By Vanya Walker-Leigh
"Brexit is about the profound friendship between our countries and the wider relationship between Britain and the European Union and also about understanding perspectives and not rhetoric", the British High Commissioner Stuart William Gill said last Friday.
Addressing the "Brexit, what next?" event hosted at the University of Malta by its Institute for European Studies, he emphasised that the British people's vote to leave the EU was "to restore, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy and to become even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit. Britain will be forging a new partnership with the EU and new partnerships with each of the twenty seven members of the EU.
"For all the familiar reasons, the UK-Malta relationship has a head start. I will work to ensure not only that it remains as strong as it is today, but becomes deeper and better still. If my first six months have been an affirmation of the closeness of the UK-Malta relationship, the next six months will be the beginning of a new stage in our fabulous shared history. I can't pretend it will be straightforward, but I am looking forward to it.
"The Prime Minister, Theresa May, in her Lancaster House speech on 17 January set out her 12 objectives for a right deal for Britain. She wants us to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article Fifty process has concluded. From that point onwards, we believe a phased process of implementation will be in our mutual interest. This will give businesses enough time to plan and prepare for those new arrangements. In 2015, the UK exported £230 billion (€285bn) worth of goods and services to the EU and we imported £290 billion (€332 bn) worth of goods and services from the EU.
"The position the UK and EU will start from, with a common regulatory framework with the European Single Market, is unprecedented. We are confident that EU member states and the EU itself want a positive relationship between the UK and the EU after Brexit. The Prime Minister has also been clear that she wants to protect the status of EU nationals already living in the UK. The only circumstances in which that wouldn't be possible is if British citizens' rights in European member states were not protected in return.
"The UK government will continue to defend human rights and support political and economic freedom, working closely with Malta and other allies, in the interests of peace and stability for the Mediterranean and North African region. At a time when together we face a serious threat from our enemies, Britain's unique intelligence capabilities will continue to help to keep people in Europe safe from terrorism... Britain's servicemen and women based in European countries will continue to do their duty."
Professor Neill Nugent of the College of Europe indicated that "the UK has always preferred an organisation primarily focused on creating an open, liberal internal market, mainly intergovernmental in character, with foreign and external security issues firmly within the NATO context. On joining the EU in 1973, the domestic elite and public opinion were sharply split and UK quickly sought to renegotiate its membership terms.
"Prior to the referendum UK had come to be viewed as a 'normal' Member State in many ways, but in others as the "most awkward" for remaining outside Schengen, the Eurozone, opt-ins and outs under the Lisbon Treaty, inclination to "naturally' back the USA, the Eurosceptic actions of some national politicians and domestic public opinion. The referendum was held to solve domestic Conservative party political problems and part of its 2015 election manifesto, not because the new Conservative Government wished to consult the British people.
"The upcoming negotiations will comprise the withdrawal terms and post-Brexit EU-UK relations. With officials undertaking detailed negotiations all "final" and "political" decisions will be taken at the highest political level. The European Council will set the overall negotiating terms - approved by Qualified Voting Majority if necessary - while the approval of the European Parliament will be necessary for the withdrawal agreement to be ratified.
"UK Prime Minister Theresa May will be firmly in charge through the Brexit Cabinet Committee, while Parliament will have a binding vote on the final Brexit treaty, but only on a "take it or leave it" basis. Her main aim is a new and comprehensive free trade agreement. However, if less favourable access to EU's internal market occurs, with UK having no say on its standards and regulations, results could include a decline in trade with EU, of inward investment, no significant decline in inward migration with a large divorce settlement to pay.
"Consequences for the EU - already facing a series of crises - are likely to be a reduced internal market, a possible further decline in its international standing and external policy capacity, increased Euroscepticism within Member States. Most observers think that while two years for a withdrawal agreement is possible, an interim agreement on future EU-UK relations will be necessary. All bets may be off in the event of unforeseen events such as EU or some Member States wishing/not wishing to drive a hard bargain, UK/European/a national parliament not approving the exit agreement before the 2019 deadline, election of a Eurosceptic government in EU 27, a change of UK government."
Elena Grech, EU's representative to Malta, said that "in this marriage EU is like the jilted partner. There is disappointment, shock, it is only sinking in now that this is really going to happen. The European Commission felt it had made quite a good offer to former Prime Minister David Cameron (his attempt to renegotiate membership terms before the UK referendum in June 2016).
"Both Council President Donald Tusk and the European Parliament's lead Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt MEP have promised that the EU will be able to reply as soon as notification of UK's request under Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty is received. Member States are asked for their immediate reactions so that the whole package can be concluded by the end of October 2018 - an extension can only happen with the agreement of all Member States. A Commission team will conduct the negotiations, led by former Commissioner Michel Barnier.
"A hard Brexit is in nobody's interest and there a lot of areas where EU will still need to UK - such as security and defence. The only risk is if negotiations are not concluded in two years and the UK withdraws, leaving both sides in limbo - a doomsday scenario. English will remain a working language, since it is the co-language of Ireland and Malta. If there is an election in the UK and a new government, can it change position and ask to stay? Legally speaking this is very difficult to say; Article 50 does not offer a point of return, but politics are far from legislation and it would be up to politicians to decide."
Former Prime Minister Alfred Sant MEP warned that "Brexit raises the whole question of how EU will shape up, approaching its 60th anniversary. There is a lot of unfinished business and no real political cohesion to get it through. If the 27 can deal with Brexit in a cohesive, constructive, forward looking manner then the EU will make it.
"I am betting that the populists won't come through, but it is not the extremists creating trouble but the mainstream political circles not able to agree. What worries me that there is no real push for a political discussion on what kind of political resolution there should be after the Brexit divorce happens, where we want to end and I do not see how we are going to converge within the EU. Brexit is going to test the identity of each Member State as part of the EU. Unless convergence is found for each Member State's utility function, there are going to be more stalemates and problems."
According to Therese Comodini Cachia MEP, Brexit was affecting her work and participation in the European Parliament's committees. "There is still a lot of emotion, some of us feel hurt. Each Member State must have a discussion based on evidence rather than emotion, because trade relations with the UK are different in each case. Are we going to find the right compromise or will it be prejudicial to some Member States and advantageous to others?
"How will the EU legislative framework sit by the UK framework once UK is out of the Union? How will the issue of trade policies with third countries be addressed? How will each Member State be able to cope with uncertainties, and how will the situation affect social and economic development in each Member State? We don't need answers to all these questions right now, but we do need political certainty on what EU 27 wants out of Brexit. "