By RYAN KIRKMAN
On 29 March the European Union was officially notified of Britain’s desire to withdraw with the delivery of a six-page letter to European Council President Donald Tusk. Now that Article 50 has finally been triggered, the United Kingdom has until 29 March 2019 to co-ordinate its exit with the twenty-seven remaining member-states.
The optimists among us were hoping for at least a couple months of sensible and rational political discussion before the difficulty of the challenges overwhelmed British politicians and political commentators. Instead, within a week former Conservative leader Michael Howard had told British citizens that the country would be willing to go to war with Spain to defend British sovereignty over Gibraltar. To top that, The Telegraph asked a Navy veteran to reassure us that Britain was capable of ‘crippling’ Spain’s military – just in case any of our European friends still harboured any doubts as to the current sanity of the country. Yes, we do care that much about a rock. No, it’s not lame.
Though Downing Street has downplayed Howard’s comments, and nothing has actually changed with Spain’s ability to act over Gibraltar, the row will have done nothing to help the tension between the UK and those it must negotiate with. If this is the starting point, it is difficult to see how Theresa May and her Cabinet are going to cope with the incredible pressure that will only increase as the two-year negotiating window gradually closes.
A lot of that pressure is going to come from domestic issues. More accurately the domestic issue – keeping the country together. Despite the assurances from the Leave campaign pre-referendum that Brexit would not lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom, the momentum for separation is gathering pace. On 31 March, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon sent a letter to Number 10 asking for the right to hold a second independence referendum, and though this has been rejected, Sturgeon’s campaign has of course only just begun.
Apart from Scotland, Ireland is also going to pose a delicate problem for the Brexiteers. A hard Irish border would risk destroying the co-operative sentiment that the Good Friday agreement was signed in back in 1998, as well as harming the Irish economy. On the other hand, a soft border represents an easy route into the UK for the immigrants that were so demonised during the Leave campaign. The people of Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU and a hard border would be politically explosive, but if May is to take the whole of the UK out of the customs union and fulfil her promises to control immigration, it is doubtful that a soft border would be feasible.
More good news for Britain came last week when a Treasury select committee heard from HMRC, the country’s tax department, that they are now unsure if they have the capacity to implement a new customs declaration system in time for 29 March 2019. HMRC has estimated that there could be a five-fold increase, from £60m a year to £300m, in customs declarations when the free movement of goods ends. There will also of course have to be passport, visa, and possibly work-permit checks for the lorry drivers transporting these goods from the EU into the UK. In short, both internal and external confidence in HMRC has disintegrated, and this will only strengthen the EU’s bargaining position with the UK potentially desperate for a solution.
The first week of Brexit has been a chaotic mess. Seemingly every day British citizens awake to yet another news item about yet another unforeseen problem that needs solving before that 29 March deadline. As these problems add up, the civil service, already lacking in relevant technical expertise, is seeing its resources being spread increasingly thinner while the workload continues to grow. The UK was always unlikely to get a positive deal given the political necessity for the EU for Britain to be worse off outside than inside. Now though, it seems that Britain faces an impossible challenge in preventing Brexit from being an economic and social catastrophe.
So admittedly the horizon is not looking particularly encouraging, but as ever it’s important to remember the good things in life. Firstly, we are going to change the colour of our passports back to their more traditional blue, which presumably will help us to get over our impending impoverishment. And if that somehow isn’t enough, Nigel Farage has already stated on LBC radio that ‘if Brexit is a disaster I will go and live abroad’ – so every cloud, eh?