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EU, Britain must try harder on Brexit

Ever since the referendum in June 2016 that saw Britons voting by a margin of 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the European Union, there has been a sense of disbelief accompanying the whole process: Could this be really happening? Do the British recognise the enormity of the situation, and its potential pitfalls? Was this an astute decision or one moved by emotion and exaggerated promises? Did "Yes" voters understand at the time that the EU would have the upper hand in exit negotiations? With less than six months to go before the deadline on March 29 next year, a divided country is still grappling with the realities of its fateful decision. Not surprisingly, the negotiations to leave have proved vexatious for Prime Minister Theresa May, who inherited the job of executing Brexit from Mr David Cameron.

Bargaining from a less-than-strong position, she has had to make concessions to the EU leadership. But this has infuriated pro-Brexiteers at home, particularly suggestions that Britain may be compelled to stay on in the Customs union and common market at least until 2021 while it negotiates a free trade deal with the EU. A "no-deal" exit will mean chaos at border controls and bad news for the economy, hitting businesses, trade, services and the movement of people hard. Some 700,000 people marched in London on Sunday demanding a referendum on the terms offered by the EU - in effect demanding a second vote on Brexit. The size of the gathering underscores growing worries at the ground level about separating from the EU as the deadline looms. The last time Britain saw such a large turnout was in 2003, when people marched against the decision to go to war with Iraq. People's Vote, a British campaign group calling for a public vote on the final Brexit deal, believes that as many as 50 Conservative MPs out of 315 could be persuaded to its cause. Mrs May has ruled out a second referendum. But the Labour Party says it is open to the idea - and of staying in the EU - under certain circumstances. Further complications could arise if Mrs May's grasp on power is weakened. Disenchantment with her government is rising by the day and an internal challenge is still possible.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2018, with the headline 'EU, Britain must try harder on Brexit'. Print Edition | Subscribe