The moment when Britain would officially exit the European Union (EU) is still some months away — 11 p.m. local time on March 29, 2019 — but the tremors are being felt even now. The source of the foreshocks are the unstable machinations of the British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit ‘war cabinet’. As the clock ticks without a breakthrough so far in the talks, anxiety is palpable among the business community and the general public.
Without a clear plan to counter the unsociable environment being created by an increasingly unempathetic EU, Ms. May’s assurances as yet have not been productive.
Her team’s negotiating skills are being continuously weakened by hardliners within the union. The U.K.’s pride has been dealt a few knocks on successive occasions at the negotiating table. It has also been reaching out desperately to the Commonwealth and the rest of the world for a deal before Brexit happens which could overcome the exit loss. This is a humongous task as some of the countries outside the bloc, including the U.S., have opposed Britain leaving the EU. Even India has said that it is ‘in no rush to sign a deal’ with the U.K. after Brexit. ‘Open Britain’, an anti-Brexit think-tank, has said that an India-U.K. free trade agreement “would easily take seven years”.
The trade terms that Britain set for the Commonwealth, post-war and post-independence, are not simply there now because some of them are almost ready to supersede the U.K. economically.
There are also fears that the U.K. might end up leaving without a final deal in hand. There are whispers from Ms. May’s Brexit camp that she might agree to an extension beyond 2020 in order to assist Britain in establishing transitional arrangements to ensure a hold in the single market as well as the customs union.
The next steps
Brexiteers are hoping for a turnaround in negotiations at least by December even as the EU is convoking a special meeting in November to wrap up a final deal. But December will be the time for the final opportunity before which the text of the withdrawal treaty has to be cleared by a supermajority of EU leaders — a minimum of 20 out of 27 remaining members of the EU representing at least 65% of their population. The deal will also have to be ratified at a plenary by the European Parliament. If any differential clauses persist, Parliament might refer them to the European Court of Justice. If all this happens before December, the British Parliament will take it over.
The moment of truth will come when the deal, if reached, is put to a parliamentary vote, widely considered to be an impediment for Ms. May. Adding to her woes is the fact that the Labour party has different ideas regarding legislative amendment for the voting.
If the deal is struck in December, a date for parliamentary approval will be fixed, possibly in January, to approve the bill, to be passed as a law by February — a gargantuan task fraught with controversies over people’s rights, details of the transition and the final financial settlement.
The vote on which the minority government in London hopes to get the deal through hinges on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Ms. May’s government might need to unconditionally embrace many, if not all, of Belfast’s predilections.
There is also confusion raging in the British Parliament as two-thirds of its MPs are still in favour of remaining in the EU despite a majority of their constituencies having voted to leave. Speculation is rife that angry Tory backbenchers might also press for a leadership change, and that Ms. May may face an exit before Christmas.
Brexit Minister Martin Callanan had earlier stated that Parliament should go for a ‘meaningful vote’, which, loosely interpreted, means that if the U.K. leaves without a deal, it would have to trade on World Trade Organisation terms. This means that post-Brexit negotiations could be hard-fought and the U.K. could also be left with no other choice than it is doing even now.
Border negotiations for custom clearances and travel would also take long despite optimum use of advanced technology, an addition to the chaos which could descend on markets and investors if no deal is reached in December.
Ms. May has also rejected the demand for a second referendum. If Brexit happens without a deal, she has now announced, in order to win trust, tax cuts for 30 million citizens, with effect from April next, a year earlier than fixed, amid claims that a deal is almost done. No one believes this.
The Indian angle
In an article in
, businessman, independent crossbench life peer and anti-Brexiteer Karan Bilimoria has stated that Indian-run businesses would suffer phenomenally with or without a deal.
Tejinder Singh Shekawat, a construction entrepreneur and president of the Indian Chamber of Youth Entrepreneurs attached to the India High Commission in London, says, “The current status is that the Europeans have already started leaving. As a result, the rental and property prices have come down, whereas labour and material prices have gone up by 25%. Almost every business is struggling even before the Brexit happened.”
A large portion of Indian businesses in the U.K. are dependent on the free European market. They are watching the developments with bated breath.
K.S. Vijay Elangova is a journalist and scholar based in Britain
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