Heaven for some, hell for others, such are the divisions over Britain’s decision to leave the European Union that certainly have not healed seven weeks after the 23 June vote. The genuine whole-hearted leavers are anxious to charge forward with a full disengagement from the world’s largest trading bloc.
The ardent remainers still dream that somehow exit can still be avoided and hope that since the vote is not legally binding the Parliament will ignore it. Many in the European Union just want to move it along. Prime Minister Theresa May is fond of restating that “Brexit means Brexit” but is it that clear exactly what Brexit will mean? Is it a full divorce or just some form of partial separation?
Various newspaper reports claim that Brexit will not happen until at least 2019. Article 50, the trigger clause for the divorce, may, it is reported, not even be invoked until late 2017. Officially the position is that it will not happen in 2016. The argument is that elections in France and Germany in 2017 create too much uncertainty given that Britain will not know with whom it will be negotiating.
The reality is that things have calmed down and having taken stock, the overarching atmosphere in Britain is one of resilient calm in the face of an uncertain future. The milder leavers know they have to carry the rest of the country with them and that too much haste could damage trust in the project. The milder remainers no longer argue that it will be all doom and gloom.
After all, those who led the charge for Brexit apparently had zero idea let alone a plan as to what should happen following a successful leave vote. Boris Johnson, one of the leaders of the campaign and now foreign secretary, appeared stunned to have won, his confused post-referendum newspaper articles undermined his leadership bid. Others asked what their plan was, claimed that this was the job of Downing Street not them. Britain jumped over the cliffs of Dover blindfolded.
There is still no comprehensive national debate over exactly what sort of relationship Britain should have with the EU in the futureChris Doyle
This means that coming in terms with the full gamut of implications of the vote and leaving the EU takes time. A new ministry has been created just for leaving the EU. Tensions between the three key ministries - this new one, the Foreign Office and the new Ministry for International Trade (exacerbated as they are headed by three rival Brexiteer ministers) - may see the start of a seismic turf war. Of course, as critics point out, the leavers promised to cut bureaucracy, not increase it.
It is a gamble not having one specific political address to handle the issue but the suspicion is that ultimately, Theresa May wants it to be her as prime minister. All ministries and other authorities have to prepare and this takes time.
Remember that Britain has not been involved in bilateral trade negotiations as a member of the EU, so it is now employing a bevy of hugely paid consultants to prepare the ground, additional bureaucracy that could cost in excess of £5 billion over a decade.
The steadied ship
Economically the ship has steadied, the pound did as expected plummet but not as drastically as some feared. Inflation has not shot upwards, just a 0.6 percent rise and the cost of borrowing has decreased and in fact the threat is from negative interest rates. But international banks are anxious, aghast at the absence of a strategic plan to defend London’s pre-eminent position as a global financial center.
Yet matters are also far from resolved. It is not black and white - is it ever? There is still no comprehensive national debate over exactly what sort of relationship Britain should have with the EU in the future. Some still argue for the free movement of people, the Rubicon that must not be crossed for core leavers. Will there be a Norwegian style relationship with the EU, with all the trading privileges but no political influence in Brussels?
Norway has already hinted that this option may not even be possible as it might veto Britain’s membership of the European Free Trade Association. There is also the Canadian option, based on Canada’s comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement, perhaps the EU’s most advanced trade deal yet. However, this did take seven years to negotiate.
Constitutional issues are massively difficult. The Scottish first Minister Nicola Sturgeon resolutely insists that Scotland should remain within the EU, perhaps following another independence referendum.
But then if Scotland was independent and a part of the EU, would there have to be a proper hard border with the rest of Britain? Border issues plague Irish politics too as here delicate border arrangements as part of the Northern Irish peace process could be undermined.
Immigration remains the touch paper issue. Can it be controlled and to what extent should it be? The 2.9 million EU citizens in Britain still face uncertainty as to their future status. Most worrying are the continued societal tensions and hate crime against immigrants, and indeed Muslims, that has continued since the referendum.
Britain is then not making a hasty spring for the exit, more a long-drawn out crawl, but still with very little idea of what is on the other side of the door.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.