Wed, 19 Dec 2018
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Crucial Week for Britain as Brexit Saga Continues

Voice of America
20 Nov 2018, 01:05 GMT+10

LONDON - Britain's interminable Brexit saga seems ready made for Netflix - and is already putting to shame Nordic noir fiction for unexpected twists and turns, gothic dark mood and moral complexity. More than two years after Britons narrowly voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, still no one knows what the upshot will be or even the timing of the final episode.

What you thought was certain crumbles into nothingness with each passing episode.

Like Britain's notoriously dysfunctional rail system things never go according to plan. The Brexit-watching British public seem like apoplectic platform-trapped passengers enraged by delays and stamping their feet crossly over the excuses as they worry about when the train will arrive or be re-routed. Hardly surprisingly, opinion polls are showing big swings to the main opposition party, Labor, which is also split on Brexit, the biggest issue facing the country since the end of the Cold War.

Labor, though, has the good fortune not to be in power - unlike the ruling Conservatives, who are tearing themselves apart in a political maelstrom over Brexit.

"I feel like I am in car which is going over a bridge, and toppling in slow-motion into the water," says Heidi Kingstone, a Canadian-born British author. "Should I sell my apartment and leave?" she muses. She is not alone in struggling for a foothold - Britain's newspapers are straining with adjectives and adverbs to explain the fast-moving plots, coups and resignations.

Britain's no-nonsense Sun tabloid headlined characteristically one of its front pages last week simply "Brex****."

FILE - A still image from video footage shows Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaking about Brexit, in the House of Commons, in London, Britain, Nov. 15, 2018.

Will May survive?

As it stands, Britain's embattled Prime Minister Theresa May, whose trademark resilience is seen by many of her critics now as just plain obstinacy, might be Britain's leader tomorrow - or, then of course, she might not. On Sunday, in an interview with Sky News, May admitted, "the next seven days will be critical" for the country. As they will for her.

With criticism mounting over of the 585-page Brexit withdrawal agreement - published alongside a much shorter political declaration setting out what Britain's future trade relationship with the EU might look like depending on more and (probably) years of negotiations - May is battling to sell against the odds the proposed deal, some of which took her own Brexit ministers, who resigned last week, by surprise.

Suella Braverman, one of the ministers, says there were some clauses in the final draft that were "never agreed by ministers or cabinet as far as I know... and never appeared in any draft agreements I saw."

Across Britain's political spectrum, the deal - which is due to be signed off at an EU special summit next Sunday - has prompted alarmed outrage with critics labeling it a demeaning deal which could leave the country indefinitely trapped, as far as they see it, in a customs union with its erstwhile European partners while having to abide by the bloc's laws, rules and regulations without having any say about them.

Few observers believe the draft deal will win the approval of parliament next month when it comes up for a formal vote. All the opposition parties are opposed to the proposed agreement, as is a large faction of Brexit hardliners in May's ruling minority Conservative government, who say the deal will obstruct Britain from striking trade deals with non-EU countries. They say Britain will turned into a "vassal state" of the EU.

To get legislation through parliament, May's government relies on a handful of lawmakers from Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party. They are infuriated about the deal, which in order to avoid customs checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the only land frontier separating Britain from the EU, treats the British province differently from England, Wales and Scotland, a state of affairs they worry will weaken their ties with London.

FILE - Supporters during a 'Leave Means Leave Rally' are seen at the National Conference Center, Solihull, central England, Sept 30, 2018.

But Theresa May's problems are even more immediate than next month's scheduled vote in parliament. Her first challenge this week is to confront an effort by Brexiters to oust her. But as ever with the Brexit saga, nothing is certain. Zealous Brexiters in her party might or might not launch Monday a formal effort to dump her as Conservative leader, but the bid appears to have been slowed because some of them fear if she survives a no-confidence vote, she will be strengthened. Others seem to be heeding May's warning made on Sunday that "a change of leadership at this point isn't going to make the negotiations any easier and it isn't going to change the parliamentary arithmetic."

If they do manage to trigger a formal vote of non-confidence in her, May has to win convincingly. "If she survives with a small majority that won't be sufficient. Even a hundred or more lawmakers voting against her would so weaken her, she'd probably have to resign," concedes an aide.

Even if she overcomes a leadership challenge, she will be faced later in the week by a 'loyalist' gang of five powerful ministers, who unlike a handful of their colleagues decided not to resign last week over the draft withdrawal agreement. They want her to reopen negotiations and to amend the deal substantially, something Brussels and the 27 national governments of the EU have firmly said they won't do. On Monday, Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, emphasized that, saying: "This deal that is now on the tables is the best there is. There is no better deal for this crazy Brexit."

The gang of five led by Michael Gove may or may not resign, if she refuses. If they do, few believe she would survive - nor the draft deal with her. The complexities don't end there. Several EU governments, including France, Belgium and the Netherlands, are also dissatisfied with the deal, believing it gives Britain a competitive advantage by not tying it closely enough to EU regulations, workers' rights and environmental standards, thereby lowering potentially the production costs of British goods.

And they want the divorce agreement's accompanying political declaration, which will set the parameters for the longer-term future trade deal that's still to be negotiated, to be much tougher on Britain to ensure there will be no competitive advantage. If they manage to do that, it will cause further outrage in the British parliament.

FILE - Protesters participate in an anti-Brexit demonstration march through central London, Britain Oct. 20, 2018.

Brexit's future

What happens if the deal collapses or May is deposed is any one's guess. When May unveiled last week the divorce deal, it was akin to hurling a cut-glass bowl to the ground with shards scattering everywhere. There is now a dizzying array of cross-party factions in the House of Commons. They include hard Brexiters who want to leave without any deal, which analysts say would wreck supply chains for manufactured goods, cause huge economic costs for Britain, and would trigger recession.

There are factions who want to scrap the draft withdrawal agreement and negotiate a simple but limited free trade deal modeled on one Canada has with Europe and another that wants a Norway-style deal whereby Britain would join the European Economic Area, seamlessly tying the country to the EU's internal trade market without it being part of the supranational political union. And then there are still Remainers who want Britain to stay in the EU.

Maybe, this isn't fare for Netflix. Author Heidi Kingstone sees it more as very bad reality TV. Possibly it could have the title, "I'm British...Get Me Out of Here!"

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