Where next for Brexit?

Where next for Brexit?

I was proud of our Parliament this week. Despite all the divisions, Parliament – primarily Conservative, DUP and some Labour MPs – came together to reject all the amendments that would delay or block Brexit and, as importantly, vote in favour of a clear way forward. By backing the Brady amendment, it is now clear to the EU that there is a deal, not so different from the one on the table, that the UK would accept.

It’s worth saying that, even without the backstop, almost no Leave supporter I know is happy with everything in the withdrawal agreement. There are some major problems, not least handing over £39bn without any guarantee of a future trade deal. On a personal level, I’m in two minds of whether or not it’s better than No Deal. But that’s compromise for you. On the plus side, it delivers Brexit and resolves some important issues, in particular the status of UK and EU citizens living outside their own countries – and it’s a deal which Parliament has backed.

The Backstop and the Irish Border

The backstop is obviously unacceptable. It either keeps the UK yoked to the EU or, in its original form, detaches Northern Ireland from the UK. A time-limited backstop might just about be accepted, but a permanent one negates the purpose of the referendum.

As this BBC Factcheck makes explicit, the Good Friday Agreement does not forbid border checks. The prominence of the Irish Border in the negotiations has been driven by those seeking to block Brexit, with the commitment to ‘no hard border’ a Trojan horse designed to stymie negotiations.

The very phrase ‘hard border’ is a misnomer; rather like the false dichotomy of ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’, this is not a binary issue, but a continuous scale. The phrase ‘hard border’ conjures up the fortified checkpoint and fortified watchtowers present in Troubles – these are, indeed, forbidden by the Good Friday Agreement, but it is inconceivable that any form of departure, including a no-deal departure, would necessitate their return.

Customs checks are another matter, though of course all sides would hope that these could be minimal and interfere with the day-to-day lives of people as little as possible – something amply achievable by technology, as I have written about before. Land borders are remarkably common in this world – most countries, I’m told, have them, many of them more than one – and the sooner the EU accepts that the border will look like any other relaxed border between friendly, amicable nations, the better. The border between Norway and Sweden, for example, may end up being a very helpful model.

The ball is in the EU’s court

It’s important to remember that the EU has never negotiated in good faith. In 2016, the EU’s lead negotiator, said J’aurais réussi ma mission si, à la fin, le deal est tellement dur pour les Britanniques qu’ils préféront rester dans l’Union” – or, in English, “I will have achieved my mission if, in the end, the deal is so hard for the British that they prefer to stay in the Union.”

One may argue that it was in the EU’s interests to act in this way – and that might be correct. But it makes a mockery of the position, primarily put forward by Remain supporters, which has consistently argued that the UK should be ‘nice’ and make concessions to the EU, on the grounds that this will cause the EU to reciprocate. No: if the EU is to hard-nosedly pursue its national interest, so too must the UK.

Now the EU has a choice. The deal supported by Parliament does not cherry-pick; it does not seek, for example, to end freedom of movement whilst remaining in the Single Market. If the EU can compromise on the backstop – perhaps by inserting a time-limit – and take a deal which gives it much of what it wants, that arguably is better for it than the UK (particularly with the free gift of £39bn), or it can face No Deal. If its priority is, as it has claimed, the Irish border, the choice is obvious: though both sides will aim to keep the border as soft as possible, there will clearly be more barriers under a No Deal scenario than under the Withdrawal Agreement, even without the backstop.

The EU, like all large powers and empires throughout history, is used to bullying smaller powers to get its way, confident in its ability to use the threat of negative consequences to enforce its will. The brutal way it treated Greece – a catastrophe that caused human hardship in western Europe unseen since the collapse of Yugoslavia – is perhaps the most salient example, and one that should explode any myth of EU beneficence or the idea that being a member state offers any protection. But in the UK, it may have at last met a nation which will not be bullied.

Nevertheless, a deal would be better for both sides. We have now put an entirely reasonable one. The ball is in their court.

6 thoughts on “Where next for Brexit?

  1. I am glad parliament has finally had chance to discuss the issue – it has been a long time coming and hard fought for – though I am far less impressed with the result. I personally think it is a shame that the amendments proposed by Yvette Cooper (& co) and Dominic Grieve were voted down. In fact I think my view is *almost* diametrically opposite to yours (though this is probably not a surprise).

    I’m not surprised that the second referendum votes failed, and I’m not sure it would be useful. That’s not because I don’t think the situation hasn’t changed (it clearly has, and the options on the table are much better known than what was discussed in the 2016 referendum), but because I think there’s a huge amount of apathy out there now, and turn out would probably be much, much lower (and so any remit much, much weaker than that attribute to the 2016 result).

    I would contest the use of the phrases “vote in favour of a clear way forward” and ” it is now clear to the EU that there is a deal…that the UK would accept” in your first paragraph. It seems more that Parliament has said that:
    * they don’t want no deal (though the vote is non binding and not legislation would be required to prevent this “default” result)
    * they don’t want the deal currently accepted by the EU and, previously, by the UK government
    * they don’t have a suggestion for what should replace it.
    * basically, there are majorities *against* a lot of things, but no majorities for any one single course of action.

    On the backstop, if there’s a time limit it’s not a backstop. The GFA doesn’t preclude a border, but its purpose (as I understand) is to ensure that two communities in either side of the border can live together as one. That is *much* harder to do with a border in place.

    The EU has the Irish border as a red line, and has been clear about that all along. Theresa May has her own red lines, and had set them out, but the UK negotiations seem to have been a complete mess.

    In terms of a solution, the example of Norway/Sweden in this case as Norway is in the EFTA, so has free movement of people, goods, services and capital – it is effectively in the EU in that respect, though has limited input in the rules etc.

    In terms of the ball being in the EUs court, I disagree. Parliament said Theresa May had to go and negotiate an alternative to the backstop, but didn’t provide a suggestion for what that might be. That puts us back where we were before the withdrawal agreement was agreed, unless the UK government (or anyone, really) can come up with a solution. Nothing has changed to suggest that there is a solution that

    Given how long this took the first time, trying to do this in 2 weeks seems ambitious, and if they seriously want a different deal then I don’t see how that doesn’t mean extending Article 50.

    Unless the intention here is to send ud barrelling towards No Deal, which I’m pretty sure is what some are hoping for, and which businesses are increasingly planning for. This is certainly what will happen unless *someone* does *something* constructive, or more specifically if parliament votes in favour of a constructive proposal.

  2. I would contest the use of the phrases “vote in favour of a clear way forward” and ” it is now clear to the EU that there is a deal…that the UK would accept” in your first paragraph

    No, it’s now clear that the UK would accept the current withdrawal agreement with the backstop removed. It doesn’t require complex negotiation; it simply requires those clauses to be removed (or a time limit put in).

    You seem to be in the position of ‘If the EU and the UK’s red lines don’t coincide, it’s the UK that has to move’. That has been the position of Remain supporters throughout – which has hugely hampered our negotiation position.

    1. The “red line” of the Irish border (or lack thereof) has always been EU policy, and agreed by the 27 nations (or their representatives).

      The red lines that the UK government has imposed are additions that May introduced, without checking that she had the support of the UK parliament (perhaps because she thought she could get away without it). That seems to be where the problems stem from. Perhaps if May had got agreement from parliament in the red lines we wouldn’t be in this position – she would never have agreed to the withdrawal agreement if she knew parliament didn’t support it.

      On favouring the EU, it’s more that I’m in favour of the EU’s red lines, and opposed to some/many of the UK’s red lines – not because of whose they are, but because of my position in the whole debate in general.

      1. I agree getting backing for a negotiating position from Parliament would have strengthened our hand.

        I’d see a difference between a red line invented for this negotiation and one that’s at the core of a party’s being. The former is more likely to be changed. And I’ve never known an international negotiation complete successfully in which both parties didn’t adjust at least some of their initial public ‘red lines’.

  3. On the day I was pleased parliament had managed to agree on something, and that that something was compatible with respecting the referendum result. After the event I felt this was just an example of extremely successful expectation management.
    If parliament had voted for something like the Malthouse Compromise that specified ‘We offer this, if they say no, we do this’ then I’d say the ball was back in the EU’s court. This amendment says ‘Try again, but you have to tell us how it’s going in February’. For sure the EU will say no for the time being, and send May back to parliament. Only if parliament say ‘fine, no deal it is’ will the EU compromise. As you’ve said elsewhere we’ve spectacularly knifed ourselves in the back on this negotiation by a majority of MPs saying they won’t allow no deal, no matter how bad the EU’s deal is for us.

    1. I agree we’ll have to go round the loop again in February, but at least something is on the table. And if Parliament hold their nerve in February (which I agree is a big if) then we might get somewhere.

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