The defeat of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal in Parliament has once again highlighted the complexity of the divorce between her country and the European Union. She lost by 230 votes—the largest margin for a sitting government in history. While 432 votes were against her, 202 were for her. Britain is scheduled to exit from the EU on March 29.
It was big setback May, who had worked for over two years chalking the deal out. It was not easy; it won’t be going forward. For major issues are involved. First, being the first country quit the EU, Britain will giving up the free trade benefits it enjoys with the rest of bloc. It would be difficult because 44 per cent of British exports go to the EU, from where it also gets 53 per cent of its imports. If the UK is unable to work out a Brexit plan, it would face double jeopardy—higher tariffs and more paperwork.
Then there is the issue of Britons on the continent (1.2 million) and people from the EU in Britain (3 million). Both sides want that there interests of their citizens remain protected. While May wants fewer migrants from Europe to Britain, there are sectors like hospitality, healthcare, tech, and construction that are not finding people to work for them. The unemployment rate is at a 40-year low.
The most complicated is said to be issue of Irish border. While the UK is leaving the EU, the Republic of Ireland isn’t. Neither side wants the 310-mile UK-Ireland land border to be littered with checkpoints, towers, customs posts, etc. The idea to keep the flow of trade and people smooth, but nothing could be agreed upon. Both have agreed to have a “backstop”—some sort of safety that would avoid a hard border. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose support to May is critical, is against backstop.
Apart from the outstanding issues, Brexit is about deep philosophical and political faultlines between the UK and the EU. In his column for the American magazine National Review (January 18), John O’ Sullivan, a prominent British commentator, highlighted some such fissures: “the fact that Britain has a distinctive tradition of ordered liberty that makes it uncomfortable in a bureaucratic continental polity; an Atlanticist outlook on defense that makes it the most enthusiastic member of NATO; the Anglo-American special relationship; other Anglosphere links with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada; a simple dislike of being told what to do by others, especially ‘officials’; and, in particular, a growing popular anger at the hostile and contemptuous remarks about Britain from European leaders that don’t seem to annoy or worry the political class. Such wider cultural and strategic issues, usually asleep, have been aroused by the controversies around Brexit and are likely to loom large in the minds of voters and accordingly still larger in the minds of ambitious politicians.”
Once aroused, such controversies are hard to put down. May is realizing this.