Editorial

Fog in London — On U.K.’s Brexit talks

British Prime Minister Theresa May continues to be in a bind about how to stage a less chaotic exit from the European Union. Neither the apparent concessions she seemed to offer her EU interlocutors in Florence nor her exhortation to rekindle the Renaissance spirit of open-mindedness is likely to be enough. Six months after London triggered Article 50 to leave the Union, and months after Ms. May called a snap election that brought humiliating results for her Conservative Party, there is a worrying lack of clarity and consensus within Britain and the government on what the final contours of the exit should be. Just days before Ms. May’s Florence speech, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson ruffled feathers in his own government as well as in Brussels in an article on his version of Brexit, which included the oft-repeated and dubious claim of savings of £350 million a week and an unrealistically rosy picture of Britain’s future outside the bloc. Tory hardliners suggested that it was Mr. Johnson’s pre-emptive strike that held Ms. May back from offering a softer Brexit in Florence. Others in government accused Mr. Johnson of “backseat driving”, and Ms. May’s Cabinet colleagues found themselves having to defend the claim that they were all singing from the same hymn sheet.

While the Florence speech could be interpreted as an indication of a forced and fragile consensus within the government, it did not unlock the stalled negotiations with Brussels. The EU has insisted on making sufficient progress on the divorce bill, on the rights of EU and U.K. citizens living in each other’s territories as well as on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland prior to progressing on discussions on a trade deal — an area of urgent interest for the U.K. Ms. May’s speech confirmed a post-Brexit transition period of about two years, a long-overdue announcement of special importance to the business community. She confirmed Britain would meet its financial obligations until the end of the current EU budget period, a bill of about €20 billion until 2020. She declared her intention to protect EU citizens’ rights and incorporate the rights granted by a Brexit agreement into U.K. law. She said that Britain would seek a trade relationship somewhere on the spectrum between a Norway-type agreement that involves the free movement of people, and a Canada-type free trade agreement. Yet, this is easier said than done, and she gave no details. While the speech was received with cautious optimism by the EU, it has failed to move talks forward, partly owing to a lack of clarity on the financial payments after 2020 and on citizens’ rights. Ms. May’s attempt to be too many things to too many people has meant a deepening of the confusion around Brexit. What is needed now, more than ever, is for her government to speak with clarity.

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Printable version | Apr 15, 2021 2:07:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/fog-in-london/article19758245.ece

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