Ever closer edge
With its preparations woefully short and lacking a coherent strategy, the United Kingdom is sleepwalking into the worst-case No-Deal Brexit scenario.
Politics is not for the faint-hearted. Indeed, in the corridors of power in Westminster, it resembles a dark art and is more akin to a blood sport than a gentlemanly or ladylike endeavour. The preferred weapons of choice are, thankfully, not bullets, but speeches, white papers and parliamentary whipping. Nonetheless, the sting of defeat is always around the corner, just a few errant (or intended) votes away from inflicting the pain of irrelevance and oblivion upon those wielding power. Prime Minister Theresa May is currently at the cusp of becoming the latest victim of the palace intrigues enveloping her party. Ever since she called the 2017 general election and subsequently lost the Conservative Party’s parliamentary majority in the House of Commons, the whiff of weakness, instability and indecisiveness has been following her around.
Tragically, this is making itself felt rather clearly on the one issue that has been capturing the British public’s imaginations, expectations and, lately, fears, more than any other: Brexit, the proposed withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, scheduled to be executed on 30 March 2019, at midnight, Brussels time. Ostensibly, the talks between the United Kingdom and European Union teams, led by Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and Commission chief negotiator Michel Barnier, are stuck because of the Irish border issue – complex enough, considering the need to protect the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the desire of most Northern Irish to stay within the European Union, the conflicting priorities of hard-right Conservative MPs (led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, former Brexit Secretary David Davis and, to a lesser extent, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson) and the desire of the European Union to preserve the integrity of its Single Market.
But the future status of Northern Ireland is only ostensibly the crux of the Brexit talks. Instead, the Irish border question speaks to a much broader problem: the refusal of the British side to pragmatically acknowledge the disparity of power inherent in the entire Brexit process. To be very blunt, a disparity caused by the United Kingdom’s own free decision to, first, withdraw from the European Union and, second, commence the process by notifying its intent to withdraw before it was ready to deal with the residual EU27. What has certainly been less than helpful is the persistent nationalistic-xenophobic sniping of various (primarily) Conservative MPs and MEPs trying to sell an alternative narrative – that of a Britain that the negotiating team around Barnier purportedly wishes to reduce to an “EU Colony”.
These are not the words of an extremist conspiracy theorist, but that of Johnson – Her Majesty’s former Secretary of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Leaving aside his less-than-impressive stint in the role, this is dangerously irresponsible talk which will have the corrosive effect of deepening the divisions between both Remain and Leave voters, as well as between the EU27 and the United Kingdom. How the United Kingdom wishes to get a good deal with this type of rhetorical arson from its own ranks is frankly beyond the explanatory capabilities of this author.
But back to the imbalance between the UK and EU27 sides. The UK, for all its tough talk, needs a favourable adjustment of its future relationship with the European Union. It is clearly not at an advantage in any way, shape or form. None of the rose-tinted, extremely optimistic scenarios – from Germans being more concerned about selling cars than protecting the EU Single Market, to having an array of trade deals ready to go, have come to pass. None whatsoever. What is worse, even as we speak, the May Cabinet is not projecting an image of strength, but one of dithering. Whilst officially committed to pursuing a “wide-ranging” free trade agreement and close alignment with the EU on foreign policy and security matters, the Conservative Party remains riven about the type of Brexit that it prefers. Quite obviously, this is also the result of lacking a strategy from Day 1. The Prime Minister’s weakness has also made it possible for the faction around Rees-Mogg, the so-called European Research Group to become a critical mass to sabotage the Prime Minister’s desire to pursue a reasonably close relationship with the EU. The ERG was responsible for an amendment to the customs bill that stipulated that Northern Ireland could never form part of a customs union or be part of a Single Market – an elegant solution that would have resolved the Irish border issue with some pragmatic panache. Alas, pragmatism is in short supply among many Conservative MPs.
Despite the cool reception given to it by other EU heads of state and government during the recent summit in Salzburg, the May Government is still persisting with selling the Prime Minister’s Chequers deal – over which Johnson and Davis originally resigned. The calculus on part of the UK Government is to use Chequers as a starting point for a modified version of the deal, and then secure agreement among the EU27. Given the intractable nature of the Irish border issue, Mrs May appears to no longer oppose the extension of the transitional period, currently scheduled to end on 31 December 2020, during which, in the view of the European Commission, EU law would apply to the United Kingdom as in the same manner as pre-withdrawal. Besides Brexiteers seething at the very thought of the European Court of Justice still retaining jurisdiction, this solution would essentially deprive the UK of any say in Brussels and Luxembourg, with the country about to lose its lone EU Commissioner, its MEPs in the European Parliament, as well as its judges and advocate-general at the Court of Justice.
Even if Mrs May is somehow able to rally the support within the EU27 needed to secure a deal, she still needs to get it through the UK Parliament. This brings us back to the arithmetic in the House of Commons, which is complicated. The Conservative Party, besides lacking an own majority, is reliant on the Democratic Unionist Party, a hard-right, sectarian party from Northern Ireland, which rejects any arrangements that could confer a special status on Northern Ireland, whether as part of the Single Market or the Customs Union. Then, apart from the ERG, there are plenty of Conservative MPs that want to execute a Brexit that will retain close ties with the EU – Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond being prime among them. The Labour Party has also experienced a series of shifts and is calibrating a reversal from a pro-Brexit stance towards a wait-and-see approach, which has not excluded the calling of a second national referendum (albeit a general election remains its preferred route to seize control of the Brexit talks). Opinion polls are indicating that a majority of voters in Leave-voting constituencies in Northern England (primarily held by Labour) are now supporting remaining in the European Union. To pile on the pressure, hundreds of thousands of citizens marched through London on 20 October to demand a second national referendum to vote on the final Brexit deal (with Remain to be an alternative).
Given the chaos at the heart of power, the more we know, the less might change. We will just have to wait and see.
|More blogs on Law Blogs Maastricht|