Brexit: A slow and painful divorce

The divorce bill to be paid to the EU by the British government negotiated by the prime minister was 33 billion pounds, reduced from 39b.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson (photo credit: REUTERS)
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“Get Brexit done” was the call that rang out from the rafters at every Conservative Party gathering in the last general election in the UK. It was scheduled to be done on January 31. In fact, far from being done, Brexit has only just started. The three-and-a-half years of acrimony, uncertainty and anguish following the day in June 2016 when my old country decided on a self-inflicted wound have not resulted in a harmonious move forward.
A little less than half the voters in that ill-judged referendum protested vehemently against Brexit, and now those vehement protesters find they are in a slight majority, according to recent polls. And so the sharp divisions continue as well they might, as the UK now faces a so-called transition period to the end of 2020 in which to hammer out not only the all-important trading relationship with the European Union, but a myriad of other issues affecting the lives of millions of people.
If this can all be achieved by the end of the year, it will be a miracle. Boris Johnson, or to use his media nickname Bojo, the British prime minister, has declared the transition period will not be extended.
The divorce bill to be paid to the EU by the British government negotiated by the prime minister was 33 billion pounds, reduced from 39b., since, on account of parliamentary holdups the UK stayed longer in the EU than the date originally set. Yet the money is the least painful part of this divorce. The only pain actually being suffered at the moment may be by the UK members of the European Parliament who were compelled to resign on January 31.
This means there will be no British representative on any EU committee or agency or any of its other institutions, not only during the transition period, but from then on, at the same time as Britain has to abide by EU rules, bow to the decisions of the European Court of Justice on all legal issues, and to pay the agreed contribution to EU funds.
Meantime, UK citizens who were worried that after January 31 they could no longer use their burgundy European passports or line up with EU arrivals at airports need worry no more, at least not until a great many other issues have been sorted out. The same applies to British driving licenses which, for the time being, may still be used all over Europe, while Brits may still work in the EU as EU citizens may still continue to be employed in the UK. But all this will almost certainly change once the divorce is no longer nisi but has become absolute.
First steps on the road have already been taken as the thorniest of the problems took priority.
Europe is the UK’s largest trading partner, so whatever new trade deal is achieved, if any, will affect the UK’s overall relationship with the rest of the continent for decades to come. Johnson has yet to spell out in detail his agenda for the future, apart from insisting that Brexit will all be sorted out by the end of this year. If the end result of trade negotiations is that there is no deal and the UK diverges from EU safety, labor and environmental standards, it will not be able to export to Europe on favorable terms. At the moment, 45% of British exports go to EU countries and 53% of UK imports come from those countries.
It should be a source of pride to we Israelis that a year ago senior government representatives of the UK and Israel met in Tel Aviv in anticipation of the effects Brexit would have on our bilateral trade. An agreement between them was signed with the aim of protecting existing trade arrangements and laying a path forward for an increase of the present [at October 2018] 4b. pound bilateral trade. The agreement is due to take effect at exactly the time the transition period of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU takes place.
Meanwhile, existing trading arrangements continue, and no new tariffs may be imposed. As the UK is Israel’s second-largest trading partner, the agreement could not have come at a better time.
During the transition period, UK negotiators have to find ways of extricating the country from the many laws which bind it to Europe, at the same time as dealing with a disgruntled Scotland – where most voters opted to remain in the EU and its political leaders are pressing for a second referendum on independence. The immediate problem of Northern Ireland was resolved by an agreement made between Leo Varadkar, the prime minister of the Republic of Ireland, with other EU representatives and Johnson, establishing that there should be no hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.
However, the agreement left Northern Ireland closer to the EU, through temporarily continuing its membership in the Customs Union, than the rest of the UK. This agreement did not go down well with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, unhappy at being separated in terms of trade from the UK.
There is no question that there was a need to fix how the EU worked with its top heavy bureaucracy and general lack of accountability. And the UK was always something of an outsider within the union since the decision not to participate in the Euro, but to maintain it own currency. Yet it seems that the jury will be out for many years before anybody can say that Brexit was a satisfactory outcome for either party to this divorce.