Who will lose their nerve and blink first?
This question sums up the new Brexit strategy for the British government.
“Now is the time to hold our nerve in the face of opposition from Brussels,” the UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May told her government and the nation Monday at her first cabinet meeting after the disastrous EU summit in Salzburg.
In an impasse with the European Union over Brexit, May defended her strategy following calls from leading Brexiteers in her party to keep the option of a Canada-style arrangement on the table as talks enter a crucial phase.
But May is not for turning, at least for now.
She had told ministers her Chequers plan was the “only plan on the table” that secured the “frictionless trade” needed to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“I have always said that these negotiations would be tough – and they were always bound to be toughest in the final straight. While both sides want a deal, we have to face up to the fact that – despite the progress we have made – there are two big issues where we remain a long way apart,” she said after the failed talks in Salzburg last week, where she was told by EU leaders to go back to the drawing board and rethink her Brexit strategy.
And despite declarations that “Chequers is dead” from allies and foes in Brussels and Westminster, she decided to stick with her unworkable and unpopular — internally and abroad — Chequers plan.
May’s dogged determination can be interpreted in two ways. First, as a true reflection of well-known British stubbornness and persistence.
A quality brilliantly summarised in the famous motivational poster “Keep Calm and Carry On”, which was produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for World War II.
The poster’s aim was to raise the morale of the British public, threatened with widely predicted air attacks on major cities.
The second way to interpret her dogged determination is that she has no other option. Her Chequers plan is her only Brexit option, and she has no room for manoeuvre, not even by an inch.
The second explanation is the more plausible.
May stands alone, in charge of the most complicated talks in modern British history, surrounded by angry men in Brussels and Westminster, who have very contradictory preferences and options.
The dismissed Chequers plan was her “meet half way” solution to bridge the gap.
No Deal Scenarios
Now the off-a-cliff Brexit is looking more likely and in the last few days the government started to publish papers on the impact of not reaching a Brexit deal.
It made for uncomfortable reading for many businesses, consumers and for the government.
In its latest set of “no deal” notices, the government said flights could be disrupted because EU-issued aviation licences would not be valid, and airlines would have to seek individual permission to operate with respective states.
The UK government wants the EU and UK to accept each other’s aviation standards. The document emphasises that the UK “would envisage” allowing EU airlines to continue flying and “we would expect EU countries to reciprocate in turn”.
That would form the basis of a “bare bones” deal with the EU to keep flights in the air, adding: “EU-licensed airlines would lose the ability to operate wholly within the UK (eg from Heathrow to Edinburgh), and UK-licensed airlines would lose the ability to operate intra-EU air services (eg from Milan to Paris).”
However, the EU has not yet weighed on the matter and will stop recognising UK safety standards if there is a no Brexit deal.
According to the government document, “It would not be in the interest of any EU country or the UK to restrict the choice of destinations that could be served, though if such permissions are not granted, there could be disruption to some flights.”
It adds: “If the UK leaves the EU in March 2019 with no agreement in place, UK and EU licensed airlines would lose the automatic right to operate air services between the UK and the EU without seeking advance permission.”
Flights between the UK and 17 non-EU countries, such as the US, Canada, Switzerland and Iceland, operate due to the UK being an EU member.
The guidance states that “replacement arrangements will be in place before exit day”.
The UK has already reached agreements with some of these countries and is “confident the remaining agreements will be agreed well in advance of the UK leaving the EU”, the government said.
A separate government document warned that UK passengers may have to undergo extra security screening when changing flights in the EU after Brexit.
Neither passengers nor their luggage is usually rescanned when connecting at other EU airports after flying from the UK. However, new advice states that could change if the EU failed to recognise the UK’s aviation security standards after Brexit.
With all the uncertainty, the government has promised to “provide more information in the coming months, with the aim of giving aviation businesses and passengers as much certainty as possible ahead of the UK’s exit from the EU”.
In addition to the aviation licences warning, the Brexit scenarios paper also notes that bus and coach services to EU countries could also be suspended in the event of no deal.
Also, under no deal, livestock being exported would be subject to sanitary checks, and animal hauliers would need certificates for transport authorisation, adding new levels of red tape for farmers.
The UK would need to be approved by the EU as an exporter, a process that could take more than six months.
In all, the government has now published 77 technical notices designed to prepare businesses and inform the public about what could happen in the “unlikely” event of the UK leaving without a deal.
The documents are guidance to try to avoid the “short-term disruption” which the government admits is possible if the two sides cannot reach a deal.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab called the technical notices “practical and proportionate” advice in case the UK leaves the EU without a deal.
Some of the most alarming potential outcomes of a no deal Brexit are possible medicine shortages. Pharmaceutical companies have been told to stockpile an extra six weeks’ worth of medicine to ensure a “seamless” supply.
The UK would continue to accept new medicines that have been tested in the EU, even if the EU did not reciprocate in turn.
Also, the cost of card payments between the UK and EU will “likely increase” and won’t be covered by a hold on surcharges.
In addition to that, businesses trading with the EU should start planning for new customs checks and might have to pay for new software or logistical help.
Britons living elsewhere in Europe could lose access to UK banking and pension services without EU action. UK organic food producers could face new hurdles in exporting to the EU.
Also, low-value parcels from the EU would no longer be eligible for VAT relief. New picture warnings will be needed for cigarette packets as the EU owns the copyright to the current ones.
The government argues that these warnings represent contingency planning for a worst-case scenario and preparations will have to be made until the UK government reaches a deal with the EU.
Despite her best efforts to stick to the Chequers plan, hoping the EU might give her some concessions at the last minute, May most probably knows her plan is on life support and other alternatives must be found because — and let us face it — everyone knows that “no deal is better than a bad deal” is nonsense.
May’s position is ever more reckless because her main two foes, the hard Brexiteers and the Labour Party, injected new dynamics to the Brexit dilemma by two clever manoeuvres.
The Brexiteers are now united behind a Canada-style deal. Meanwhile, the Labour Party is firmly behind early general elections or a second referendum (dubbed a “people’s vote”) to resolve the impasse of negotiations and division in the House of Commons.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of the prominent faces of the Leave campaign, has said that May needs to recognise that the Chequers plan doesn’t have much support and that she should think carefully about switching tack to propose that the UK strikes a Canada-style free trade agreement with the European Union after Brexit.
However, the hard Brexit camp in the Conservative Party has yet to answer how a Canada-style agreement will solve the dilemma of the Irish borders.
On the other hand, the Labour Party made it quite clear that it will not support either May’s Chequers plan or a Canada-style free trade deal if those two proposals were to be presented in the House of Commons.
A no-deal outcome, the Labour Party says, would also be “catastrophic” and a “complete failure by the government to negotiate for Britain”.
The other three options the Labour Party is ready to engage with are: a Norway-style deal, snap elections and a second referendum — an option very problematic with the Labour strongholds in northern England and the 52 per cent who voted for Brexit in June 2016, but very popular with the Labour Party grassroots and members.
However, Labour’s options are problematic.
First, there is no appetite for early elections in the UK.
Second, a Norway-style deal most likely will not pass in the House of Commons.
Third, a second referendum would need time, preparation and most importantly national consensus.
The debate inside the Labour Party annual conference this week reflects deep divisions in the UK regarding a second referendum.
While the majority of Labour members supported a motion about a second referendum during the annual conference in Liverpool, the wording was left vague, opening the way for some to describe it as a fudge.
Brexit Shadow Secretary Keir Starmer and Treasury Shadow Secretary John McDonnell disagreed publicly.
McDonnell said any second referendum should be on how to leave the EU, not whether to do so.
This is clearly an attempt from his side to protect Labour from accusations of breaking their “promises” and taking “the UK back to square one on Brexit”.
Starmer was on the other side of the argument. He understood that the motion could allow Britain to vote to stay in the EU.
“This isn’t about frustrating the process,” he said. “It’s about stopping a destructive Tory Brexit. It’s about fighting for our values and about fighting for our country.”
“If we need to break the impasse, our options must include campaigning for a public vote and nobody is ruling out ‘remain’ as an option,” he said to a standing ovation and prolonged applause in a packed conference hall.
With both the Labour Party and Brexiteers declaring they will vote against any deal she clinches with the European Union, May is between the hammer and the anvil.
Her only option is “keep calm and carry on.”
She already tested this option after Salzburg, using hostile language towards the European Union and nationalistic rhetoric, mixing sovereignty and border control with a “Global Britain” vision.
With no signs of compromise from Brussels, Brexit talks might turn very soon to become a theatre of psychological warfare, where Britain is against an array of European foes all over again.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Brexit psychological warfare