Brexit: London’s constitutional crisis


Britain is going through a withering constitutional crisis with no end in sight, greater than anything that has overtaken the notoriously pragmatic UK since the late 30s when it faced how to cope with a possible takeover by one militant opponent of the whole Continent.

That is leading to increasing criticism of Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts to make the bargain, and since there is every reason for Britain to get with it, it may lead to new elections and a new government.

At stake is a rather simple goal: the most efficient way the UK can withdraw from its membership in the 28-member European Union.

Britain has debated the pros and cons in the European community membership almost from the moment the idea was broached, holding its first referendum on membership in 1975, less than three years after it joined.

In 1969, the UK made a third [with the disappearance of France Gen. Charles DeGaulle who had bitterly opposed it] and successful application for membership. Since 1977, both pro- and anti-European views have had majority support at different times, with some dramatic swings between the two camps. The latest tally deciding Britain’s stance was not that decisive [52% or exit-48% for remaining], but withdrawal has now probably gained ground and become a solid majority position of the politically elite.

But there are weighty political economic and social implications.

In 2007 Prime Minister Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer set up tests that concluded that while the decision was close, the United Kingdom ruled out membership in the Euro joint currency for the foreseeable future, saying that the decision not to join had been right for the UK and for Europe . Opinion polls have shown that a majority of Britons have been opposed to joining the single currency and this position has hardened further in the last few years and reinforced overall opposition to membership.

Withdrawal from the EU will be costly. The government expects the country’s economy to grow anywhere from 4 to 9 percent less than it would inside the bloc over the next 15 years, depending on the terms on which it leaves.

Europe is Britain’s most important export market and its biggest source of foreign investment. Being in the bloc has helped London’s City cement its position as a global financial center. Every day, it seems, a major business announces or threatens plans to leave Britain after it quits the European Union which employs an estimated 14,000 people and supports more than 100,000 other jobs.

It is generally agreed that in addition to whatever Britain will has to pay to renounce its membership – there is talk of a hundred billion dollars – many investors have placed bets on the UK as a base for operations in the EU. Continental Europe is Britain’s largest trading partner. Still £274 billion out of £616 billion total exports in 2017 had generally been declining, with exports to other countries outside the EU increasing at a faster rate.

Undoing the 46 years of economic integration with the Continent was never going to be easy, and the Brexit process has been bedeviled by divisions in both Britain’s main parties, so factionalized that there may be no coherent plan most lawmakers would back. May spent 18 months negotiating a divorce deal with the European Union, shedding one cabinet minister after another in the process. But her plan which would keep customs and trade arrangements with the bloc until at least the end of 2020, ultimately envisions cutting most of those ties. It does not detail what would replace them in Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.

When she presented the plan to Parliament last January, it was rejected by a historic margin of 230 votes. When she tried again in March, she fared less badly, but the pact was still soundly defeated, 391 to 242.

The vote has now become a part of May’s career as well with her offering a tradeoff of her resignation as the price of agreement on the withdrawal. There is also the conflict over whether Northern Ireland, whose Democratic Unionist Party’s small [around a dozen] members provide the Conservatives’ majority in London, and its relationship to Ireland. May’s problems with withdrawal from Europe have reawakened some strong voices demanding any UK customs union provide ties to Ireland.

Last week saw virtual chaos: May offered Parliament her resignation if it accepted her negotiation with the EU on her third try. But her offer to resign set off a frenzy of speculation about a successor and jockeying for position among contenders. And in a very uncharacteristic act, Parliament took over through a series votes of its own with direct negotiations with the EU. The effort fizzled with lawmakers rejecting all their own eight options they had considered.

On June 2016 the UK voted in a national referendum to leave the EU. After the activation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the UK was set to leave the EU on Friday 29 March 2019 . But May’s third defeat appears to leave the increasingly weakened prime minister with two unpalatable options in the short run: Britain can leave the bloc on April 12 without an agreement in place, or she can ask European leaders for what could be a longer postponement. The only thing a parliamentary majority has been able to agree on – for the moment at least — is that it does not want to crash out of the European Union without a deal. But a long delay would enrage pro-Brexit lawmakers who see a further postponement as a first step and might just produce that with all the chaos it would create in international markets as well as in London .

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