October 25, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads: Brexit—It’s Complicated


Earlier this month, I traveled with board members and other supporters of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to London and Dublin to take a closer look at what is happening with Brexit, the British decision to leave the European Union. Our visit was timely, given that negotiations between Britain and the European Union are entering their final stages. Britain is slated to exit the Union next March, following a two-year negotiation between the parties. No one yet knows whether a deal will be reached or what happens if negotiations fail.

Brexit, it turns out, is complicated. Not that this was clear when Britons went to the polls in June 2016 to declare whether they favored leaving or remaining in the European Union. The narrow vote in favor of leaving left undecided what, if any, relationship Britain would have with the European Union after it left. And the referendum notably left unclear the relationship between the Republic of Ireland (which would remain in the European Union) and Northern Ireland (which, being part of the United Kingdom, would leave the European Union).

Indeed, the Irish border is the most complicated of all issues facing the Brexit negotiations. Twenty years ago, dogged diplomacy by the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom, aided greatly by the United States, succeeded in negotiating an agreement between the two countries that settled the conflict on the island. The Good Friday Agreement essentially erased the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, because, as EU members, both were part of the same customs union and single market. Brexit threatens that monumental achievement by reimposing a hard border between the two parts of Ireland if Britain leaves both the customs union and single market.

Of course, Britain could stay in the customs union or single market even if it’s no longer an EU member—an option Norway and some other non-EU members have chosen. But that’s not what committed Brexiteers have in mind. They want the United Kingdom to be shorn of any ties to Europe, notably in the economic area, so London can negotiate its own trade agreements with nations around the world.

The problem that poses, however, is that any such arrangement would reimpose a hard Irish border, something many people on both sides fear might precipitate a return to the conflict that ended two decades ago. Early on, Dublin was able to convince its EU partners that such an outcome would be unacceptable and that any final withdrawal agreement between Britain and the European Union would have to guarantee the absence of a hard border between the two parts of the island.

This Irish backstop poses a problem for London, however, because it implies a choice between all of the United Kingdom remaining in the customs union and possibly even the single market or the creation of a different economic regime for Northern Ireland (which would remain in both) and the rest of the United Kingdom (which would leave both). Neither option is acceptable to the British government. Committed Brexiteers want to leave the European Union at almost any cost. At the same time, Theresa May’s government relies for its majority in Parliament on the critical votes of the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland, which could never accept a different economic regime between Britain and Northern Ireland.

And so the negotiations between London and Brussels have been stuck over this very delicate, but critical point. The complication is that any agreement acceptable to the European Union would fail to get a majority in Parliament, while any agreement that could gain a majority in Parliament would be unacceptable to the European Union.

That is why more and more voices are warning of a "No Deal" Brexit. If no deal is reached or able to pass Parliament come March 30, 2019, Britain will crash out of the European Union, including all of its institutions, the customs union, and the single market. Goods, services, capital, and people that moved unimpeded across the UK border to and from the European Union would now be subject to controls—including across the Irish border. The predictions are of widespread chaos, which could take many months to begin to put right and would come at great costs, notably for the United Kingdom but also for many EU countries.

The prospect of a No Deal Brexit may hasten negotiations and perhaps even force through a deal that most can live with, yet there is also a good chance that the political turmoil in London will prevent any agreement from receiving majority backing in Parliament. Talk is rife of leadership changes in the Conservative Party, pitting die-hard Brexiteers against the government and Remainers. The government might fall, possibly leading to new elections. And there are also increasing voices (including 700,000 protesters in London over the weekend) calling for another referendum.

Given this uncertainty, there is mounting talk of trying to give negotiators more time, which could be done if the United Kingdom and all EU parties agreed to extend the two-year deadline that is expiring on March 29, 2019. Everyone would surely prefer that to a No Deal Brexit, even if an extension has its own complications since the United Kingdom would then formally remain a member of the European Union. European Parliamentary elections are slated for next May and new budget negotiations are also beginning to get underway, all on the assumption that the United Kingdom will have exited the European Union by March. And, of course, an extension doesn’t address the fundamental complications that now prevent the conclusion of a final agreement.

So, yes, Brexit is complicated. And putting fundamental questions like these up for a referendum doesn’t make it any less so.

As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions. If you haven’t already, click here to subscribe to This Week’s Reads.

Brexit’s One Certain Outcome Is Uncertainty

Philip Stephens / Financial Times

The 2016 UK referendum on leaving the European Union resulted in more questions than answers, as Philip Stephens explains in the Financial Times. “How much access does business need to the single market?” Stephens asks. “Does anyone really imagine that Britain has anything to gain from diverging from most EU standard-setting?” he adds. These are just two from a long list of questions Stephens asks about Brexit that no one seems able answer. Yet amid all the uncertainty, one result from the decision is already known. “It will leave Britain a poorer, inward-looking place—a nation prone to bouts of populism on the streets and blood-letting at Westminster,” Stephens writes.

A Second Brexit Referendum Is Wishful Thinking

Beth Oppenheim / CNN

“The 2016 referendum campaign atmosphere was febrile and dishonest,” writes Beth Oppenheim for CNN.com. Yet a second referendum is nonetheless unlikely, she adds. Both Prime Minister Theresa May and Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn have backed the results. None seems prepared to alienate voters by backtracking. And even if a leader did support a do-over, there simply isn’t enough time. “Staging a new vote would take a minimum of 22 weeks including legislation and campaigning,” Oppenheim writes. “But fierce debate about the wording of the question and other details suggests it would take longer.” In all, it would take a “perfect Brexit storm,” in Oppenheim’s words, for another referendum to happen.

What the Left Misses About Nationalism

John B. Judis / The New York Times

“I’m a nationalist,” President Donald Trump said at a rally in Houston this week. Yet even if Trump’s views of nationalism are sometimes abrasive, and even if in some instances they work contrary to national interests, the overall value of nationalism should not be dismissed, writes John B. Judis in the New York Times. This is especially true for the political left, which has for too long held nationalism at arm’s length, he adds. “If anything, the decline of liberal and social-democratic parties is a result at least in part of their inability to distinguish what is legitimate and justifiable in nationalism from what is small-minded, bigoted and contrary to the national interest it claims to uphold,” Judis writes.

What Did US Spy Agencies Know about Threats on Khashoggi — and When?

David Ignatius / The Washington Post

It’s not just what happened in the Saudi consulate in Turkey that should be investigated, David Ignatius explains in the Washington Post. Jamal Khashoggi’s US residency qualified him to be warned if the US intelligence community knew he was in danger. It is for this reason, Ignatius says, that a congressional inquiry should now take place to determine what happened within intelligence agencies in the United States. Should Khashoggi have been warned? If so, was he? Ignatius suggests specific questions an inquiry should address.

How to Punish Saudi Arabia

Jarrett Blanc / POLITICO Magazine

“Khashoggi’s murder demands a meaningful response from the United States,” writes Jarrett Blanc in POLITICO Magazine. “Sanctions will not work,” he notes, adding that the Magnitsky sanctions being discussed would be too ineffective. Instead, Blanc lists several steps Washington can take to respond to Saudi Arabia, including ending its support for Riyadh’s war in Yemen and stepping back from the Saudi-Iran regional conflict. While President Trump has shown little indication he would back such actions, it is well within the power of the US Congress to act, Blanc writes. Now, does Congress have the will to act?

In Afghanistan’s Season of Crisis, ‘Words Do Not Have the Strength’

Mujib Mashal / The New York Times

The election in Afghanistan held over the weekend was neither an end nor a new start. Rather, as Mujib Mashal writes in the New York Times, it was another upswell of “alarm and worry” in a “minefield of crises.” Take the elections themselves: “After five elections and nearly $1 billion spent on them, there is little consensus on how voting should happen, and elections have become flash points for instability,” Mashal explains. Persistent Taliban attacks add yet more uncertainty and strife for Afghans. “We waited a long time, hoping that it would get better next year, and then the year after and then the year after. But it’s not happening,” explains one Afghan interviewed by Mashal.

Ease or Squeeze? United States, Seoul Wrangle Over North Korea Policy

Jonathan Cheng and Andrew Jeong / Wall Street Journal

Washington and Seoul are at odds over what to do about Pyongyang, explain Jonathan Cheng and Andrew Jeong in the Wall Street Journal. The Trump administration is intent on keeping up pressure on North Korea and is loath to reduce sanctions it sees as working towards nuclear disarmament. But President Moon Jae-in favors increased engagement with Kim Jong-un in the service of ensuring peace with South Korea’s neighbor. While a “good cop, bad cop” approach might yet succeed in coercing North Korea to denuclearize, it is just as easy to imagine the divide growing between Washington and Seoul, with Pyongyang then playing both sides off one another.

America’s New Attitude Towards China Is Changing the Countries’ Relationship

The Economist

“America is undergoing a deep shift in its thinking about China on right and left alike,” explains an essay in the Economist. “There is a new consensus that China has a deliberate strategy to push America back and impose its will abroad, and that there needs to be a strong American response.” Yet even amid heightened tensions, some elements of the relationship remain more or less stable. “The two countries’ bilateral trading relationship remains the world’s biggest, despite the trade war,” the Economist explains.

The Crisis in US-China Relations

Richard N. Haass / Wall Street Journal

Beijing has taken notice of the Trump administration’s sharp new tone in US-China relations, writes CFR President Richard Haass in the Wall Street Journal. Meeting with Chinese leaders shortly after Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the Hudson Institute earlier this month, Haass came away with the impression that Beijing will meet rough treatment from Washington in kind. Worse, if the United States does indeed embark on a comprehensive effort to block China’s rise, it would, Haass writes, “stimulate nationalist impulses there that will set the countries on a collision course.” Instead, Haass concludes, a “reasonable goal would be managed competition that allows for limited cooperation.”

Trump Embraces Foreign Aid to Counter China’s Global Influence

Glenn Thrush / The New York Times

President Trump has recently created a large new foreign aid agency authorized to provide $60 billion in loans and loan guarantees to companies willing to operate in developing countries. As Glenn Thrush explains in the New York Times, the fact that the bill was signed with little fanfare should not be surprising. The administration’s conditional embrace of foreign aid is a reversal from President Trump’s earlier statements. Yet the reason for this reversal could not be clearer: “China has spent nearly five years bankrolling a plan to gain greater global influence by financing big projects across Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa,” Thrush writes.


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