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CWA # 194, 31 December 2019

The World This Year
Europe in 2019: Hard Brexit for the UK, Systemic Struggle for the EU

  Sourina Bej

The impact of the Brexit on EU has been two-fold: First, along with with UK, the rest of the European countries have also indicated strains while following the European law.  Second, an inward-looking European Union largely ignored the changing external dynamics like the growth of China in Europe and the position of Europe in NATO.

What happened? 
As the curtain draws on the Brexit deadlock with the passage of the withdrawal deal by the Westminster, the future of the UK in the European Union is more than just over. The long haul begins with the European Commission president calling for an extension of the deadline for negotiating the UK's future relationship with the EU on 28 December. This brings Boris Johnson’s confident declaration off a delay-free post-Brexit transition period in doubt. 

Will 2020 also begin with postponements and a series of lengthy negotiations that marked the Brexit events of UK and EU in 2019? 

Rejected three times by the UK parliament between January and March 2019, the withdrawal deal of former Prime Minister Theresa May started the tumultuous ordeal of frequent filibuster, her resignation and a general election by the end of the year. Prime Minister Boris Johnson who replaced Theresa May in July 2019 embarked on the mandate to ‘Get Brexit done at any cost.’ Boris Johnson undertook two biggest risks that cemented his political standing within the Tories and as the leader of the Conservative party for the next five years. It is with this political agenda to pass the Brexit in the Westminster, Johnson became one of the few bold British Prime Ministers to announce on 28 August the suspension of the Parliament with the consent of the Queen to prevent a further vote of non-confidence on the Brexit. From August to October, Boris Johnson used this cabinet time to take his first political gamble: remove the controversial backstop deal for Northern Ireland to reach a compromise with Brussels. The new Brexit deal made Northern Ireland as a border check for goods entering EU member Ireland and UK. Northern Ireland would not only remain in the single market of the EU but also within the customs of the UK.

However, this new Brexit deal yet again faced the filibuster test and he was quick to take his second political gamble that of the pushing the country towards a winter general election so that Britain walks out of the EU formally by 31 December 2020. 

The restlessness among the public with each failure by the Parliament to pass the bill proved to be opportune for Johnson to shape an electoral strategy that puts the Brexit battle on “the people versus Parliament” agenda. The election on 12 December successfully gave the highest mandate to Johnson thereby letting the Prime Minister interpret the public votes to the Conservatives as their choice to walk out of the Brexit soon. The Conservatives secured 364 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons, a comfortable majority of 74.

This election result, on one hand, made the leadership of Boris Johnson at the same time doomed the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn as the opposition Labour party chief. Corbyn’s evasive and ambiguous approach to Brexit during the general election alienated not only his traditional vote banks but also failed to attract young voters. Simultaneously the UK politics witnessed the induction of the question of nationalism into what represents UK’s identity, as the country inches closer to exit from the bloc. The Scottish National Party, which strongly opposes Brexit, won 55 of the 59 seats in Scotland setting the stage to demand a second independence vote. 

Apart from Brexit that majorly dominated the politics in the UK and also EU, the return of the lone wolf terrorist attack was also witnessed in London prior to the election. On 29 November, a 28-year-old convict stabbed and killed two on the London Bridge. It was deemed as the terrorist attack after it was discovered that the attacker was wearing a fake suicide vest and had been convicted in a terrorist attack before. 

Within the European Union, the events of Brexit and China’s growing influence during the BRI summit of May 2019 were the two major events that dominated the course of the bloc. 

What is the background? 
The current statement from the European Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen lays out the future course of Brexit into 2020.  On 20 December the MPs backed Johnson’s plan for the UK to leave the EU on 31 January, which included a new clause prohibiting the government from extending the transition period beyond the end of 2020. The passage of the bills marks the culmination of the first referendum in 2016 that started the course of Brexit in UK. In the subsequent days, this year, trade talks with European Union will begin on the status of the customs, border checks, the foreign investments and the movement of people within the region. The last week also witnessed the highest registration for the European visas by British citizens in UK so as to prepare for any form of restriction in free movement later.  

What does it mean? 
The impact of the Brexit developments within the UK is two-fold: First, even though the political stagnation was addressed with the election and the coming of the new Prime Minister, the economic slowdown has remained unaddressed. A steady rise in the prices of the house in prime locations within the city of London has pushed up the numbers of urban poor. In addition, there exist no cushions to safeguard the currency from shocks after it breaks from the European single market. In an event of a recession, the domestic investments of the European companies will be deeply impacted. Second, the identity fault lines in the UK have been left exposed which had remained buried under the supranational identity of being within the economic whole of Europe. Thus when Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said Johnson did not have the mandate to take Scotland out of the EU, it represents the revivalism of identity politics that UK would have to address structurally in its nation-building process. 

The EU's diplomatic energy was fixated on the single issue of having a country leave its bloc. In that time, the EU was forced to pay less attention to other problems among its member states. The impact of the Brexit on EU has been two-fold: First, along with with with UK, the rest of the European countries have also indicated strains while following the European law. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has spent the past decade presiding over assaults on his nation's courts, academic institutions, central bank and press. In Malta, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has faced protests to resign for his government’s alleged involvement in the murder of a journalist who was investigating political corruption. Earlier this week, the members of the European Parliament voted by 581 to 26 in favour of a resolution to start the process of implementing Article 7 on Malta. These entire events single-handedly bring the EU to deal with questions of liberal values that were the bedrock of institutionalism in the world order a decade back. With the end of the decade, is the European world order starting to falter? 

Second, an inward-looking European Union largely ignored the changing external dynamics like the growth of China in Europe and the position of Europe in NATO. The BRI summit followed by the EU-China summit in April 2019 laid in open the lack of strategy and consensus in the group to collectively deal with an expanding China. While France and the East European countries are becoming increasingly dependent on Chinese infrastructural investments in those countries, how long before China’s debt trap burdens the single market of Europe. 

Sourina Bej is a Research Scholar with the Global Politics at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru. She can be contacted at sourinabej92@gmail.com
 

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