Insights

Why the Brexit deadline was doomed to fail– look at Greenland’s Exit.

  • February 7th, 2019
  • Jason O'Sullivan

British Prime Minister Theresa May will be returning to Brussels today in her audacious bid to secure “alternatives” to the much maligned and divisive issue of the Irish backstop.

Her attempts to reopen negotiations on the 585-page withdrawal agreement as previously agreed between the UK and the 27 member states of the EU, seems an impossible task. Particularly, if one is to listen to the commentary coming from Brussels and the Irish Government. They have articulated in unison their diplomatic disdain and contempt at the thought of having to reopen the painstakingly negotiated agreement that had safeguarded the continuation of the Irish border in its current state.

Nevertheless, these EU talks will soon unfold and in the interim, certain UK political figures and media will continue to condemn and blame the Irish backstop for all their Brexit woes.  No doubt, such rhetoric is inherently unjust, but will remain a useful distraction from the self-serving nature and disarray of modern day British politics.

If one is to point the proverbial finger of blame however, the premature triggering of the deadline placed on Brexit by the British government appears to be a far more apt target.  The well documented and foreseen complexities existent within Brexit in the first instance, demanded there be a far more realistic timeframe set to achieve such a monumental task.

In hindsight, it is fair to argue that Theresa May was grossly unrealistic in her ambitions, when initially setting in motion Article 50 (of the Lisbon Treaty) on 29th March 2017, leaving an automatic deadline of two years as the exit date. On the day of the announcement, the former SNP leader Alex Salmond pointed to disunity across the UK and had urged the government to delay the triggering of Article 50. “After nine months of this prime minister’s approach to Brexit, Northern Ireland is deadlocked, the Welsh are alienated, Scotland is going for a referendum, the English are split down the middle” he said.

Prior to Teresa May making that decision, one would have assumed her trusted advisors would have duly verified if triggering a two year timeline at that point was realistic. Despite the internal pressures from her own party, or externally from the EU to announce a date, a mere perusal of Greenland’s exit should have set alarm bells ringing.

In 1982, Greenland voted to leave the EEC and it took until 1985 to complete their contentious exit negotiations. Greenland itself is the largest island in the world and a former colony of Denmark. Although it still remains part of the Danish kingdom, it has its own devolved government in a similar manner to Scotland within the UK.

When Greenland voted to leave the EEC (now EU), one of the key policy reasons was its concern over fishing rights, its primary source of income.  With a population of just over 56,000 in comparison to the UK’s 66 million, Greenland’s exit would have been deemed rather simplistic at the time. Despite this, negotiations were drawn-out and politically fraught, taking nearly three years and requiring over 100 meetings between diplomats and officials as reported.

Greenland’s lengthy departure, albeit different, clearly demonstrated that any subsequent exit from the EEC, would be latent with bureaucratic, diplomatic and legal challenges. Even more so if one acknowledges the considerable increase in policy, social and legal complexities, including the EU’s greater expansion and influence in the intervening years since 1982. Taking into account these economic, political and societal intricacies existent within Brexit, time was always going to be a critical issue in achieving an orderly exit.

It is still anyone’s guess how the Brexit conundrum will eventually conclude with the deadline of 29th March 2019 looming.  February 14th is the next date the members of the House of Commons could conceivably revisit the debate on the extension of time and potentially avoid a “no-deal” scenario. At this late stage, given the deep factions amongst opposing sides, the most prudent policy for the UK to implement, would be to request the extension and for the EU to grant it.

This request would then be formally considered by European Council at its next scheduled meeting on 21st March, requiring the unanimous consent of its 27 members. If granted, it would give all sides some breathing space and time to find a compromise that may hopefully avoid a future “no-deal”.

If an Article 50 extension is not invoked nor requested, and a “no-deal” Brexit ensues on March 29th as feared, some level of blame should be apportioned to those who failed to heed the lessons learned from Greenland’s own EU exit.

Jason O’ Sullivan, is a Solicitor and Public Affairs Consultant at J.O.S Solicitors