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Should I Stay or Should I Go. Brexit, EU and transatlantic partnership

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On 23 June 2016 in advisory referendum United Kingdom citizens decided to leave the European Union. Results of the popular vote led to political changes inside UK, but they also had profound impact on the EU’s condition in the time of many crises it faces. Apart from attempts to understand the reasons behind such referendum outcomes, prospective Brexit resulted in plethora of questions regarding the plan for UK’s and EU’s divorce as well as its impact on their future relations. Among them the likelihood of British membership in the European single market after it leaves EU is the most widely discussed issue. In terms of United Kingdom’s stability the possible attempt of Scottish government at second independence referendum in case of unsatisfactory result of Brexit negotiations is of paramount importance. Finally, it is worth to consider imaginable changes in the status of UK-US ‘special relationships’ after Donald Trump’s victory in American presidential elections.

Shape of Brexit process as well as post-Brexit deal between UK and EU has often been described in terms of either ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ ones. Recent speech delivered by the Prime Minister Theresa May on 17th January shattered expectations of many regarding the ‘soft’ version of Brexit process. May assured that Conservative Party’s government is firmly committed to fulfil the will of the UK citizens. The PM also confirmed the plan to invoke Article 50 of Lisbon Treaty by the end of March 2017, however the process might be prolonged due to expected verdict of Supreme Court forcing May’s government to secure parliament’s support for that.

What is more important Theresa May rather unambiguously declared herself in favour of ‘hard’ Brexit that means Britain’s exclusion form European single market and the Customs Union. According to the Prime Minister negotiation process should last two years and its results must be approved by the Parliament. Theresa May consequently distances herself from the declaration she had made during the referendum campaign that British membership in European single market is a matter of economic rationality. She now declares strong belief in the possibility of completion of withdrawal negotiation within two years. But Sir Ivan Rogers, former British Permanent Representative to the European Union says it is wishful thinking and accuses UK government of “muddled thinking”.

UK withdrawal from the European single market seems to be a lose-lose scenario for both sides. It raised a question of political and economical stability of both partners. It might be harmful for both UK’s and EU’s economy to prolong the period of uncertainty. The PM’s declarations calmed the situation in the markets of Europe, however, a longer and more complicated negotiation process might lead to further economic turmoil.

Apart from economic issues the Prime Minister’s speech might have moved UK closer to a next Scottish independence referendum. Almost immediately after the results of the EU referendum had been confirmed, the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stated that the issue of Scottish independence is on the table. In her speech Theresa May declared that the Scottish point of view will be considered during the negotiation process, and the power regained from Brussels will be transferred to the devolved administration. At the same time the PM also highlighted UK government’s leading role during Brexit. From the Scottish perspective Brexit means abandoning of Europe as well as a rise of UK’s government global ambitions, which is at odds with the views and aspirations of Scottish citizens. The fact that UK’s turn from Europe might result in deepening the UK-US ‘special relationships’ with Trump’s administration in the United States is another factor widening the gap between English and Scottish.

However, the status of UK-US ‘special relationships’ during Donald Trump’s presidency is still difficult to predict. Probably the relations between both countries remain close, but the nature of the particular cooperation might change. Trump’s administration will not undermine US’ global engagement, nevertheless, it is going to be accomplished according to cost-benefit calculation. President Trump’s declaration of support for Brexit and his disbelief in European Union, might be seen by UK pro-Brexit elites as a ground for fruitful cooperation. Theresa May’s visit in Washington on Friday will shed more light on the future state of US-UK relations.

British punk rock band The Clash had entitled one of its most famous songs Should I Stay or Should I Go. This title perfectly depicts a social division in pre-Brexit United Kingdom. The fact that almost half of the nation declared willingness to remain in the European Union should at least be considered as a reason for as soft as possible UK withdrawal from EU. In spite of it Theresa May’s government is pursuing the hardest Brexit option. This choice might be of paramount importance, as increasing social divisions as well as political and economical uncertainties, might influence future Brexit negotiations process, that seem to lack any coherent strategy so far. This might deepen the similar dilemma on the side of Scots, that might decide to stay, but within the EU.

Posted by Wojciech Lewandowski
PhD at Institute of European Studies, Faculty of Political Science and International Studies - University of Warsaw

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