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The British and European Union negotiating teams struck a deal on a transition period so that the U.K. will officially separate from the E.U. on the first of January, 2021. Officials hail the arrangement as a great step forward, but Theresa May’s government is under fire for capitulating to almost all E.U. demands.
E.U. law will apply in Britain during the transition, with continued enforcement of shared fishing waters, free movement of people into Britain from E.U. countries, and no guarantees of the rights of British citizens on the continent. Accusations of betrayal have been aimed at the government with Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage calling for the Prime Minister to step down, labeling her “Theresa the Appeaser.” Even Europhile former Chancellor George Osborne has admitted that millions of Britons on both sides of the debate are unhappy with the options presented to them by the two major parties.
The arrangement needs to be officially ratified at an E.U. summit this week, though the actual transition period doesn’t begin until March 29, 2019 – over a year from now.
As a small island, much of the U.K.’s livelihood has historically revolved around seafaring coastal towns, many of which have been devastated by the E.U. Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Britain’s fishing industry has been one of the key fatalities of E.U. membership, forced to adhere to small quotas while continental fleets are entitled to 70-80% of fish in British waters. The transition agreement has sparked anger within the industry as it will keep the country in the CFP for the duration of the period. A pre-referendum poll suggested that 92% of British fisherman intended to vote “leave,” but many in the industry already suspected that they would be used as sacrificial lambs during the negotiations. The Fishing for Leave campaign called the agreement a “pitiful, disgusting, abject betrayal” and predicted the likely demise of what remains of the industry.
Even pro-E.U. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called the deal a “massive sellout of the Scottish fishing industry,” while the chief executive of the Scottish Fisherman’s Federation said:
“This falls far short of an acceptable deal. We will leave the EU and leave the CFP, but hand back sovereignty over our seas a few seconds later…our governments have let us down.”
Businesses have reacted positively to the arrangement, welcoming clarity on a Brexit timeframe that will help them to plan for the upcoming years. Under the terms of the deal, Britain will be permitted to begin trade talks with other nations, although any agreements only come into force at the end of the transition period. Britain will no longer be bound by existing E.U. trade deals, and will have 21 months to formulate its own deals, including negotiations with the European Union itself.
According to Foreign Trade Secretary Liam Fox, foreign investment in Britain has only increased since 2016, as has the value of exports. “From across the world, the keenness to deepen trade and investment ties with this country and once again hear us champion the case for free trade, is palpable,” he has said. President Trump, whose mother was Scottish, was one of the first to extend a hand to Britain after the Brexit vote, but has backed off during the seemingly endless process of withdrawal. Trump said at the Davos summit in January that:
“Trade is going to increase many times. I look forward to that… the discussions… that will be taking place are going to lead to tremendous increases in trade between our two countries which is great for both in terms of jobs.”
With Trump threatening a “trade war” with the E.U., he may consider Britain his new point of contact across the Atlantic, however it’s unlikely this will happen until his second term in office, should that occur.
The one issue that remains uncertain is that of the Irish Border. The two halves of Ireland have enjoyed an open border, as decided by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the basis of not only the border but also the peaceful truce between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Brexit has opened up the question of how to handle the inter-Irish border, as The Republic of Ireland is a full E.U. member state, while Northern Ireland, as part of the U.K., is set to withdraw along with the rest of Britain. Should a better alternative fail to present itself, May’s government has agreed to a “backstop” whereby Northern Ireland would effectively remain part of the E.U.’s single market and customs union.
While some Irish remain relaxed about the situation, including May’s own coalition partners the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), others are not too happy. Ulster Unionist representative Jim Nicholson said:
“Northern Ireland is not up for sale. It is vital that the Government …maintains its firm commitments that it will not accept a final Brexit deal that diminishes in any way the constitutional integrity of the UK. Any ‘backstop’ separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK was unacceptable in December, it is unacceptable now and it will be unacceptable in the future.”
Meanwhile, the Republic’s Sinn Féin, a party that supports the reunification of Ireland, has predicted civil disobedience from northern Republicans if a border were to be enforced in Ireland; one representative, Martina Anderson, told European Parliament that “Theresa (May), your notion of a border, hard and soft, stick it where the sun doesn’t shine ‘cos you’re not putting it in Ireland.”
The U.K. is walking a tightrope here, with the need to preserve Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Irish Republic, as well as its relationship with the Britains; it seems unlikely that any solution will be satisfactory to all.
Not only is weak negotiating on behalf of May’s government a disappointment to many, but the length of the transition period is set to drag out until Britain’s next general election, which it is feared will become a second “referendum” on Brexit.