Commentary: Elections, Negotiations and Brexit
BY :ERIZ WICAKSONO
JUNE 07, 2017
Nine months after the result of the referendum stated an exit out of the European Union, British Prime Minister Theresa May finally invoked Article 50 – formally triggering the Brexit process.
However, shortly after that and to the surprise of many, May called for a snap election. All eyes are now on Britain as voters go the polls on Thursday (08/06). While the future of Brexit lingers, nations around the world have taken a "wait and see" stance, and likewise, put their relations with Britain on hold.
Feeling beleaguered both in the European Union and in her own country, it is clear that the first thing May had to do was strengthen he position at home. In a bid to reinforce her backing before the initial Brexit negotiations this month, the prime minister confidently called the election, which was not due until 2020. But this has raised questions over the future of Britain, while giving hope to pro-EU parties. A landslide win for May's Conservative Party will strengthen her position, but despite the chances being slim, nobody would be brave enough to rule out other scenarios.
Amidst other issues at play, it is clear that Brexit is the urgency in this week's election. With each party putting a different manifesto on the table, the election will decide the direction Brexit will take.
The Conservatives are certain of leaving the EU and are prepared for a so-called hard Brexit – quitting the bloc with no deal if negotiations do not turn out positive. In contrast, the Labour Party advocates for a soft Brexit, denying the possibility of backing out of Brexit, yet maintaining a position of prioritizing relations with the EU – and negotiating to stay in the customs union. The idea is to partially exit the EU, cherry-picking the best benefits for the country.
While the manifesto of the Liberal Democrats includes a commitment to another referendum once all the negotiations are done – giving one last opportunity for the people of Britain. By presenting the voters with an option to accept the done deal or cease Brexit, voters can have a better grasp of what is coming after Brexit, before making the final decision.
The Green Party echoes the same idea, but expresses the need to give 16-year-olds a vote in the referendum, in turn answering the concerns over "old people deciding the future of the youth."
However, the referendum-after-negotiations manifesto means Brexit will not be decided within at least the next two years – or more if the negotiation period is extended. And if they decide to remain in the EU after all, all the preparations and negotiations over the past couple of years will mostly be in vain.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, has a different second referendum on her mind – an independence referendum. The 2014 Scottish Independence referendum resulted in a slight majority of people opposing Scottish independence, which was thought to be the result of anxiety over Scotland not being part of Britain, therefore not being part of the EU. As Britain is inching away from the EU, it is only natural for Scotland to have another referendum and seek its own EU membership.
Despite the varying manifestos on Brexit, Britain still needs to tackle the issues in Article 50, unless of course there is a change of heart to which all EU member states agree. That aside, if Britain decides to proceed with the exiting process, negotiations on Brexit will have to take place by April 2019, unless again, the two-year negotiation timeframe is extended and agreed to by all EU member states. But this is where it starts to get complicated, other than the divorce deal, Britain also need to start negotiations on new relations with the EU. This includes trade deals, customs deals, immigration and so forth, that some think may take five years. While May wants to work on the withdrawal deal and new relations in parallel, European Council President Donald Tusk said any new deals would only be open for negotiations after the former is complete.
Tusk subsequently softened the wording in the European Council's negotiating guidelines for Brexit, restating that talks may begin after "sufficient progress" has been made in the withdrawal negotiations.
Doing the math, assuming the withdrawal terms can be agreed over the next two years and talks over new relations with the EU can be started halfway through, it may still take another three to four years to finalize the new future. This opens a gap between the April 2019 withdrawal deadline and the new EU-UK deal to finalize. To cover this period, a transition phase – or as May prefers, an implementation phase – will be necessary. This phase will prepare businesses and people to move from the EU system to their own system, to avoid sudden shocks. The EU would argue that during this phase, EU law will still be in effect, which means that Britain will no longer be part of the EU, but will still have to abide to EU regulations, including maintaining the "four freedoms of the EU." But Britain will certainly try to negotiate transitional arrangements, untangling itself from the EU bit by bit.
Overall, this means Britain needs to negotiate three terms: withdrawal, transition, and new relations – all within a very limited timeframe. And even after all this is completed, much more still needs to be done, as the country needs to review its own laws after withdrawing from the EU law, and most importantly Britain will have to secure new bilateral deals with countries around the globe. And yes, nations around the world may have to wait for Britain until it reaches this phase, before negotiations of new bilateral deals can be done.
To make things worse, until it can reach a phase where it is deemed politically and financially stable, Britain may miss massive opportunities. Countries are not willing to stand idly by while Britain in a state of not being able to enter into negotiations, and are already preparing for a life without Britain.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads the way among the countries looking for a future with the EU minus Britain. German Chancellor Angela Merkel sees it as a chance for her country to fill the void left by Britain, further stating that Britain is now out of everyone's top priority list. This situation arises despite, and because, the uncertainty of Brexit.
Until a while ago, the EU seemed to be falling apart. The EU is stuck with a financial and immigration crisis. The Netherlands and France had, and Germany is planning general elections this year, which saw a rise in populism and anti-EU sentiment. The Brexit referendum seemed to be the first domino to fall.
But the dominoes seem to be falling in the wrong direction. Economies in the Eurozone are gradually recovering. Anti-EU candidate Geert Wilders, labeled the Dutch Trump, lost the Dutch election. Subsequently, Europhile Emmanuel Macron outplayed Eurosceptic Marine le Pen to win the French general election, making sure a Frexit is not on the cards. With this in mind, the EU can expect no more exits in the short term.
To be frank, the people of Britain got more than what they bargained for when they voted to leave the EU. Exiting the union now seems much more of a hassle and a problem than was previously thought. Britain now has its hands full to sort out the paperwork involved in quitting the EU. There is the possibility too that the EU tries to make life difficult Britain during the negotiations – making an example of the country to discourage other states thinking of a similar move. But whether the decision to leave the EU will be revoked, or is the right one, still remains to be seen.
Lastly, the impact of Thursday's general election and Brexit may only be felt by those with the closest ties with Britain, while the indirect impact will without doubt, ripple across the globe. Indonesia is by no means an exception, but most Indonesians will not be significantly affected and may not even may be aware of what is happening. Ahead of the Idul Fitri exodus, the only Brexit Indonesians will be worried about is the Brebes exit, dubbed Brexit, on the toll road in Central Java.
Eriz Wicaksono is a researcher at the European Partnership Research Center at the University of Indonesia.