British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attend a press conference after their meeting on Brexit at EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on Dec. 4, 2017. (Xinhua/Ye Pingfan)
by Xinhua writer Tian Dongdong
BRUSSELS, Dec. 31 (Xinhua) -- Britons are proud of their maritime history. Like a ship, their United Kingdom has sailed through glorious days and low ebbs in the past centuries. Nowadays, the ship is trying to sail away from the European coast, but fierce disputes within the Kingdom, as well as the tough talks between the two sides of the English Channel, have almost taken the wind out of its sail in the year of 2017.
The green light to the 2nd-phase Brexit talks given by 27 European Union (EU) member states in mid December gave a gasp of relief to the ship's crew, including British Prime Minister Theresa May and her Brexit Secretary David Davis, whose political future has been tied to that of the ship.
However, the 2nd-phase talks will never be a peaceful sea waiting to be commanded. As the easiest part has been charted, the ship is sailing into unknown waters. Will the wind be back in Brexit's sails in 2018? It seems nobody knows for sure at the end of a bumpy year.
EU ERECTS BARRIERS WITH STRONG-WORDED GUIDELINES
As crew members are still quarrelling over the future routes, their EU counterparts have already laid bare redlines.
During the last EU summit in mid December, the EU27 proved a strong-worded guideline, requiring all commitments undertaken during the first phase to be respected in full and translated faithfully into legal terms as quickly as possible.
What's more, the guidelines also allow no "cherry-picking" -- Britain will continue to stay in the Customs Union and the Single Market with all four freedoms, i.e. free movement of goods, services and capital and labor during the transition, which means continuous flow of immigrants through British borders.
In addition, Britain will be a third country as of March 30, 2019. As a result, it will no longer be represented in EU's institutions, agencies, bodies and offices. But at the same time, Britain needs to abide all existing Union regulatory, budgetary, supervisory, judiciary and enforcement instruments and structures, including the competence of the Court of Justice of the EU during the transitional period.
It underlined that work needs to be completed on all withdrawal issues, including those not yet addressed in the first phase, such as the overall governance of the Withdrawal Agreement and substantive issues such as goods placed on the market before Britain's withdrawal from the EU, said the release.
Commenting on the transitional period, Michael Barnier, EU's Chief Brexit negotiator, told reporters in late December that Britain "will keep all the benefits and obligations of the single market, the Customs Union and common policies during this transition period ... but the transition is part of the withdrawal agreement ...If there is no orderly withdrawal and a treaty on section 50, there is no transition."
FUTURE RELATIONSHIP -- EU OFFERS LESS THAN BRITAIN EXPECTED
As to the future relationship, the EU has set two redlines: it can only be finalized and concluded once Britain has become a third country; the EU needs additional guidelines to engage in preliminary and preparatory discussions on the understanding of its "framework".
The difference between the EU and Britain on this issue is crystal clear: Britain wants to start talks on relationship for the future in the 2nd phase, but the EU only agrees to begin with its "framework" first.
As to the content of the future relationship, the EU might fail Britain's expectations too.
Local media reports are mainly focusing on two types of future relations -- CETA-type, i.e. the "Canadian" Model, and EEA-type, the Norwegian Model.
A CETA-type trade deal would fall much short of what Britain is looking for, mainly because it offers relatively limited access in services, with no passporting rights for financial services -- an important sector for Britain, said Maria Demertzis, deputy director of the Bruegel think tank based in Brussels.
On the other hand, an EEA-type agreement would give Britain much of what it is looking for in trade, including passporting rights for financial services. However, the EU insists that access to its single market, which EEA countries enjoy, must mean not only free movement of goods, services and capital, but also of labor -- a demand that Britain is not willing to accept, she added.
In other words, Britain is looking for a "CETA-plus" (i.e. plus services, including financial services) or an "EEA-minus" (i.e. minus free movement of labor) agreement. For its part, the EU is sticking to its CETA or EEA offer, without plus or minus. Whether there is room for a compromise between the two positions and at what price -- in terms of Britain's contributions to the EU budget and with respect of ECJ decisions -- is what the negotiations of phase two will really be about, she noted in an analysis co-writing with Bruegel's senior research fellow Andre Sapir.
COULD THE SHIP SIMPLY BE STOPPED?
No doubt the Brexit talks would meet difficulties in 2018. What if the two sides simply cannot make breakthrough? Nick Clegg, former party-leader of the Liberal Democrats and a renowned Remainer, suggested that Brexit could be stopped, in his book entitled How to Stop Brexit.
In the book, he said the Brexit "is not irrevocable", citing Lord Kerr, the Scottish lawyer who authored Article 50.
Besides, "in the end, in the EU everything is political. European law has a habit of giving way where there is political will from the member states," said Clegg.
"Parliament has the power to halt the Government's approach to Brexit," He said, calling Remainers in Britain to win support from the MPs via visiting them more frequently, attending local party meetings and party conferences with motions -- in a word, let more MPs hear their voices.
"Too much of our politics is dominated by what are, in effect, ideological sects, unrepresentative of wider society. Why should their narrow prejudices or their personality cult be the driving force of what shapes the future of our country? We all have a right to have our say, as the circumstances surrounding Brexit change and the promises that were made fail to materialize," said Clegg.