The desires of the United Kingdom, the second largest contributor to the European Union (EU), after Germany, to leave the Pan European body dates back to half a century. However, the moves got to a head in 2016 with a referendum which voted in favour of UK’s exit. The push and pull in the Brexit deal had claimed its second casualty with the resignation of the Prime Minister, Theresa May, OMONU NELSON writes
Theresa May, the pushy UK Prime Minister, yesterday morning, announced what most political watchers had long anticipated: her departure as the Conservative Party leader in two weeks, and by implication, vacating 10, Downing Street, the PMs Office.
May is the second UK Prime Minister to be consumed by the Brexit inferno, following the resignation of David Cameron, after the 23 June 2016 referendum which voted by 51.9 per cent to leave the EU.
Brexit a portmanteau of “British” and “exit” is the withdrawal of the UK from the EU.
Experts say the effects of Brexit since the referendum show a reduction in GDP, trade and investment, as well as household losses from increased inflation. Brexit is likely to reduce immigration from European Economic Area (EEA) countries to the UK, and poses challenges for UK higher education and academic research. As of March 2019, the size of the “divorce bill” the UK’s inheritance of existing EU trade agreements and relations with Ireland and other EU member states remains uncertain. The precise impact on the UK depends on whether the process will be a “hard” or “soft” Brexit.
The broad consensus among economists is that Brexit will likely reduce the UK’s real per capita income in the medium term and long term, and that the Brexit referendum itself damaged the economy.
May, who succeeded Cameron, had the task of invoking Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, starting a two-year process which was due to conclude with the UK’s exit on 29 March 2019; a deadline which had been extended to 31 October 2019.
Withdrawal from the EU has been advocated by both left-wing and right-wing Eurosceptics, while pro-Europeanists, who also span the political spectrum, have advocated continued membership and maintaining the customs union and single market.
The UK joined the European Communities (EC) in 1973 under the Conservative government of Edward Heath, with continued membership endorsed by a referendum in 1975. In the 1970s and 1980s, withdrawal from the EC was advocated mainly by the political left, with the Labour Party’s 1983 election manifesto advocating full withdrawal.
From the 1990s, opposition to further European integration came mainly from the right, and divisions within the Conservative Party led to rebellion over the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. The growth of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the early 2010s and the influence of the cross-party People’s Pledge campaign have been described as influential in bringing about a referendum. The Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, pledged during the campaign for the 2015 UK General Election to hold a new referendum, a promise which he fulfilled in 2016 following pressure from the Eurosceptic wing of his party. Cameron, who had campaigned to remain, resigned after the result and was succeeded by Theresa May, his former Home Secretary. She called a snap general election less than a year later, but lost her overall majority. Her minority government is supported in key votes by the Democratic Unionist Party.
On 29 March 2017, the UK invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. May announced the government’s intention not to seek permanent membership of the European single market or the EU customs union after leaving the EU and promised to repeal the European Communities Act of 1972 and incorporate existing European Union law into UK domestic law.
Negotiations with the EU officially started in June 2017. In November 2018, the Draft Withdrawal Agreement, negotiated between the UK Government and the EU, was published. The House of Commons voted against the agreement by a margin of 432 to 202 (the largest parliamentary defeat in history for a sitting UK government) on 15 January 2019, and again on 12 March with a margin of 391 to 242 against the agreement.
On 14 March 2019, the House of Commons voted for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to ask the EU for such an extension of the period allowed for the negotiation. Members from across the House of Commons rejected the agreement with the leadership of the Labour Party stating in public debates in the House of Commons that any deal must maintain a customs union and single market, and with a large percentage of its members rejecting the Irish backstop as it is currently drafted in the EU withdrawal agreement. Opponents of the EU Withdrawal Agreement cited concerns that the agreement as drafted could plunge Northern Ireland into a conflict and spark a return of The Troubles as a result of Brexit.
After three years in which Mrs May has grappled almost daily with the challenge of sealing an exit deal with the EU, her resignation is widely thought to increase the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit, not least because she was in effect forced from office by Eurosceptics in her own Conservative party.
But in the shorter term, the UK could still be headed for one more extension to the formal Article 50 exit procedure, which would delay Brexit beyond the now scheduled date of October 31.
Given that the EU insists that no other exit treaty can be negotiated, Mrs Mays deeply unpopular deal still cannot be written off. It could yet outlive her turbulent premiership.
None of the MPs standing to replace Mrs May wants either to reverse the Brexit decision or to hold a second referendum.
The eventual victor would have to appeal to the 100,000 Tory activists who choose between the final two candidates. An overwhelming majority of those activists are committed to either a hard Brexit along the lines of the EUs trade agreement with Canada or a no-deal exit.
But Ken Clarke, the Europhile former Tory chancellor, issued a note of caution on yesterday morning. He said many Brexiters in his party seem to imagine that the party will now unite behind the [leadership candidate] that most resembles [the Brexit party leader] Nigel Farage.
He added: “I dont think it’s going to be like that.”
Britain’s new leader will be firmly rebuffed by the EU if he or she tries to reopen Britain’s withdrawal treaty, including the so-called backstop to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. This last measure is overwhelmingly unpopular with Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, who fear it would trap the UK into a customs union with Brussels.
The EU insists no revision of the treaty is possible. [The] withdrawal agreement cannot be reopened, cannot be renegotiated, a European Commission spokesman said on Thursday.
However, a new UK prime minister could declare victory after renegotiating the less substantive part of Mrs Mays deal: a non-binding political declaration, which sets out the future framework for the UK-EU trade relationship.
EU leaders and the commission have repeatedly underlined their willingness to revise this part of the agreement. Michel Barnier, the EUs chief Brexit negotiator, has said that it could be redrafted within days, or even hours.
Mrs May tried to follow the route of renegotiating the political declaration, but only belatedly. A new leader with a fresh mandate would, almost by definition, stand a better chance of selling such a strategy to MPs.
For instance, Boris Johnson, who led the successful 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, has already voted for Mrs Mays exit treaty once, in a Commons vote in March. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that he could push it through as prime minister.
Several candidates, such as Dominic Raab, former Brexit secretary, clearly prefer leaving the EU without a deal to leaving with Mrs Mays agreement. If Mr Raab were to win the leadership, a no-deal Brexit would become very likely.
A majority of MPs have repeatedly voted against no deal and would likely do so again. However, the Institute for Government think-tank says it would be almost impossible for MPs to stop a prime minister who is determined to implement a no-deal Brexit.
Parliamentary procedure offers no route, and the only apparent way to blocking no deal a vote of no confidence would be a massive gamble for Tory MPs, said the IfGs Maddy Thimont-Jack.
But since UK public debate is becoming increasingly polarised between no deal and a second referendum, the chances of another EU vote may also be on the rise, particularly if the next Tory leader decides that another such poll is preferable to calling an early general election.
Patience with the UK parliament has long run dry in EU capitals, and this weeks events have only heightened that sense of frustration.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, told CNN on Wednesday that he was getting fed up because we are [merely] waiting for the next extension.
In a sense, the identity of Mrs Mays successor is of only limited importance to the EU. Whoever it is will face immediate pressure from Brussels and national EU capitals to clarify whether they intend to win parliamentary backing for the exit treaty or to risk a no-deal Brexit.
The faultlines between the EUs capitals over how far to go to avoid a no-deal Brexit were laid bare in April, when leaders debated Mrs Mays reluctant request to postpone Brexit.
French president Emmanuel Macron rejected any extension into 2020, saying Brexit cast an unacceptable shadow over the entire European project, while German chancellor Angela Merkel said the UK should be given every chance not to crash out without an agreement.
In an interview with Le Soir this week, Mr Macron suggested he had little appetite to grant more time. He told the Belgian paper that, by repeatedly choosing the easy option of extensions, we are betraying at the same time the British and the interests of the EU.
The European Commission and the European Council of EU member states are due to change leadership in the days and weeks after Britains currently scheduled exit on October 31.
While the Brussels institutions would be keen not to deal with the fallout from a no-deal exit at that point, the position remains that the UK would have to set out what it would do with more time, whether it would be to hold a general election, a second referendum or another tactic to get the deal through.
Ultimately, whether or not there is a no-deal Brexit is in the hands of Britain. The likes of Mr Macron would need serious persuasion to grant another extension; the big issue is whether a hard Brexiter prime minister would be willing to provide it.
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