The United Kingdom is facing a historic decision which will determine its fate for years to come
The last few days have seen the culmination of what many experts have viewed as the inevitable outcome of the Brexit negotiations ever since they began in Brussels last year. The European Union had the stronger hand from the outset and Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has played it superbly. Barnier has refused steadfastly to agree to British demands enshrined in the so-called Chequers plan. He has rebuffed London’s attempts to cherry pick the single market. Instead of ‘cake and eat it’ the British got the crumbs. As it stands the deal will avert the chaos of a disorderly Brexit by granting a transitional period and a subsequent free trade agreement, but it will put the UK on a trajectory to lower economic growth and standards of living for at least 15 years, if not more. Faced with the prospect of chaos and a no-deal outcome, British negotiators were ultimately forced to respect the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and keep the inner Irish border open. Thus, should the deal be approved by the House of Commons the UK will be in a customs union until a way of resolving the border issue is found at some time in the future. There is nothing as permanent as the temporary.
British diplomacy, whose guile and skill have been admired for centuries, has bungled the negotiations from the outset. But let us be clear – it was not the fault of the civil servants. Rather, it was the fault of their political masters whose understanding of the workings of the EU and the rules of the Single Market has been demonstrated to be woefully inadequate. This lack of knowledge prevented them from probing effectively for possible weaknesses in Barnier’s hand. Instead their demands were excessive, unrealistic and thus easy to reject. Moreover, the British government compounded this mistake by seeking to divide and rule the EU27. Numerous attempts to go behind Barnier’s back failed and did nothing to promote British goals or the goodwill of the EU. If anything these efforts were counterproductive. Thus, the 585- page draft Withdrawal Agreement presented to parliament in London by Prime Minister this week is largely Barnier’s work. And it is a reality check for Brexiteers.
After the EU summit at the end of November where Theresa May is expected to sign the Withdrawal Agreement for the UK, the final deal will return to the House of Commons. The vote is on a knife edge. If the opposition parties vote against the deal, as they have said, and are joined in the ‘nays’ lobby by some 40 hardline Brexiters and the 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party of Ulster, May cannot win the vote. But Conservative party whips will be out in force to twist arms and call in favours. They are reported to be ‘confident’. A victory would seal Brexit on the EU’s terms and the country would move on to a future including a more distant “third country” status in its dealings with the European Union.
Everything therefore depends on the Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP. They now face the choice of Michel Barnier’s Brexit or rebellion. They will need to ask themselves some questions: Did they really believe that Britain could leave the European club and continue to use the facilities without paying a membership fee? Did they really think they could continue to elect MEPs to the European Parliament as the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries demanded on last Saturday? Did they really believe they could terminate freedom of movement and still enjoy frictionless trade and unfettered access to the Single Market while restricting the rights of EU citizens in the UK? Did they really believe they would have continued access to EU data bases reserved for members? Or continue to be part of the EU’s Galileo satellite project? Did they really think London would continue to be the home of the EU’s medicines agency? The list of questions is endless. But the debate of the last few days does not suggest that the Brexiteers will ask those questions or demonstrate that they have learnt anything at all. They are trapped in their own ideological experiment and will rebel against the whips. The only question is now many will choose the ‘nays’ lobby.
But their immediate focus appears now to be on bring the Prime Minister down through a vote of confidence. That is a risky strategy for the Brexiteers because if she survives a vote of confidence Theresa May cannot be challenged again for another 12 months. Right now the Brexiteers do not appear to have the votes to bring her down. Should the required 48 votes materialize next week and automatically trigger a vote on a new leader, the government would however be paralysed for weeks. That would bring parliamentary business to a halt and stop the Brexit process in its tracks.
If Theresa May survives a rebellion, but the final Withdrawal Agreement is rejected in parliament, there will be three choices: MPs could ask the government to renegotiate, to opt for no deal or to call for a People’s Vote. Brussels will not however renegotiate. This is the best deal the EU is willing to give the UK. There is a clear majority in the House of Commons against a no deal or chaotic Brexit. And so a People’s Vote remains the only viable option, should the deal be voted down.
While Theresa May has previously rejected a People’s Vote it may suddenly appear a more viable option for survival after a parliamentary defeat than calling a general election. A second vote could easily be justified with the mounting evidence of Russian interference in the June 2016 vote.
But would a People’s Vote lead to a reversal of the decision at the referendum in 2016? Its proponents insist it must contain the option ‘remain’. It would have to be held well before the elections to the European Parliament currently scheduled for May 2019, which in itself would be a huge challenge even if the decision were taken today. And there is no guarantee that the result would reverse the June 2016 vote. Opinion polls currently show a lead for ‘Remain’ of 54-46 percent. But that – given the depth and intensity of the recent debate about the disadvantages of leaving the EU – is a desperately close margin.
Having been fooled once, there is a substantial risk that the British might be fooled again by promises of cake by unscrupulous politicians fired up by the rightwing tabloid press. But it is a risk that has to be taken because the consequences of Brexit could be so damaging that the responsibility must be given to voters. If the Withdrawal Agreement is voted down, a People’s Vote is the only way forward.