Prime Minister Theresa May chaired two Brexit meetings on February 6 and 8 to try to bring the divided cabinet to a consensus and to best decide how to move forward with the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union.
According to The Financial Times, these meetings are critical since May and her senior ministers shape the post-Brexit UK-EU relationship. However, a consensus is difficult to achieve given the extent of political deadlock. One faction is pushing for a “hard Brexit” in which the UK withdraws from the EU single market and customs union, achieving full control over its borders and new trade deals. On the other hand, others advocate for a softer Brexit that maintains close UK-EU ties and the UK’s unfettered access to the single market.
“Patience is wearing thin,” however, warned the British Chamber of Commerce. On the day of the first Brexit meeting, according to The Guardian, the business leaders released a statement declaring that “businesses need those elected to govern our country to make choices – and to deliver a clear, unequivocal statement of intent. The perception amongst businesses on the ground, large and small alike, is one of continued division. Even amongst the many optimistic, future-oriented firms – those who see opportunity in change – patience is wearing thin.”
These sentiments were echoed by chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who stated, “The time has come to make a choice. We need clarity about the UK proposals for future partnership.” According to The Sunday Times, Barnier emphasized the potential harm of Brexit to British trade, especially if the UK doesn’t remain closely tied to the EU economy, saying, “The only thing I can say, without a customs union and outside the single market, barriers to trade on goods and services are unavoidable.” Even if the UK attempts to remain in the single market, the EU may take actions to restrict their access. According to the BBC, a leaked draft of the legally binding UK-EU withdrawal agreement suggests that the final agreement “should provide for a mechanism allowing the union to suspend certain benefits deriving for the United Kingdom from participation in the internal market.” This suggested mechanism illustrates the EU’s reluctance to allow the UK to have their cake and eat it too; in other words, the EU doesn’t think that the UK should be able to withdraw from the EU but still gain from the EU, especially economically.
Ahead of a key European Council meeting in March and the ultimate UK departure scheduled for March 2019, pressure is building on the UK for it to decide what it wants from Brexit.