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Editorial: May's Down To The Wire With Storm Clouds On Every Side

Britain’s departure from the European Union is once again top of the international news agenda. With barely four months before the nation’s exit from the blocnext March 29 a draft agreement on the terms of Brexit has been approved by Prime Minister Theresa May’s government and by the 27 remaining EU members. But, before being formally endorsed by EU leaders, approval by the British Parliament is required.

A so-called meaningful vote in the House of Commons is expected on December 11 following a five-day marathon debate and what is expected to be a titanic showdown among MPs. The agreement – as well as the separate political declaration outlining how EU/UK trade, security and other issues will work -- has already been fiercely opposed in recent parliamentary exchanges and the signs are that it will be ultimately rejected.

If the House of Commons votes down the deal, EU leaders have made clear their unwillingness to renegotiate it. A no-deal Brexit would presumably follow, resulting in possible chaos, severe damage to the British economy and wide-ranging repercussions internationally. The Bank of England has predicted the UK could sink into a severe recession. For its part, the International Monetary Fund has warned of shockwaves through the world financial system that would put global economic stability at risk.

It seems many in the UK have become increasingly concerned that, after more than 18 months of intense negotiations to implement the majority decision in the 2016 referendum to quit the EU, the best the government can come up with is a controversial draft agreement which satisfies few and is already strongly opposed on the grounds it does not deliver the Brexit demanded by the people.

Mrs May now has to convince MPs the agreement is the best way forward for Britain. She claims it is right for the whole of the country because it will mean regaining control of the UK’s laws, money and borders, as well as its agriculture and fisheries, together with the right to develop an independent trade policy.

Critics of the agreement maintain, however, these claims cannot be justified because the divorce terms are too vague and leave the UK half-in and half-out of the bloc for an indeterminate period. Those opposed to it contend that, while continuing to make huge payments to the EU, the UK will be consigned to what has been termed “a limbo of unknowable duration” through a transition period that could be extended while the nation continues to be tied to the EU’s rules (without any say in formulating them) and could be forced to stay in the customs union indefinitely because of the backstop arrangements for the Irish border.

Seen from this side of the Atlantic and detached from the controversy, it is easier to reflect on the main issue of Brexit which is essentially about UK sovereignty and control over the nation’s affairs. Some in Britain maintain the failure of Mrs May’s government to stand firm against EU intransigence - and negotiate a clean break from a Brussels which is making the country’s exit as difficult as possible in order to deter other members from following suit - is tantamount to capitulation.

As such, they compare it with the Suez crisis in 1956 or what historians regard as Britain’s blunder in sacrificing Czechoslovakia instead of facing up to Hitler at Munich in 1938. Others see a parallel with King Henry VIII’s schism with Rome and the rejection of Roman Catholicism. Still others regard Brexit as a modern failure in statecraft when Britain should be operating from a position of strength in its own interests as a sovereign nation.

Many consider that Brexit was inevitable as the EU remains intent on ever-closer union and a federal super-state, despite the irony that European integration appears to have stalled with the election of populist governments in Hungary, Poland and, more recently, Italy. They see Brexit as a withdrawal from the EU’s political institutions so that Britain can indeed take back control of – in Mrs May’s words – the nation’s laws, money and borders. But they recognise the importance of close cooperation where possible and, in particular, frictionless trade with Britain’s European neighbours; and this was shown originally by the result of Britain’s 1975 referendum when a clear majority voted to stay in the then European Economic Community or Common Market.

It seems that a “no deal” could lead to the ousting of Mrs May as Prime Minister and to a General Election or a second referendum which presumably would be billed as a people’s vote on the draft agreement. But, even if the House of Commons passes the draft agreement, she could still face a vote of no-confidence in the face of pressure from Brexiteers. At this critical stage nothing can be ruled out.

Whatever happens, we reiterate our comment in an earlier column – as observers from afar -- that this is a momentous time in British politics and an important point in the nation’s long history. It is no exaggeration to say the coming weeks and months could be crucial in determining Britain’s immediate political and economic future.

We must also remember the warnings now growing louder that if this depending on how this all plays out the negative impact on the whole global economy could be seismic.

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