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Brexit battle to dominate UK politics in 2017

The UK heads into an uncertain 2017, with the shadow of Brexit looming over the nation. With so many unknowns is Britain hoping for the best or resigned to the worst? Cristina Burack reports from London.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," English author Charles Dickens wrote. "It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair."

Though Dickens penned these immortal words in 1859, they could just as well have been written today, as they capture the mood in the United Kingdom as it enters 2017.

The June 2016 Brexit vote to leave the European Union began a long and uncertain process that will dominate the political agenda this year. In early January, British Supreme Court justices are due to rule on who can rightfully trigger Article 50 - the government or parliament. Despite the outstanding judgment, consensus remains that the trigger will occur.

"I do think Article 50 will be triggered," James Sproule, Chief Economist and Director of Policy for the Institute of Directors told DW in a phone interview. "The current Supreme Court battle is a storm in a tea cup."

Co-Executive Director of Open Britain James McGrory also acknowledged the inevitable March 2017 start of exit negotiations while simultaneously noting the many unanswered questions that remain. 

"We do not yet know what the British government wants from Brexit. They will have to give some detail," McGrory told DW.

Yet David Phinnemore, Professor at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University in Belfast, remains skeptical about the extent of precise details the government is likely to reveal in public.

"The UK government has been unwilling to say anything concrete to date about its plans and has already said that it wants to avoid detail as this would weaken its negotiating position," Phinnemore told DW.

Even given a detailed plan, Transport for London manager Rene M.* does not see that making a great difference in his day-to-day life. "Brexit? - We'll calm down about it, and we'll actually have some more concrete plans. And not a lot will change."

Mixed economic forecast

Symbolbild britisches Pfund (Fotolia/Z)

Several economic forecasters say the UK's economy will be hit hard by Brexit

Rene also does not think that 2017 will bring major economic changes. "I'll probably be earning more money," he laughed, before adding that "I think [2017] will be tougher, but it's tough anyway. It won't necessarily change."

But Gaz Evans, a half-Irish film editor frim Liverpool, expects his personal economic situation to get "more and more difficult." He's making plans to leave the UK. "I'm not that confident that it is going to be a good enough situation so that I'll stay," he told DW.

However, Virginia Fontaneda, a Spanish national who has been living in the UK for over two years, plans to remain, despite her belief that prices will rise. "It will affect me in that way," she said, referring to the Britain's uncertain political and economic environment in 2017.

Fontaneda's personal prediction is backed by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the government's independent growth forecaster. In their latest report in November, the OBR raised the Consumer Price Index (an inflation measurement) from 1.6 to 2.3 percent and cut the GDP growth rate from 2.2 to 1.4 percent.

Open Britain's McGrory noted that not just the OBR but "every forecast" portends a hard year ahead with "lower growth, higher inflation and more borrowing" due to Brexit. "The biggest short-term impact we have seen has been the fall in the value of sterling, which has hit its lowest level against the dollar for over 30 years," he added.

Watch video 01:47

Brexit pound tumble fails to worry Brits

Eleanor (declined to give surname), a student from York, likewise lamented the pound's weakness. "The future is not looking too rosy for young Brits," she told DW. Still, she maintained that "2017 can't be as bad as 2016."

However, some experts dispute the OBR's economic forecast for 2017. Among them is Ryan Bourne, a member of Economists for Brexit.

"Already the pound has strengthened relative to the OBR's central expectation," Bourne told DW. "The OBR's growth forecast makes similar assumptions to the Treasury's model which has proven so inaccurate in the post-Brexit vote period."

Like Bourne, Sproule doubts that negotiations will cause an economic downturn. "Recessions are triggered by actual causes (rise in input prices or interest rates), not theoretical ones, which is what Article 50 is."

The view from the barbershop

Jack B.*, a barber from Newcastle, spends all day long conversing with people. This component of his job gives him a good feel for trends and moods in the social fabric. Unsurprisingly, Jack believes the two biggest markers for 2017 will be Brexit and Trump. He identified the roots of both in the same phenomenon: a breakdown of productive debate culture, something which he does not think will improve in 2017.

"I feel people weigh how much they can say to me and to other people," he explained to DW. "They are worried about judgment - if I will judge them. There is not enough listening and no atmosphere for debate - that is why these two things [Trump and Brexit] happened."

Belgien Brüssel EU Gipfeltreffen Premierministerin Theresa May (picture-alliance/AP Images/A. Grant)

May's detractors say the prime minister has no clear Brexit plan

Though Jack is "quietly hoping" that the worst case scenarios with a President Trump do not pan out, his feelings on best case scenarios for 2017 remain grim.

"Honestly, I don't think future looks good either way you look at it," he stated. "This comes from my personal distrust of the powers that be. At the moment, I don't think we're getting anywhere that we need to be getting, and I can't see that really changing for a while."

Despite his political cynicism, Jack believes the UK will remain a major player internationally in the year ahead. Still, he wonders whether "because of Brexit we have massively hindered our hand when bargaining. But then again you never know."

In 2017, Jack will be able to better gauge the UK's international political standing. He's moving to Australia with his girlfriend.

*Declined to give their full name.

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