“Brexit Means Brexit” proclaimed Theresa May, shortly after taking over from David Cameron as British Prime Minister, “and there will no be attempts to remain within the EU”. This sounds unambiguous and definitive but what does this circuitous phrase actually mean in reality? More importantly, has the recent High Court ruling that she cannot use the Royal Prerogative Power (the UK’s version of a Presidential Executive Order) to start negotiating an exit without seeking a Parliamentary vote derailed the process?
The terms of membership of the EU entitles member countries to invoke Article 50 to start a two-year period of negotiation to leave, and initially May had said that this would be done in March 2017 and that she did not need to get parliament involved in the Brexit process as the “people have spoken” (in the now notorious Brexit referendum). This plan was threatened earlier this month, when the three presiding judges of the High Court determined that she was not constitutionally entitled to complete the Brexit process without an approval vote from both Houses of Parliament. An appeal has now been made to the Supreme Court which will decide on the legality of this issue in December.
The High Court decision caused uproar from Brexit supporters. The right-wing Daily Mail, the most read English publication worldwide, had a front page article declaring the judges “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE” and Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit movement, tweeted, “I now fear every attempt will be made to block or delay triggering Article 50. They have no idea the level of public anger they will provoke.”
Although it is highly unlikely that the members of parliament would ultimately vote against Brexit, there could be a number of unforeseen consequences for May and her government team tasked with negotiating the terms of the exit. First, it is possible that if she believes she will not have enough votes in both Houses to support her, she might have to call a general election to secure the mandate in Parliament. This would be a hazardous tactic though, as there is no certainty that the population would elect politicians who voted for Brexit and her government could be left in disarray. More probable is that with so many different opinions on how the negotiations should be managed, no consensus will be reached, thus delaying the decision on invoking Article 50, creating instability and irritation amongst the UK population and their European partners.
What the High Court decision has done is shine light on exactly how little people know about the Brexit process. A recent House of Commons Library reference emphasizes this: “What do we not know about Brexit? An awful lot. We don't even know when the negotiations can start, let alone what they will be about or when they will end.”
When the UK population was asked to vote on whether to remain within the EU, the main argument presented by those leading the charge to leave was that the UK would regain control of its borders and prevent free movement of people from all of the 28 member countries. It was argued that this freedom of movement is a financial burden on the UK, that takes away jobs which British citizens could do, as well as being a serious security threat. The arguments presented by those in favor to remain focused on the financial consequences of leaving and the difficulties that could be faced negotiating trade deals with the EU, the UK’s largest trading partner. These arguments did not gain sufficient traction to win the referendum, but now that the dust has settled, the real difficulties are only just beginning to emerge. The EU leaders have been unanimous in pouring cold water on any suggestion that having free trade is possible without accepting free movement of people as well. It has been made clear that one is not an option without the other, contrary to the claims of many of the “leave” protagonists. The lines have been drawn in the sand and the impasse already appears to be very difficult to negotiate.
One could argue that with Trump becoming President, with his vociferous attacks on multi country trade deals, as well as the death of Obama’s proposed TPT trade deal, that the UK would be better positioned outside of the EU to negotiate independent trade deals with the rest of the world, without the pressure to kowtow to EU negotiators. But it will be a tightrope, trying to protect domestic financial interests while the EU will want to set an example to the remaining EU members that leaving has severe negative consequences. The former polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, compared Britain to a club member who complains about the high price of admission and the lowering of standards of the accepting committee for new members, but who would like to stay in the club on individually renegotiated terms. “It will never happen”.
And so we are left with more questions than answers, including the question of will Brexit ever actually happen? The answer is probably yes, but as of now, no one seems to know what form it will take, how long it will last, or even when it will begin...
- Sophie Hadfield