One of the more interesting divisions created by Brexit has been between those who see Britain’s split with Europe as a divorce and those who regard it as a conscious uncoupling.
Taking their cue from Gwyneth Paltrow, the US actor and entrepreneur, and her former husband Chris Martin, the British musician, the latter group have a more optimistic outlook on Britain’s departure from the EU family after 45 years.
Almost going as far as to copy the famous couple’s pledge that after separation they would be “closer than we have been”, prime minister Theresa May has been the epitome of the conscious uncoupler, repeatedly pledging a “deep and special” relationship with Europe after Brexit. Not to be outdone, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, sings from the same hymn sheet, insisting that he could negotiate the “exact same benefits” of membership for Britain after Brexit. On the continent a few politicians, weary of persistent fights with the UK, also hanker after a more harmonious relationship outside the club.
Conscious uncoupling has been with us since 2014, but in marital breakdowns as in Brexit, it is still a very much minority view. Across the spectrum of political British opinion, the vast majority view Brexit as either a lose-lose, a win-lose or a lose-win for the UK and the rest of the EU.
Remainer opinion differs only on how much Britain will suffer and whether the EU will benefit from Britain’s departure. Staunch Brexiters still insist that leaving the bloc will result in many gains, or would have done had the government’s negotiating position with the EU not been so defeatist. In Europe, French president Emmanuel Macron branded those who led the Brexit campaign as “liars” and said the period since the referendum has shown leaving the bloc is “not without cost”.
People dealing with the reality of Brexit have not seen much to cheer. Ahead of March 29, when Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, the legal trading relationship has not changed, but there has already been an unconscious uncoupling of the UK and EU economies. In 2017, the UK did not take part in the upswing of the continental European economy, but it has been infected by the slowdown this year.
Supply chains are already rupturing in manufacturing where companies are increasingly using domestic contractors on both sides of the channel. In the latest UK car manufacturing figures, production for export fell 23 per cent in November compared with a year earlier, while output for the home market was only down 2 per cent.
Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement holds more promise for the conscious uncouplers. If passed, a transition period will bind Britain to the EU’s rules at least until the end of 2020 and possibly until the end of 2022. Existing citizens’ rights to reside in other countries will be preserved. And the framework for the future relationship talks about the two sides’ determination to “work together” for an “ambitious” relationship “rooted in the values and the interests that the EU and the UK share”.
But tensions are already rising. On Christmas Eve, a UK parliamentary committee reported that Britain was on course to have its VAT registration threshold set in Brussels before the end of the transition period without the possibility of a veto, which it currently enjoys. Applications for dual nationality between the UK and other EU member states have soared as those that are eligible seek to maintain the residency and work rights that are being stripped from them. Logistics companies are having to sign contracts for future business without knowing whether they will be able to fulfil the terms if border arrangements change significantly. The idea that Britain and the EU will be apart, but that the business relationship will continue as now, is fanciful for companies at the sharp end.
The problem in pursuing the conscious uncoupling argument is that Britain insisted at the outset of negotiations that it would leave the European institutions that would make such a split possible. Leaving the customs union will generate border frictions and checks, while exiting the single market will end free movement of labour and the automatic right that goods placed on the market in Britain can be sold anywhere else in the EU.
So, as we prepare for 2019, even if the prime minister manages to get her deal through parliament, the final split from the EU is still far from amicably settled. Many of the warm words in the political declaration conceal the truth of more years of brutal negotiations ahead.
Brexit can only inflame tensions further in 2019, especially if Mrs May fails to convince people of her conscious uncoupling agenda and tries to force her deal through parliament as the only alternative to the UK crashing out of the EU with no deal.
As the prime minister is finding out, even for those with best intentions, divorce is difficult. She could also learn something else from Ms Paltrow. In the end, the actor’s split had been “incredibly painful”, the hardest thing, she said, she had ever done.