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Brexit has been delayed till latest 31 October. Before that date the UK has to find consensus on the way forward. ‘Is this the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?’, wonders Brexit expert Jonathan Zeitlin.

March against Brexit
Source: Wikicommons

This is the third interview with Jonathan Zeitlin, UvA Professor of Public Policy and Governance. See the links below this article for the first two interviews.

A No-Deal Brexit turned out to be unacceptable

“We have learned that a No-Deal Brexit seems unacceptably destructive to a majority of the British parliament and the British government. Pivotal was that on 1 April, when none of the alternatives to May’s withdrawal deal passed the indicative votes, Sir Mark Sedwill, the Cabinet Secretary, submitted a 14-page memo describing a doomsday scenario after a No-Deal Brexit, which was leaked to the newspapers. The scenario included dramatically increasing food prices, bankruptcy for UK companies, a currency crisis for the pound and threats to national security. What kind of government could jump off this high cliff when the head of the civil service warned of such dangers? Theresa May had to accept that a no-deal Brexit is a no-go and a longer delay was needed, as humiliating and damaging this was for her.”

The EU did not blink

“What also became clear is that the EU is not blinking and stands undivided. The UK turns out to be more dependent on the EU, than the EU on the UK. The UK will have limited choices, defined by the EU. For both parties this prospect of the UK remaing as a zombie member state until Halloween turns out to be the lesser evil than short-term damage and potential long-term harm.”

“The fantasy of 'taking back control' was the most effective slogan during the Leave campaign. But the UK has progressively lost control over its own fate, and we have witnessed an implosion of its political system, rather than a triumphal voyage into a radiant independent future.”

What might happen now?

“It is difficult to say what is going to happen. In April the British parliament was close to a consensus on a customs union, failing by only 3 votes. It is possible that in a new voting round, a customs union scenario will pass. However, a customs union alone will not solve the problems around trade and seamless movement of goods and will still lead to substantial economic losses. Look for example at the Turkey-EU customs union, where trucks still have to be waiting for an average of 2 hours at the border. This would be very damaging for the trade in perishable products, like flowers and dairy. For seamless trade, the single market also needs to be part of the game.”

"The UK still faces some difficult choices"

“So, the UK still faces some difficult choices: will they accept the freedom of movement of people, which would go against a core tenet of the Leave campaign, will they push for a second referendum or might even a withdrawal of article 50 and cancellation of Brexit be on the cards?”

“But the EU has made clear that if the UK is to avoid a no-deal Brexit, it must approve a withdrawal agreement that safeguards its payments to the EU budget and the rights of EU citizens in the UK, while respecting the terms of the Good Friday Agreement around the Irish border. Those are the key elements of Theresa May’s deal, which the UK will have to swallow.”

Timing of the new deadline of 31 October

“The new deadline has already been nicknamed May’s Halloween Horror. More importantly this date coincides with the start of the new mandate for the Presidencies of the European Commission, currently held by Jean-Claude Juncker, and the European Council, currently held by Donald Tusk.”

The European elections

‘If no withdrawal deal is passed before 22 May, which seems likely, the UK will participate in the European Parliament elections. Various polls have shown that the Conservatives will not get more than 16 percent of the votes and both Farage’s new Brexit party and the Labour Party will benefit from this backlash. If the Labour Party emerges as the largest party, this could possibly impact the election of the new President of the European Commission, maybe even paving the path for the Dutch Frans Timmermans as the spitzenkandidat of the Socialists & Democrats party group.”

What about the position of Theresa May?

“The position of Theresa May has been severely damaged: she has lost a lot of authority and is now dependent on the Labour Party and other parties for cooperation in avoiding a No-Deal Brexit. She has also promised to resign once a withdrawal agreement has been passed." 

"It is, however, hard or even impossible to force May out as Conservative Party leader for the next six months, since a previous attempt to do last December failed. At the same time, she seems unwilling to move beyond her red lines and keeps insisting that her withdrawal deal must be signed. In light of all events it would however not be unthinkable that a majority of the British Parliament would vote for the option of a customs union and perhaps even continued membership in the single market – the so-called Norway+ option.”

Brexit poll
Source: POLITICO-Hanbury poll

‘Sum up Theresa May’s approach to Brexit in one word'

“The news platform Politico conducted a survey among the British population asking the question: ‘Sum up Theresa May’s approach to Brexit in one word’. In a Word cloud they visualised the answers, revealing very clearly the current sentiment about May, most cited were: incompetent, useless, weak, rubbish and pathetic. The only slightly positive word in the cloud was: determined.”

Can we expect a new deadline?

“I don’t think that the UK will wait until 31 October to reach an agreement, nor do I expect a new deadline. Angela Merkel has made it quite clear that there will be no further extensions and she has until now been the EU leader who was most reluctant to set a hard deadline for a No-Deal Brexit”, concludes Zeitlin

Prof. dr. J.H. (Jonathan) Zeitlin

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Political Economy and Transnational Governance