases.

However, differences about the jurisdiction of the courts appear in equally important topics, like the settlement of commercial disputes after Brexit and until March 2021. Similar issues may arise in relation to the functioning of the Internal Market and the Customs Union. Hypothetically, during the transition period Britain will act as a full member regarding all those key EU institutions. But, there cannot be other magistrates and judges deciding on relevant questions, than the ones of European Courts. There is a huge European legal edifice developed through decades, which regulates both the Internal Market and the Customs Union. It’s absurd to think that the British courts may discuss cases pertaining to central EU institutions.

A matter of pride?

Given the apparent deadlock tough, May’s proposal for an interim period of no change at all, is tantamount to London contemplating to accept the jurisdiction of the EU Court in Britain after Brexit. In Florence, May, addressing the topic of EU citizens living and working in Britain said “we want you to stay, we value you”. And then in relation to which courts will rule on their status and rights she added “on this basis, our teams can reach firm agreement quickly”.

It’s an obvious reference to the prospect, that the final agreement, after voted in the Commons and becoming UK law, may foresee the continuation of the EU Courts jurisdiction in Britain, at least during the interim period. Yet it will be rather difficult for 10 Downing Street to ‘sell’ such an arrangement to the Brexiteer Brits. Boris Johnson, her minister of Foreign Affairs – an unscrupulous populist Brexiteer  repeatedly caught liying flagrantly – has turned the courts’ jurisdiction issue into a matter of ‘national pride’. As if this has not been the case for the last 44 years, after Britain joined the EU 1973.

What else?

The other two issues, to be agreed before trade is discussed, are equally complicated. The second question is the cost London has to pay for the divorce, coming to tens of billions of euros. The discussion has started from a bottom line of €20 billion and  will very probably continue until every other issue is settled, including the court jurisdiction topic. Money can nicely settle differences of ‘pride’. As the American President Abraham Lincoln famously said ‘when someone says it’s a matter of principles not money, then it’s a matter of money’. Nothing can be more true than this in the case of Brexit.

The third topic is of no less importance. It’s about the historically existing but invisible today border line of 499 km, between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The two parts of Ireland communicate now as if there is no border at all. After Brexit though the northern part will leave the EU as a part of UK, but the Republic will remain in the European Union. Legally and logically then real borders have to be installed , controlling the movements of people, goods and capital.

The Irish question

However, if real hard borders are installed everybody agrees that Northern Ireland will be greatly destabilized. Building control posts and customs booths in the only land border between the UK and the EU may trigger economic and political disorder in the north. So, both Brussels and London have accepted that not-burdened communication between the two parts of Ireland should be safeguarded. This may require large investments in technology and personnel in order to make the border almost indiscernible. However, the final arrangement on the island depends largely on the overall agreement between the UK and the EU.

In conclusion, if what happened in Tallinn will be repeated at the 19 October EU Summit, Britain will be compelled to conform to the realities of Brexit. To do this, 10 Downing Street would be obliged to get rid of extremist Brexiteers like Boris Johnson. He has recently published 4000 words in a daily newspaper, to strongly oppose a smooth Brexit.

 

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Comments

  1. Of the three issues, the most formidable, it seems to me, is the 499 kms of Irish/Ulster frontier. Unless one can imagine each individual carrying a miniature GPS embedded in his skull, (which any professiona terrorist will refuse or will know how to neutralize) I don’t see how electronics could create a virtual border allowing both immigration security and customs be enforced.

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