Brexit and her stepchild
In 1973, the United Kingdom pitched its tent with the European Union (EU) for purely economic reasons, primarily as a result of declining GDP in the UK. The reversal of fortunes was not unrelated to its decolonisation of Africa and India. In other words, the sun had set on the British Empire and the earth beneath their feet was cooling fast. The conventional wisdom among the ruling elite, supported by overriding public opinion was that the UK would fare better as a member of the EU monolith, whose member states could boast of a seven per cent higher GDP. Membership of the EU worked to the extent that the UK’s economic decline was halted and economic stability reigned for the next 40 years.
As with any merger of interests involving the melding of disparate entities and the erosion of individual independence, there will always be compromises to be brokered, as well as high and low points experienced by separate members or factions. In the history of the EU some of such instances were transitory, unexpected, multifaceted, protracted, reactionary, problematic or byzantine. Suffice it to say that in 2016 UK’s Conservative Government led by Prime Minister, David Cameron held a national referendum on leaving or staying with the EU. The surprising outcome was in favour of calling curtains on membership of the EU, a decision which led to the coinage of the term “Brexit”. The term is now of universal application and Brexit is being likened to “Family Law” divorce proceedings. In pursuance of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, an official letter of notification to opt out of the behemoth was hand delivered to the European Council President, Donald Tusk. It is reported that upon receiving the “scarlet letter’’ he famously responded by saying, “no reason to pretend this is a happy day…we already miss you.” The UK is the first of the “EU sister wives” to invoke Article 50 and is consequently in unchartered waters, in which may lurk strange or unexpected phenomena and inherent dangers. Apart from which, petitioning spouse, UK has assumed the role of experimental Article 50 guinea pigs.
As any true scientist will attest, experimental laboratory work may at times produce spectacularly positive outcomes, exceeding all expectation, or on the other hand, may yield disappointing or even Frankenstein results. Experiments have also been known to cause explosions which engulf everything in the vicinity. The sorry example of “sister wife” Greece must be irksome and worrying, if not downright terrifying. Although still very much in the poly-amorous EU relationship, questions remain as to whether it should have been allowed to tie the knot in the first place. The current debilitating government debt crisis has plunged the country into a depression and Greece is being kept afloat through EU bailout aid and debt relief pledges, predicated on painful reforms including the sale of government assets. The truth is that members of the once thriving middle class have become regulars at “soup kitchens” whilst the number of scavengers is growing.
What is certain is that Brexit’s two-year “bargaining period” is ticking down and it is patently obvious that the EU is calling the shots, having seized and monopolised the task of capturing the letter and spirit of “Brexit guidelines.”A further indication that Brexit waters will most likely be shark infested is the declaration that, “the EU shall act as one party, and UK shall not deal with member states on a bilateral level.” Indeed, the draft guidelines have been circulated to the 27 remaining states and this preliminary stage will culminate in the adoption of an EU position, before negotiations in earnest can commence. To make matters even more problematic for the UK, the guidelines state that the nature and scope of future relations will be considered only after “sufficient progress” has been made on the divorce settlement. The determination of which will be in the sole purview of the EU. The best barometer of this lopsided and tricky divorce quagmire and one that underscores the fact that the cards are stacked in favour of the EU, is the stipulation that “the European Court of Justice shall hold jurisdiction in the matters under preview.” This means that the EU will serve as judge, jury and executioner in all things procedural and substantive. In addition, the document contemplates a scenario in which negotiations fail, a spectre which must cause a fair degree of angst in the UK. Casting gentility aside for a brief moment, the foregoing creates the perfect ambience for a “gang assault.”
The UK is hoping for a favourable bill of divorce, unencumbered with Machiavellian or onerous terms : and devoid of acrimony and malice. However, chances of being able to gallop thunderously or skip merrily away, unscathed and without a severe trouncing are slim to none. All indicators point to the fact that “best terms” for the UK are off the table. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michael Barnier has saddled the UK with a past due bill of 52 billion pounds, purportedly representing their share of accrued financial commitments. This figure has been referred to as the “alimony request” and is disputed by the British Chancellor, Philip Hammond. Furthermore, after a few days of triggering Article 50 on March 29, 2017 the UK and the EU are at odds over Gibraltar, a territory under British sovereignty situated at the tip of Spain. The territory has been a bone of contention between the two countries and the EU has sided with Spain. This provoked a knee jerk reaction in the UK causing the drawing of parallels to Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands war with Argentina.
The EU juggernaut must stave off collapse or implosion by “circling the wagons” and by making a divorce petition a situation akin to “walking off a cliff”. In my opinion, “it’s not personal, it’s just business”. I would encourage the UK to take your marriage vows “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part” literally and determine to sink or swim by them. The alternative appears to be an EU iron fist, in a velvet glove. Take a note from the book of your erstwhile stepchild, Nigeria. Our forced amalgamation in 1914 was a direct result of British Imperialism. We have been constrained to soldier on ever since, despite very deep and very troubling unceasing, ubiquitous divides.
Ms. Irene Fowler is an international lawyer