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Flags of the European and British Union Jack are seen outside Britain's permanent representation to the EU in Brussels, Belgium January 31, 2020. REUTERS
Flags of the European and British Union Jack are seen outside Britain's permanent representation to the EU in Brussels, Belgium January 31, 2020. REUTERS

NEARLY 50 years after Britain joined the then European Economic Community, Jan 31 marked the day when the country struck out on its own and departed from the Brussels-based European Union (EU).

This followed the Brexit referendum of June 2016 called by then British prime minister David Cameron to settle a gnawing debate within his Conservative Party about Britain’s place in the EU and the world, post-empire. It succeeded in extending the polarising debate nationwide as Britons voted 52-48 per cent to leave the EU. The vote not just exposed the deep fissures between cosmopolitan urbanites and their more conservative countryside cousins but, perhaps most ominously, between England and Wales, which voted to leave, and Scotland, which overwhelmingly voted to remain. Even Northern Ireland’s fraught peace may be in jeopardy as a “hard” border may be resurrected with EU member-state Ireland to the south.

Thus, 32 months, two prime ministers, two general elections and nearly 30 parliamentary votes later, Brexit finally gets done. Britain can now “take back control” of its own fate. Or can it?

The hardest part may be about to start as both London and Brussels agreed to hammer out the terms of their new relationship by the end of the year. As Brexit entails Britain leaving the EU’s customs union, which allows the border-less circulation of goods without duties levied, a new trade agreement would be at the heart of the negotiations.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson naturally wants a quick settlement agreement involving essentially a free-trade deal with the EU. Not so fast, says new EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, warning that any comprehensive deal is “basically impossible” by year’s end. A most fundamental issue will therefore remain to bedevil negotiating a final settlement — can Britain get out scot-free, but still enjoy all the benefits (economic) of EU membership with none of the responsibilities (political)?

Post-Brexit, the United Kingdom may face the pressing issue of Scotland’s independence; it may expedite the latter to push for it. What impact will Brexit have on Malaysia-British ties or the larger ties between Britain and the Commonwealth?

A plethora of new trade deals would have to be negotiated between Britain and virtually all other countries. Would it be a boon for Malaysian exporters into Britain? And, what of continued visa-free entry for Malaysians into the country?

Geopolitical and strategic questions also come into play. Johnson’s standing-up to American pressures to cut Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei out of Britain’s 5G rollout may mean that Britain “taking back control” extends beyond its severed ties with the EU.

“America First” may have met its match in “Britain First” and the world may teeter on the growing uncertainty of each country unto itself. One certainty, though, in a dog-eat-dog world — increasingly, might will be right.

This Leader believes that in such uncertain times, a small nation such as ours would do well to stick together domestically, while regionally it behoves us to find ways to continue the pursuit of Asean cooperation and cohesion, the better to withstand external pressures which would inevitably be brought to bear on us, going forward.

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