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Crunch point for Brexit

It was always going to be difficult for British Prime Minister Theresa May to reconcile the ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ wings of her Conservative Party and to come up with a Brexit strategy acceptable to both. Last week, she seemed to have done just that by persuading her Cabinet – during marathon talks at Chequers – to approve her latest blueprint for leaving the European Union.

Two days later, however, the Chequers agreement, which, in effect, proposed a ‘soft’ Brexit, led to the resignations of foreign secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit secretary David Davis as well as a junior Brexit minister and two vice chairmen of the Conservative Party.

This situation further weakened an already fragile government and gave rise to speculation of a leadership challenge to Ms May.

Mr Johnson and Mr Davis stepped down because they felt the Prime Minister’s plan left the UK too closely integrated with the EU and did not allow a complete break. This is a view held by a substantial number of right-wing Conservative backbench MPs and it remains to be seen whether this hardline group of Brexiteers will continue to support Ms May.

Ms May should continue with the Brexit plan drawn up at Chequers, even though, admittedly, this endangers the survival of her government. Although Brexit is, without doubt, bad news and Britain can never be better off outside the EU than within, as a member, Ms May’s latest proposal moves away from the fanatical view of Brexit and aims at maintaining close economic ties with the EU.

The Chequers proposal does not envisage the UK being completely out of the Single Market and moving away from the EU’s regulations. It proposes to “maintain a common rulebook for all goods”, including agricultural produce after Brexit. And British judges will pay “due regard” to EU case law in areas where common rules are in force. Cabinet ministers also backed what they called a “combined Customs territory”.

This outline is probably the most common-sense approach under a Brexit scenario and has been largely supported by British businesses to, at least, keep one foot in the EU.

Of course, it still remains to be seen whether Brussels will accept this latest proposal by the British government. While it is in the EU’s interest to conclude an agreement with the UK post-Brexit, certain fundamental principles of the EU will have to be respected and no cherry picking can be allowed. Certainly, any Brexit deal must not encourage other EU member states to believe they could be in a better position if they had to leave or that they would be allowed to pick and choose.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is, of course, right when he says he hopes Brexit will not actually happen. Brexit is bad for Britain, for the EU and, particularly, bad for Malta.

The UK is one of this country’s closest friends and allies and has strong, historic, cultural and social links with Malta and its people. Thus, it would be better for Malta were Brexit not to take place but, if it does, it is essential that Britain remains as close as possible to the EU, leaving the door ajar in case, one day, its citizens decide to rejoin, if/when they realise Brexit was nothing but an act of self-harm.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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