After much debate, Canada and the European Union have finally signed the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), an agreement that aims at strengthening cooperation between the EU and Canada in various areas, such as economic and sustainable development. The decision on the trade agreement had to be postponed after the Belgian region of Wallonia used its veto to oppose the agreement, arguing that it poses a threat to its agricultural sector.

The CETA negotiations may have had a happy ending, but the implications of the negotiations that led to the final result may have far worse consequences on the Brexit negotiations. Currently, all indications seem to indicate that the UK’s exit from the EU will be what is being termed as a “hard Brexit”. The clear signal being given by British Prime Minister Theresa May is just one example. Just last month, whilst addressing a conference of the Conservative Party, she said that those who want to compromise on immigration controls are looking at things the wrong way and claimed that people pursuing a soft Brexit have not yet accepted the referendum result.

When one takes into consideration the 7 year negotiations that led to CETA and the hard Brexit attitude that the UK is pursuing, one cannot but question the degree of consensus that the UK and the EU are expected to reach, both during Brexit negotiations as well as post-Brexit negotiations.

During the Brexit negotiations, both parties must reach an agreement on various aspects, including the much debated tariff-free trade area that the UK desires. With the UK aspiring for a hard Brexit and with the EU making it amply clear that it is not willing to give in to the UK’s pressure, it is very difficult to imagine a calm and harmonious debate.

The Visegrad countries have already declared that they are willing to veto any Brexit deal agreed between the UK and the EU that restricts their citizens’ rights to live and work in Britain. One can only wait and see what other conditions the other member states are willing to veto under all circumstances!

The CETA negotiations have thus provided proof that Brexit negotiations will probably be even harder than many are expecting them to be. The UK Prime Minister has already declared that she will trigger Article 50 TFEU by the end of March 2017. Whether this target date will be met or not is still unclear. However Should the Brexit negotiations end with no real tariff-free trade agreement reached, the implications will be devastating. In this scenario, the UK will have no choice but to reach a trade agreement with the EU.

However, the degree of likelihood of reaching consensus on such a trade agreement is something that has yet to be seen. President of the European Council Donald Tusk had said that should CETA fail to go through, this would make post-Brexit trade deals with the UK close to impossible. Moreover, EU commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, had also said that “If we can’t make it with Canada, I’m not sure we could make it with the UK.”

Malta’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, starting in January 2017 and ending in June 2017, comes at a very important stage of the Brexit proceedings. It is in the interest of all Maltese, including our younger generations, to seek a negotiated Brexit which is neither hard nor soft, but which benefits both sides sitting at the negotiating table. The CETA experience proves that this will not be an easy task, but the European Union’s success has always been the result of its ability to seek and identify compromise solutions that work for the long term.