2018 12 Editorial – Brexit Renegotiations

Back To The EU Cap In Hand

Facing a certain heavy defeat in Parliament Theresa May pulled the plug at the eleventh hour on MPs meaningful vote on her Brexit deal. She had previously said  that she was determined to face her opponents down on 11 December. In the weeks following the ‘successful’ negotiations with the EU, the Prime Minister insisted repeatedly that the deal she had brought to the House of Commons was the best deal for the whole of the UK. Failure to support it would mean a no deal or no Brexit.

In her statement to MPs on 10 December in which she announced a deferment of the meaningful vote, May again claimed that the deal was the best for the UK and that it delivered what the people voted for in June 2016.  However, she acknowledged that the Northern Ireland backstop prevented  members from supporting it. Consequently, she returned to Brussels to plead for a fundamental change, that would ensure that the backstop is not indefinite or permanent.

The legal position is that the Northern Ireland backstop would continue in place unless and until superseded by a free-trade deal that the government has to negotiate with the EU by the end of 2022. If such a free-trade deal is not agreed the backstop would continue with Northern Ireland in the customs union, possibly permanently. It would mean that Northern Ireland would be more deeply entwined in the EU’s customs rules and regulations than the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union indefinitely unless another acceptable agreement is made. But also in elements of the single market. This would apply if the UK left the customs union.

But May faces a huge obstacle in attempting to persuade the EU to support an alternative acceptable agreement. The deal she negotiated was signed off by the EU which insisted that it was the only possible deal available to the UK.  And within hours of her statement both EU negotiators, and the Irish Prime Minister, reiterated that May’s deal could not be renegotiated. Going back to the EU is a sign of a weak hand held by the UK. The EU is now clearly in the driving seat. It is unlikely therefore that May will go back to the House of Commons and successfully persuade MPs to support a deal that differs little, if at all, to the one they were intent on rejecting.

May has consistently urged the nation to come together as one people. But she knows that the referendum result split the nation and the people. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted heavily to remain. While England, with by far the largest population, and Wales, voted to leave. England’s vote to leave was reflected heavily in the final result. Scotland voted 62 to 38 to remain. Northern Ireland, 55.5 to 44.5 to remain. Wales, 47.5 to 52.5 to leave. And England, 43.5 to 56.5 to leave. There was also a 3-to-1 majority to remain for voters under 24, with a small ‘remain’ majority for people 25 to 50. The young people who will have to live with the long-term damage are strongly against leaving the EU.

May was a low-key Remainer, but the binary choice in the referendum left her with the task of supporting the 17.4 million (mostly English) who voted to leave. The 17.4 million became the people. And the people now just want the whole show off the road so the country can settle down to normal politics. This is also the view of the EU negotiators and the other 27-member states who make up the EU.

Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn has said his party has an alternative plan. It wants a permanent customs union and a close relationship with the single market short of full membership. Labour believes this would mean the UK would have most of the benefits of leaving the EU without incurring any of the costs. Dream on. The EU would never countenance such an arrangement. It is cherry-picking on a gigantic scale. If such easy and privileged terms were given to the UK, other member states may demand the same singularly beneficial arrangement.

In his reply to May, Corbyn called for the government to step aside and allow Labour to take over the negotiations. Failing this Labour would demand that a general election be held to settle matters. But this would require a vote of no confidence in the government, which it is likely to win. Conservative backbenchers and the DUP are almost certain to support the government.  And a general election, fought on the issue of Brexit, and that would be its focus, would solve nothing. The country would be back to square one with Brexit hanging over its head like the sword of Damocles. And, let’s be honest, in the current political climate there is no guarantee that Labour would win. It could pay dearly for foisting a general election on an electorate fed up with politics and politicians.

In the absence of a no confidence vote in the government, May’s Conservative opponents triggered a no confidence vote in May herself. May won the vote on 12 December by 200 votes to 117 (63.1% of Conservative MPs). But the result changes nothing. It appears so far that the EU’s negotiators have refused to agree to any meaningful change in the Northern Ireland backstop. She is now therefore back to square one, having to take the deal back to the House of Commons. It isn’t clear when that will happen, but MPs are almost certain to vote it down. And if this happens, whatever MPs think about it a no deal outcome is highly likely, as there is no other immediate option on the table. On the other hand, if May were to abort Article 50 we would be in referendum territory.

The European Court of Justice has ruled that the UK could cancel Brexit if so wished.  May however is determined that the will of the people determined in the first referendum would be carried out. Anything else, she has said, would be a gross betrayal of trust. That is why she is opposed to a second referendum called for by a number of Conservative and Labour party backbenchers, with the Liberal Democrats and SNP strongly in support.

Various polls suggest that public opinion has shifted since the referendum. People are more informed today than they were in June 2016 and the economic and social climate has changed since then. Remainers say a “People’s Vote” is the best democratic way of deciding the issue of EU membership. But it is more likely to increase voters bitterness and mistrust of the UK’s parliamentary democracy. Parliament and MPs are held in such low esteem that a second referendum could have far reaching negative consequences for democratic politics.

We have seen how the far right has increased its support in EU member states, such as Germany, Hungary, Italy and Spain. In the UK’s current parliamentary chaos, which is typical in any crisis situation, any attempt to reverse the 2016 result could force voters into the arms of extreme right-wing populist groups and parties. It was the fear of voters turning away from traditional parties to UKIP, and the increasingly unsettling Conservative backbenchers over EU membership, that persuaded David Cameron to call for a referendum on EU membership.

Remainer MPs on both sides of the House of Commons are focused on their immediate objective of reversing the referendum result. Many of them are not genuinely pro-EU. They appear to be unaware of this potential effect of a second referendum. But should they succeed in their objective and find that a second referendum reversed the original result, what kind of future do they see for the UK as a member of the EU? Our view is that they see the UK intent on reform, creating problems for the EU as it has done over the last 45 years. And who is to say we are wrong?