Brexit: Now a very English problem

While the UK media and the Whitehall bubble is all of a flutter today following Theresa May’s decision to postpone the meaningful vote on her #Brexit deal, there is little impact here in Brussels with EU officials and diplomats getting on with their day jobs, dealing with CO2 emissions, foreign policy decisions, trade agreements and budget negotiations.

There is certainly no panic in the EU capital and it also seems there is very little interest or appetite anywhere else across the rest of the European Union for further talks on Brexit despite Theresa May’s last ditch diplomatic efforts.

Brexit is a UK problem ever since the withdrawal agreement was signed. But the postponement of the vote now raises a very English problem for the UK Prime with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all united in their opposition to the May’s Brexit deal — albeit for different reasons — threatening further fragmentation, devolution and questioning just how united is the ‘Kingdom’.

This was always a risk. The majority of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to Remain, as did London. Most Leave votes came from the heart of ‘middle’ England and proud traditional ‘English’ regions like Cumbria and Yorkshire.

The canny leader of the Scottish Nationalists Nicola Sturgeon was first out of the blocks for a confidence motion in Theresa May followed by a general election which she hopes would reinforce her mandate and thus a possible second Scottish referendum. Sinn Fein, meanwhile, sit quietly on the sidelines watching the UK’s capitulation amid growing talk of a Northern Ireland plebiscite on whether it remain in the UK. Something acknowledged by May herself.

And if you believe the polls, Welsh voters are also worried about a future under Theresa May and any competitive disadvantage as a result of the Irish backstop.

The power was always going to shift to Brussels and Dublin after the withdrawal deal was done. It is simple maths: 1 v 27, 50 million v 500 million. The Irish backstop also gave Edinburgh and Cardiff a stick to beat London with.

Breaking up is hard to do and any divorce is always messy. But once you decide to make the break, who gets the house, access to the kids, the dog or the expensive crockery is always the most difficult part of the negotiation. For Britain and the UK the so-called future arrangements were always going to be the most difficult. Particularly given the fact that the political declaration was never going to be legally binding. And just like in any divorce when the courts get involved it becomes even more acrimonious.

The EU 27 and European Commission knew that. They bided their time. Despite the odd spat in Salzburg, it was until now an amicable divorce with plenty of warm words and support for Prime Minister May. But that tone changed from the minute the ink was dry on the withdrawal agreement. The EU’s hardened position was reinforced in Brussels and echoed in EU capitals on Wednesday as Theresa May desperately embarked on 48 hours of shuttle diplomacy ahead of this week’s EU summit.

So what next? Well don’t ask the EU, it is not their problem anymore.

  Image by Ronny K