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Brexit: Divorce, Finally!

Brexit: Divorce, Finally!
Britain’s envoy to the European Union Tim Barrow (left) delivers PM Theresa May’s Brexit letter to EU Council’s president Donald Tusk in Brussels, Belgium. Photo: UNI

Britain has formally begun the process of leaving the EU but there is uncertainty over future trade deals with its European counterparts

~By Sajeda Momin in London

After nine months of “will she, won’t she”, Britain has finally begun the process of exiting out of the 28-nation bloc called the European Union (EU) that she joined over four decades ago.

On March 29, just a little after 12.30 pm, British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon which began the two-year countdown to the UK’s departure from the EU. The six-page letter written by May announcing the UK’s intention to unilaterally leave was given to Donald Tusk, the European Council president, by Sir Tim Barrow, Britain’s ambassador to the EU. On receiving the notification, Tusk tweeted: “the UK has delivered Brexit”.

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Minutes later, May spoke at length in the House of Commons on the momentous decision her government had taken. “We understand that there will be consequences for the UK of leaving the EU. We know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We know that UK companies that trade with the EU will have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part, just as we do in other overseas markets. We accept that,” she said.

(L-R) PM Theresa May; Labour Leader Jeremy CorbynLabour leader Jeremy Corbyn responded by promising that the government would be “held to account at every stage of the negotiations”. “The next steps along this journey are the most crucial, and if the prime minister is to unite the country … the government needs to listen, consult and represent the whole country, not just hard-line Tory ideologues on her own benches,” he told MPs.

The virtually unstoppable divorce came after a bruising campaign and a shocking referendum result last June that left Britain divided. “This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back. We are going to make our own decisions and our own laws,” May said, harping on the Leave campaign rhetoric.

Brexiteers want to restore the supremacy of British law and remove themselves from the clutches of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), but the EU may insist on the UK obeying the ECJ during the transitional period. This period can go a few years beyond the two-year exiting time-frame, which may mean that Britain may not regain its sovereignty for at least another five years. British law-makers are going to be kept very busy for the next decade in untying the hundreds of laws and rules it has with the EU and making fresh ones for themselves.

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The 51.9 percent, who had voted to leave the EU, did so on the basis of promises to regain sovereignty over law-making and curbs on immigration.

When senior editor Andrew Neil tried to pin down the prime minister on “lower immigration” after her speech in parliament, May retracted, saying: “There are so many things in the world which affect the number of people coming to the UK.”

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Post-Brexit, India-UK relations to get boost

UK is among India’s major trading partners ranking 18th in the list of the top 25. Trade during 2014-15 between them was $14.33 billion. Britain is the largest investor in India of the G20 in the last decade, while India reciprocates by being the third largest investor in the UK. Post-Brexit, both countries hope that their trade and investment relationship will strengthen further.

During a recent visit to India, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond announced that India and UK may look at a free trade agreement (FTA), but only after Britain’s formal exit from the EU. Arun Jaitley, India’s finance minister, hoped for more open trade and more trade arrangements and a “far wider and far higher level of engagement” between the two countries.

Considering that a FTA between India and the EU has proved elusive with talks deadlocked since 2013 after 16 rounds of negotiations, it will be interesting to see whether these intentions see fruition. For that, we will have to wait till after March 2019.

Even some Indians had voted in favour of Brexit, hoping that lower immigration from the EU would mean that more of their “family and friends from back home” could come here. However, they were rather “surprised” when the right-wing UKIP which had campaigned vehemently for Leave turned the tables on them and said this was a vote for stopping all immigration. In fact, the rise in racist attacks in the aftermath of the referendum targeted South Asians and not Europeans.

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Making it clear that her government was acting on the “democratic will of the British people”, May urged her European counterparts to help secure a “bold and ambitious free trade agreement”. The response came within hours from German chancellor Angela Merkel who dashed any hopes that Brexit talks could run parallel with those on a future trade deal. Merkel and Tusk confirmed that separation talks would come first and progress on this would determine discussions on trade.

Britain and the EU both accept that there needs to be a transitional period after Brexit until a new UK-EU trade deal comes into force. However, the terms of this are already a source of dispute.

Another point of contention will be the UK’s “exit bill”. The EU would like Britain to pay its share of current EU budget liabilities and it is being widely reported that they will set the figure at around 50 billion pounds. While this is likely to be the EU’s opening bid, some haggling is like to take place.

According to Treasury officials, a final payment may be fixed around 20 billion pounds, a cost which many Britons are unlikely to be happy with.

Though the irreversible process has begun, even the run-up to Brexit has left the country deeply divided. As former Scottish Nationalist Party leader Alex Salmond put it: “Northern Ireland is deadlocked, the Welsh alienated, Scotland is going for a referendum, the English are split down the middle and Brexit MPs are walking out of committees because they don’t like home truths.”

While EU is worried that Brexit may just be a signal for other member countries to also leave EU, some Britons fear the spectre of a broken kingdom.