God save Theresa May: UK political crisis over Brexit

This week seems to be extremely tough for UK Prime Minister Theresa May due to Boris Johnson’s and David Davis’ resignation. The reason behind these decisions is the growing political disagreement over May’s Brexit strategy, which, according to the former Brexit Secretary and former Foreign Secretary, is not in line with the expectations of those who voted in favor of leaving the European Union.

Pre-crisis history

Since the platform’s last analysis, the UK faced an increasingly wider crisis over the preferred post-Brexit customs relationship with the EU. Theresa May is currently being pushed by many Conservatives and by cabinet members to make quick progress on the future market and its relations with the EU. Otherwise, the country risks leaving the Union without a deal.

In May, the UK government proposed two customs plans, which were rejected and marked as impractical by the European Union. The first one was a partnership, under which Britain would collect import duties in Northern Ireland on the EU’s behalf, while the second was a high-tech “max-fac” alternative. Furthermore, EU institutions insisted on the need for the UK to include a legally binding “backstop” clause to ensure that there is no hard border.

Backstop clause and Chequers deal

In June, Britain presented a proposal according to which the country would remain in the customs union for a limited period after the transition phase ends. This would eventually mean that the country would leave the Union in March 2019 and the single market in December 2020, but would stay longer in the customs union. The proposal stated that it would be in place until the future customs arrangement would be introduced, approximately in December 2021.

The Chequers deal that was introduced on Friday, July 6, went even further. The document states that the core of future EU-UK relations is the establishment of a free trade area for goods. It outlines a set of possible benefits, such as “avoiding friction at the border, protection of jobs and livelihoods, and ensuring that both sides meet their commitments to Northern Ireland and Ireland through the overall future relationship”.

The Chequers deal also gives an insight in the White Paper, which was published on Thursday, July 12, and introduces four main elements: a common rulebook for all goods including agri­-food, an incorporation of strong reciprocal commitments related to open and fair trade into the future legal agreements, the establishment of a joint institutional framework that will provide consistent interpretation and application of UK-­EU agreements by both parties, and a phased introduction of a new Facilitated Customs Arrangement that would remove the need for customs checks and controls between the UK  and the EU.

Boiling point

Last Friday, following the presentation of this proposal, both Johnson and Davis expressed their disagreement with the Chequers deal. However, the Prime Minister decided not to address these concerns and went ahead with new the Brexit proposal. This resulted in the resignation of Davis on Monday and Johnson on Tuesday.

Davis claims that his resignation is an act of disagreement over the “current trend of policy and tactics” and said to believe that the UK was “giving away too much and too easily” to the EU in the negotiations. Moreover, he underlined that the “backstop” clause was making it “look less and less likely” that the UK would leave the customs union and the single market.

Johnson fully supported Davis’ idea and went even further stating that the new plan by the PM looks like “a semi-Brexit” with large parts of the economy “locked in the EU system, but with no UK control over that system”.

EU silent tactics

Considering that many European politicians never supported Brexit, and wanted to keep the UK as close as possible, it is odd to hear critics about the scheme of the UK to collect customs duties on behalf of the EU, and to witness such opposition to the idea of Britain remaining in the single market for goods.

Now that Theresa May is struggling to obtain the necessary support, it is a good time for EU officials to act and react. Brussels needs to raise its voice and at least partially support May’s plan if the Union wishes to maintain good relations with the country.

Author: Irina Kruhmalova

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