Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Divided UK, inconclusive election could put brakes on Brexit

Published:Monday | July 24, 2017 | 7:00 AM
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May.

LONDON (AP):

Lucy Harris thinks Britain's decision to leave the European Union is a dream come true. Nick Hopkinson thinks it's a nightmare.

The two Britons a 'leave' supporter and a 'remainer' represent the great divide in a country that stepped into the unknown just over a year ago, when British voters decided by 52 per cent to 48 per cent to end more than four decades of EU membership.

They are also as uncertain as the rest of the country about what Brexit will look like, and even when it will happen. Since the shock referendum result, work on negotiating the divorce from the EU has slowed to a crawl as the scale and complexity of the challenge becomes clearer.

Harris, founder of the pro-Brexit group Leavers of London, says she is hopeful, rather than confident, that Britain will really cut its ties with the EU.

"If we haven't finalised it, then anything's still up for grabs," she said. "Everything is still to play for."

She's not the only Brexiteer, as those who support leaving the EU are called, to be concerned. After an election last month clipped the wings of Britain's Conservative government, remainers are gaining in confidence.

"Since the general election, I've been more optimistic that at least we're headed toward soft Brexit, and hopefully we can reverse Brexit altogether," said Hopkinson, chairman of pro-EU group London4Europe. "Obviously, the government is toughing it out, showing a brave face. But I think its brittle attitude towards Brexit will break and snap."

 

NOT A SMOOTH ROAD

 

Many on both sides of the divide had assumed the picture would be clearer by now. But the road to Brexit has not run smoothly.

First, the British government lost a Supreme Court battle over whether a vote in Parliament was needed to begin the Brexit process. Once the vote was held, and won, Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative government officially triggered the two-year countdown to exit, starting a race to untangle four decades of intertwined laws and regulations by March 2019.

Then, May called an early election in a bid to strengthen her hand in EU negotiations. Instead, voters stripped May's Conservatives of their parliamentary majority, severely denting May's authority and her ability to hold together a party split between its pro-and anti-EU wings.

Since the June 8 election, government ministers have been at war, providing the media with a string of disparaging, anonymously sourced stories about one another. Much of the sniping has targeted Treasury chief Philip Hammond, the most senior minister in favour of a compromise 'soft Brexit' to cushion the economic shock of leaving the bloc.

The result is a disunited British government and an increasingly impatient EU.

EU officials have slammed British proposals so far as vague and inadequate. The first substantive round of divorce talks in Brussels last week failed to produce a breakthrough, as the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said Britain must clarify its positions in key areas.

Barnier said "fundamental" differences remain on one of the biggest issues the status of three million EU citizens living in Britain and one million UK nationals who reside in other European countries. A British proposal to grant permanent residency to Europeans in the UK was dismissed by the European Parliament as insufficient and burdensome.