The Labour Party’s surprise announcement that Britain should continue in the European single market, at least for some time after the March 2019 Brexit deadline, reflects the late dawning of realism over disengaging with the European Union. It implies an acceptance of the principle of free movement of people from the bloc, a contentious issue that had alienated the opposition party’s core support base during the 2016 referendum. Equally significant is the ruling Conservative Party’s sudden acceptance of the possibility that the European Court of Justice may still have a role after Britain’s exit from the EU. Independence from the jurisdiction of the Luxembourg court had all along been equated with the assertion of national sovereignty by the Leave campaign. This hard line was also the centrepiece of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Lancaster House address in January. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a staunch Brexiter, has also made a striking departure. Last month he made news with his “go whistle” comment to European leaders over London’s outstanding dues, but has since said that as a law-abiding country Britain would indeed pay its bills. There are thus good chances that Eurosceptics in both the parties will be further isolated within and outside Parliament, allowing divisions between the U.K. and EU negotiating positions to be narrowed. The bottomline for Brussels is to ensure that Britain’s exit does not set a precedent. A necessary implication of this premise is that the terms of a future partnership would be vastly inferior in comparison with the benefits of full membership. Conversely for Britain, to conform to a set of rules and regulations without a real voice in their formulation would be far from an ideal arrangement.
This late pragmatism does not detract from the contentious round of negotiations between the U.K. and the rest of the bloc. Brussels has, ever since the June 2016 referendum, insisted upon adherence to a sequential process of unwinding the long partnership. The withdrawal agreement deduced from Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union entails three distinct elements. It includes a decision on the status of British and EU migrants resident in their respective territories, the financial settlement of €60-100 billion, and reconfiguration of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Any meaningful negotiations on a future trade agreement between the two parties hinges on a resolution of these outstanding issues. Little progress has been achieved so far on many of these critical matters. The European Commission and some EU member-states have expressed concern that London is not doing enough to hasten the process. The emerging shifts in the U.K.’s negotiating stance vis-a-vis the EU should be read against this overall backdrop.