The date is 28 March 2019. There is one day left before the two years stipulated by the treaty for the UK’s departure from the EU expire; two years will have elapsed since 29 March 2017 when the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, triggered the famous Article 50 by submitting her written notification of withdrawal from the EU. The negotiations have turned out to be not only harder but also more complex than expected, despite the fact that they promised to be extremely fraught when they started. There have been various stand-offs that have required meetings at the highest level, among the 27 and with May. The leaders of the 27 will today agree upon a six-month extension, which may be lengthened further. Nobody seeks an abrupt split. Better to allow more time, as the treaties permit.
The timetable is tight. Although Brexit itself does not require ratification, its terms certainly do, not only in London but also among the 27 member states and the European Parliament, without forgetting the odd referendum or two (in the Netherlands, for instance). All this poses political risks for May, because in the coming year, and no later than May 2020, she faces a general election and she would like to run with the issue resolved.
It has already become clear, however, that the drama of Brexit, if it is to end at all, will have, as the former Labour Minister of State for Europe Denis MacShane foresaw, various acts and various rhythms. There will be various Brexits. The UK’s departure from the political institutions will be one thing; quite another will be a trade agreement with the rest of the EU, which could take some years to be resolved, not to mention the transition periods that are being talked about for a range of sectors. Indeed, it is likely that the toughest talks –not the withdrawal, but the UK’s new relationship to an EU to which it will no longer belong– will start when departure has been sealed, although it was clear from the start that the country was not going to retain either the single market (rejecting the free movement of capital, goods and services), or the free movement of people, or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. How this new relationship takes shape, with a new institutional framework covering all areas, including the crucial one of security, will be more definitive for the UK and the EU itself over the long term than Brexit as such. The tough-talking negotiators on both sides already knew this: they were simultaneously negotiating both the present and the future, and this turns out to be the most difficult to determine.
In addition to being complex, however, the problems facing May and her team are not exclusively external. Internal headaches are also mounting up for the British Premier, despite her majority in the House of Commons, something she hopes to underpin at the next elections amid the weakness of the Labour Party. But she is fearful of being held hostage by the advocates of Brexit-at-any-cost in her own party, despite the UK Independence Party (UKIP) being on the wane. It has not disappeared entirely, as the watchdog of the process. The Westminster Parliament will have the final say, unless the campaign for a new referendum on the result of the EU divorce negotiations manages to take off, an option advocated by the former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair, respectively from Conservative and Labour ranks. But for the aforementioned reasons, the right time for a new referendum is not clear. Moreover, these voices lack the backing of any of the parties, barring a Lib-Dem Party hamstrung by the electoral system, with the Labour Party still adrift on this and other issues.
The opinion polls and the anticipated European election results this coming May represent a serious threat for the Conservatives in Scotland, where the idea of a second independence referendum to sever ties with the UK and remain in –or, strictly speaking, rejoin– the EU is gaining ground. There is little appetite for Scottish independence among the 27, because of the contagious effect it could have on other countries, but nor do they want to concede too much to London to make Brexit seem inexpensive for the British, given that it will come at a cost for the rest of the Europeans.
In Northern Ireland too there are efforts to avoid endangering a peace that took 75 years to achieve, and to secure –unless a necessary European dimension to the peace process is retained– a degree of reunification with the Republic, thereby preventing departure from the EU. The Unionists, still a majority, reject severing ties with England, although they know full well that demography is against them over the long term.
Thus the last two years have gone by. The EU has not stopped evolving in the meantime, although it has been distracted by these efforts. But that is another story.