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What type of Brexit will the UK seek in its EU divorce?

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What type of Brexit will the UK seek in its EU divorce?

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The appointment of Michel Barnier as the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator has been given a somewhat cool reception in the UK. Described as the “scourge of the City of London” after his prominent role in shaping Europe’s post-crisis financial regulation, his nomination made hackles rise in parts of London.

It has also been pointed out that the move will see him lock horns once again with an old adversary from the European stage in the 1990s: Britain’s new ‘Brexit Minister’ David Davis. Two days before the UK’s referendum, Barnier expressed horror at the prospect of Brexit in a TV interview, describing it as a “weakening”, a “form of disaster”.

A government statement in response to the announcement did not even mention the former French foreign minister and EU commissioner by name, and highlighted other parties who will be involved in the talks. “We look forward to working with representatives from the Member States, the Council and the Commission to ensure an orderly departure of the UK from the EU,” a spokesman said.


Who will the main Brexit players be?

Indeed, Barnier’s appointment does not make him the chief negotiator for the European Union as a whole. The Commission is expected to be heavily involved in the technical detail of the negotiations. However although something of a “turf war” is reported to be going on, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk as well as Angela Merkel and François Hollande are said to prefer national governments to take the lead in the process.

There has also been speculation about the relative weight of the various players on the British side. Might the likes of David Davis and the new International Trade Secretary Liam Fox find the rug pulled from under their feet by Theresa May, or her new Chancellor (finance minister) Philip Hammond? Some reports suggest there has already been disagreement within the Cabinet over the sort of relationship Britain should seek with the EU.

And what of the role of the Vote Leave campaign’s most notorious cheerleader Boris Johnson, now the UK’s foreign secretary? Will he be sidelined to far-flung corners of the globe to fly the flag for Britain? His opinions though will still be sought and widely quoted. Will the man whose controversial remarks have become his trademark stick to the script, in tune with his colleagues doing the hard bargaining behind closed doors in Brussels?

At this stage, there is evidence that players on both sides of the UK-EU divide are jockeying for position within their own camps.


What type of Brexit will the UK seek?

This is the big overriding question, as the European Union awaits Britain’s anticipated move to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, setting in motion the formal process towards the exit door. At stake is the nature of the United Kingdom’s future relations with Europe for decades to come, and perhaps the future of the EU itself.

There are many factors that come into play, but essentially it may come down to the extent to which Britain values access to the single market, set against its desire to curb immigration from EU countries.

Taking her first session of Prime Ministers’ Questions in the House of Commons, Theresa May set out the parameters: “What we need to do in negotiating the deal is to ensure that we listen to what people have said about the need for controls on free movement, but we also negotiate the right deal and the best deal of trade in goods and services for the British people,” she said (July 20).

Euronews has already outlined here the various arrangements the EU has with non-member countries such as Norway and Switzerland. Speaking on Wednesday this week after talks with her Italian counterpart Matteo Renzi, the British prime minister said the UK’s future ties with the EU may not mirror any of the existing relationships between non-EU countries and the bloc. May added that she had an ‘open mind’ on the possibility that the UK might leave the EU’s customs union.


A ‘soft’ Brexit: anything but a soft option

This is the type of arrangement preferred by many of those who wanted the UK to remain in the EU, and by some who wanted to leave. It involves remaining as close as possible to the bloc, in particular safeguarding access to the single market.

In his final speech to Parliament as prime minister, this was the stance that David Cameron clearly stated he wanted Theresa May to take. “My advice to my successor, who is a brilliant negotiator, is that we should try to be as close to the European Union as we can be for the benefits of trade, co-operation and security. The Channel will not get any wider once we leave the European Union, and that is the relationship we should seek,” he said.

Even his arch-rival and nemesis, Boris Johnson, has ditched the anti-EU rhetoric since the referendum was won, stressing the need for maintaining close links. Within 48 hours of the vote, but before the political turmoil that eventually propelled him into the post of the UK’s chief diplomat, he stated confidently in a newspaper column that “there will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market”.

However the major sticking point remains the staunch opposition of EU institutions and other national leaders to any compromise on freedom of movement: one of the founding principles of the union and until now, an absolute condition in deals it has struck concerning access to the single market. David Cameron failed to get the EU to budge in negotiating his ill-fated deal in the run-up to the referendum.Yet London believes the reality of Brexit means there may be room for manoeuvre.


Brexit and be damned: the ‘hard’ choice

So-called ‘hard Brexiteers’ tend to be less concerned about access to the EU’s single market, instead identifying their priority as taking back control of immigration from other European countries. Indeed, some prominent ‘Vote Leave’ campaigners wanted to stop the automatic right of entry to the UK by EU nationals by the next general election. Many are in favour of a much quoted points-based immigration system.

As for trade, many believe the UK’s economic clout means the European Union will in the end baulk at cutting off its nose to spite its face, and strike a deal. German car-makers will still need to sell vehicles to Britain, they argue. Others – including many supporters of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – think Britain is perfectly capable of standing on its own two feet on the world stage regardless of any accord with Europe.

Upon being elected to Parliament in 2014, UKIP’s Mark Reckless said in his victory speech: “We want to lift our eyes and horizons beyond Europe. We are linked by commerce and kinship, by language and law, and by [having a shared history with] the wider English-speaking world”.

If no free-trade deal is struck with the EU, it is thought that World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules would apply, leaving the UK to do business with the EU on the same basis as countries such as New Zealand. Even though leading pro-Brexit figures have been appointed to key posts in the government, the ‘hard Brexit’ lobby are already breathing down their necks.


How and when to Brexit?

Those in favour of the ‘hard’ option tend to be keen to cut loose quickly. Many see no point in hanging around before then haggling on the EU’s terms, as they see it, potentially for several years. Even if the famous Article 50 is invoked, hardliners argue that a first step should be the repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act, the legislation which took the UK into the EU in the first place.

Softly, softly has been the British government’s approach so far – in terms of the process as well as the subject matter. In contrast to expectations before the referendum that David Cameron would immediately trigger Article 50, the government’s position now is that it won’t begin the official divorce process until next year.

So far, soothing noises have been heard on both sides of the English Channel. Some have sought to play down the task ahead: “the only change – and it will not come in any great rush – is that the UK will extricate itself from the EU’s extraordinary and opaque system of legislation,” Boris Johnson has said.

However others have portrayed the challenge of unravelling great swathes of EU-related law from the UK’s statute book as monumental. In the words of one legal expert, the process could be “more legally complicated than decolonisation or the break-up of sovereign countries in the past”.

Whether the UK’s exit from the EU will happen in an orderly manner may also be subject to other unpredictable factors, such as national elections and financial or economic crises. Article 50 imposes a two-year deadline on negotiations. Should that process end in agreement, a comprehensive deal would need to be rubber-stamped by the national parliaments of all 27 member states as well as the Commission and European Parliament.

With so many potential pitfalls ahead, the danger of an unplanned disorderly UK exit from the European Union is a possibility. For now the emphasis is on smooth talk. Yet with Euroscepticism on the continent riding high, arguably the EU has an interest in ensuring that Brexit does not happen too smoothly, pour encourager les autres.

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