A soft Brexit was what was promised recently by members of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party to the British public, and a plan was formulated to pave the way for negotiations on that path for Britain to leave the European Union.
However, the Conservative Party has failed to attain this goal to the extent that it now looks helpless in front of the realities of the negotiations.
Last week, the European Union turned down UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for a soft Brexit because these contained proposals that could only be reserved to full members of the EU while Britain no longer desires to be one.
One of the most important of the proposals regarded the custom tariffs that the British government had already proposed in its white paper on the issue in July 2018.
They included many terms that the EU does not accept, including demands for preferential treatment by the UK under which it would collect EU custom duties on goods traded between Northern Ireland, part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, part of the EU.
At the same time, the UK is requesting maintaining the freedom to set different tariffs on goods destined for the British market.
This clause among others was rejected by EU negotiators, who feel that the British government is cherry-picking elements of the EU single market and complying with others.
Other areas of contention include the compliance of the UK with decisions by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which was one of the major points rejected by Brexit advocates who want to see the supremacy of UK law and British courts.
However, May has since found herself conceding on this point to the extent that some of her critics have accused her of binding the United Kingdom even further to European laws through continued membership of the ECJ when escaping from them was the point of Brexit in the first place.
As a result, May has found herself torn between appeasing the Brexit camp and EU negotiators who have not yielded to her demands.
If anything has been proven by this debacle it is that the devil is always in the details and that most of the points made by the Brexit camp were mere rhetoric with no practical roadmap behind them.
Most of the promises made by the Brexiteers who managed to convince the majority of the British public that they would be better off outside the EU were founded on wishful thinking rather than practical solutions and were amalgamated with nationalist rhetoric.
That has been continuously on display in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and the costly divorce that is now taking place between the UK and the EU.
Many multinational companies headquartered in Britain are looking for ways to leave Britain and particularly its financial centre of London for other European cities such as Frankfurt in Germany in order to maintain the privileges that come from being based in the EU.
While the EU is not perfect and undoubtedly has shortcomings in many regards, it has given its members advantages that overshadow such shortcomings.
Many of its members have grown economically since entry, including Greece, Spain, Poland, the Czech Republic and Italy over the past three decades, some more than at any other time in their modern history.
Moreover, the woes of the British economy do not stem in the main from an influx of immigrants from Europe.
These may have had a negative impact in certain cases, but other real sources of troubles have been ignored, such as the structure of the British economy and the corporations that ship labour-intensive jobs overseas as far as India and China to squeeze out maximum profits while leaving the British population stranded without the decent jobs that are now going to other nationalities.
It is now customary for a British resident contacting customer services at a telephone company to be greeted by an operator working from a call centre in India or the Philippines.
This is just one example of how British citizens have lost their jobs to overseas workers as a result of British corporations aiming to cut costs at the expense of British labour markets.
EU leaders are rumoured to have come to terms with some of the British demands in a last-resort attempt to keep the UK within the economic framework of the EU as a non-member state.
While EU representatives have expressed their impatience towards the UK because of its demands, along with the agonising steps being taken by London, they remain sanguine since the difficulties of the UK exit from the EU could serve as a cautionary tale for other countries contemplating a similar move.
The hidden message is that exiting the EU will be very costly and not as easy as pro-Brexit politicians have promoted it as being in their speeches.
The current British demands to the EU resemble a member of a country club who refuses to pay the annual subscription fees or abide by the rules yet insists on utilising the club’s facilities. Such demands are likely to be rejected by the club’s management.
British government attempts to acquire the benefits of the EU without being members of it will likely be rejected because they could send a message to other EU countries that they too could leave the Union yet still enjoy the benefits of membership. Obviously, this is not something EU politicians are keen to do.
Such events have led to calls by British politicians for another referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in order to decide its fate in the light of what has turned out to be an agonising Brexit.
The downturn that could befall the British economy along with a tumbling currency and the loss of European membership benefits have cast a dark spell on the entire process, something that the anti-Brexit camp is willing to use in an attempt to overturn the result of the first referendum.
However, any attempt to do so would also have important consequences as it would ignite a major controversy about democracy in the UK and the need to respect referendums.
The EU will also not be very keen on any such move despite its initial wish to keep Britain as part of the EU.
The reason is mainly due to the significant section of the British population that voted in favour of Brexit in the 2016 referendum and are still demanding that the country exit from the EU.
European leaders will not wager on letting the UK back in again even if such a new referendum favours its remaining in the EU lest UK voters change their minds once again in the future.
For some, Brexit was a wish come true after the 2016 vote as it meant that their problems would fade away as the UK left the EU.
Reality has now kicked in, and the old proverb of “be careful what you wish for” has come into play in the agonising Brexit process.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 August 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Britain’s agonising Brexit