Can a “No-Deal” Brexit Be Avoided?


February 4, 2019brexit people's voice

Can a “No-Deal” Brexit Be Avoided?

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s party is divided, her cabinet is split, and perhaps half its members are jostling to succeed her. To ensure an orderly withdrawal from the European Union, her government has only one option.

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EDINBURGH – It is a near-tragedy that the United States and the United Kingdom – the two countries most identified with long-established stable constitutional frameworks – are now ranked among the world’s most dysfunctional democracies.

In the past, when Britain’s Parliament faced crises and appeared deadlocked, it proved capable of breaking the stalemate. Over two centuries, battles over electoral reform, the Corn Laws, free trade, the House of Lords, and the Irish question were eventually resolved by reform and compromise.

But now an all-consuming two-and-a-half-year debate over the UK’s relationship with Europe has overwhelmed Westminster and consumed Whitehall’s time, energy, and patience. And as the March 29 Brexit deadline approaches, neither the government nor Parliament seems capable of ending the impasse they have created.

The latest government initiatives – to be discussed in Parliament on Tuesday – simply show that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. A week of “consultation” has been at best a farcical exercise in hearing but not listening, by a prime minister painted into a corner behind her own red lines. Her party is divided, her cabinet is split, with perhaps half its members now jostling to succeed her. May’s withdrawal agreement was rejected by a record-breaking 230-vote majority, and Tuesday’s proceedings are likely to reveal that there is still no majority in Parliament for any policy option other than avoiding a “no-deal” Brexit.

At this point, it is virtually impossible to legislate the seven complex Acts and hundreds of Statutory Instruments required by the withdrawal agreement in the 32 parliamentary workdays scheduled before March 29. But, most worryingly of all, the UK not only has a government that is unable to lead, but also a public that now seems unwilling to be led.

At no point in this grim process have any of May’s proposals enjoyed the support of more than one-quarter of the public. According to a poll commissioned by Hope Not Hate and Best for Britain, more people than ever – 68%, and probably still rising – now feel that no political party speaks for them. The disconnect is now so great, the mistrust so deeply felt, that accusations of “betrayal” and “treason” have become everyday language. Remain supporters claim that the 2016 referendum was won by lies, misuse of stolen data, and criminal breaches of electoral law. Leave supporters believe the promise of a clean break with Europe has been broken.

If, as may happen, a messy last-minute compromise deal is conjured behind closed doors, the public will feel shut out from a decision with far-reaching effects on their lives, and people’s trust in politicians may never recover.

So, it is clear that Britain cannot end the deadlock, repair the shattered trust, or heal a divided country without re-engaging the public in the solution. The dialogue Britain now needs is one not just between Parliament and government, but between our political elites and the British people. Respondents to the same recent Hope Not Hate poll agreed by almost two-to-one with the proposition that, “It would be better to … pause the process and seek a consensus by gathering ordinary people together to discuss the options.”

It is now high time for politicians to do what should have been done at the outset: bring the British people into their confidence and be honest with them that the search for a quick fix is over. “In or out” sounds simple. But even the hardest of hard-line Brexiteers who want “out” remain keen to buy and sell to EU countries and to travel freely to and from Europe. And that requires the complex supply chains serving industries like aviation and car manufacturing; landing rights and road traffic regulations; and environmental and animal health standards. Even supplies of life-saving medications as basic as insulin would be imperiled by a no-deal Brexit.

Replacing one set of complex treaty arrangements with another is a vast undertaking. And simplistic comparisons, such as with a divorce – after which partners may never communicate again – or with leaving a golf club (while insisting on changing its rules), simply do not apply.

For more than a half-century, since then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan prepared for the UK’s first membership application in 1961, Europe has been the subject of unending debate. Yet there have been only two in-depth examinations of what being part of Europe means to Britain: the reports MacMillan commissioned and the Labour government’s 2003 studies – 23 volumes of them – on the case for and against abandoning the pound and joining the euro.

Fact-based studies like these are needed now more than ever. So, on Tuesday, Parliament should vote not only to extend the Brexit deadline, but also to consider ushering in a series of Citizens’ Assemblies. With public hearings in each region of the UK, supported by Parliament’s Select Committees, a representative sample of electors should consider the facts, not least the issues that dominated the referendum debate: who controls the UK’s borders and laws.

Such consultations should be followed by a reconsideration in Parliament of our European options. Then, if it is agreed that the situation has changed, Parliament will have the option of a renegotiation with the EU, followed by a referendum to give the entire electorate the final say.

Such public hearings have been conducted successfully from California to Scandinavia to Australia, and most recently – and to great acclaim – in advance of the abortion referendum in Ireland. There, an issue that could have been hijacked by extremists on both sides became the subject of a civilized debate in which people of devout faith and resolute feminists stood their ground, listened, and came to respect each other’s positions. In the end, those who lost the vote did not dispute the referendum’s verdict.

Britain can learn from this, and I sense that – freed for the time being from the binary yes/no choices of the past – the British people could unite around the proposition that the situation has changed since 2016, and find common ground. Such a breakthrough is needed for another, more urgent, reason: the alternative, a no-deal Brexit, would lead to lost jobs, reduced trade, panic and stockpiling, and highways transformed into truck parking lots as ports along the English Channel seize up.

Political deadlock in the US and the UK has been causing widespread chaos. But the two countries’ egregious failures of statecraft may have very different consequences. Presidencies come and go, and the resilience of America’s carefully crafted constitution will prevail. But if the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal, its marginalization, diminution, and decline could be felt for decades to come.

The two issues that undermined the E.U.


January 21, 2019

The two issues that undermined the E.U.

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

https://fareedzakaria.com/columns/2019/1/17/the-two-issues-that-undermined-the-eu

As we watch Britain go through the paroxysms of Brexit, it is easy to view its decision to leave the European Union as an act of foolishness, a self-inflicted wound that will impoverish Britons for years. Europe is Britain’s largest market, taking in almost half of the country’s exports. Losing special access to it is a high price to pay for some symbolic gains in sovereignty.

But the Brexit debacle also shines a light on Europe itself, and what one sees is a continent and a political project that have stopped working — at least for many of the people at its Western European core. I say this as an ardent supporter of the European Union. The United States and the E.U. have been the two main engines behind a world based on open markets, democratic politics, liberty and law, human rights, and global welfare. These values will probably be eroded worldwide if the strength and purpose of either of these centers wane further.

For the past three decades, the European project has been wandering off course. What began as a community of nations cooperating to create larger markets, greater efficiency and political stability has become obsessed with two massive issues that have undermined its central achievements.

The first was — after the Soviet Union’s collapse — the rapid integration of many new countries that were far less economically and socially developed than the E.U.’s original members. Since 1995, it has expanded from 12 countries to 28. Originally focused on opening up markets, streamlining regulations and creating new growth opportunities, the E.U. soon became a “transfer union,” a vast scheme to redistribute funds from prosperous countries to emerging markets. Even in today’s strong economic environment, spending by the E.U. accounts for more than 3 percent of Hungary’s economy and almost 4 percent of Lithuania’s.

his gap between a rich and a poor Europe with open borders inevitably produced a migration crisis. As Matthias Matthijs pointed out in Foreign Affairs, from 2004 to 2014, about 2 million Poles migrated to Britain and Germany and about 2 million Romanians moved to Italy and Spain. These movements put massive strains on the safety nets of destination countries and stoked nationalism and nativism. The influx into Europe of more than 1 million refugees in 2015, mostly from the Middle East, must be placed in the context of these already sky-high migrant numbers. And as can be seen almost everywhere, from the United States to Austria, fears of immigration are the rocket fuel for right-wing nationalists, who discredit the political establishment that they deem responsible for unchecked flows.

The second challenge consuming the European Union has been its currency, the euro. Launched more with politics than economics in mind, the euro has embodied a deep structural flaw: It forces a unified monetary system on 19 countries that continue to have vastly different fiscal systems. So when a recession hits, countries do not have the ability to lower the value of their currency, nor do they get substantial additional resources from Brussels (as U.S. states do from Washington when they go into recession). The results, as could be seen for years after 2008, were economic stagnation and political revolt.

Brexit should force Britons to think hard about their place in the world and make the adjustments that will allow them to prosper in it. But it should also cause Europeans overall to take stock of their project, a great idea that has gone awry. The European Union needs more than tinkering; it needs to return to first principles, rediscover its central purpose and question which aspects of its current system are no longer working, affordable or manageable. As former British prime minister Tony Blair told me in an interview this week for CNN, it’s crucial that “Britain thinks again but Europe also thinks again.”

Europe is foundering. Although some Americans seem to delight in this prospect, it is bad for our country.

“By the middle of the century, you’re going to live in a multipolar world,” Blair said. “In those circumstances, the West should stay united and Europe should stand alongside America, because in the end . . . we’re countries that believe in democracy and freedom and the rule of law. . . . Otherwise, we’re going to find that as this century progresses and my children and grandchildren work out where they stand in the world, the West is going to be weaker. And that’s bad for them and bad for all of us.”

c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Theresa May’s Government Lives on—and So Does the Brexit Chaos


January 18,2019

Theresa May’s Government Lives on—and So Does the Brexit Chaos

If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, and the other members of the government should be confined to a psychiatric hospital. Having narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons on Wednesday, in which a loss would almost certainly have led to a general election, May and her colleagues are now looking to resurrect her Brexit plan, or a slightly refined version of it, which was subjected to an overwhelming defeat in the Commons on Tuesday evening.

With just ten weeks until March 29th, when Britain is supposed to leave the European Union, May is hoping that the prospect of the country crashing out without any withdrawal agreement—an outcome that could cause shortages of essential medicines and industrial parts, as well as bedlam at the Channel ports—will persuade a majority of parliamentarians to back her plan as the least bad option available. Of course, this is precisely the same logic that the Prime Minister was relying on when she delayed a vote on the Brexit plan until Monday, after the New Year, and she ended up suffering what was widely described as the biggest loss ever inflicted on a sitting British Prime Minister. But, after what she has been through in the past couple of years, May can perhaps be forgiven for getting a little addled. The entire country is a little addled. More than a little.

In making the closing argument for the motion of no confidence during Wednesday’s debate, Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party, was careful to acknowledge the efforts that May had already made to solve the political equivalent of Goldbach’s conjecture. “I think the country recognizes that effort,” Watson told the packed chamber. “In fact, the country feels genuinely sorry for the Prime Minister. I feel sorry for the Prime Minister. But she cannot confuse pity for political legitimacy, sympathy for sustainable support.” May’s strategy had failed utterly, Watson said, and “the cruellest truth of all is that she doesn’t possess the necessary political skills, empathy, ability, and most crucially the policy, to lead this country any longer.” The question facing the House, Watson said, was whether it is “worth giving this failed Prime Minister another chance to go back pleading to Brussels, another opportunity to humiliate the United Kingdom, another chance to waste a few weeks. The answer must be a resounding no.”

Making the closing argument for the government, Michael Gove, the minister for the environment, sought to divert attention from the humiliating setback that May had suffered, and the fact that more than a hundred Conservative M.P.s had rejected her plan. He turned his invective to Watson’s boss, Jeremy Corbyn, the leftist leader of the Labour Party, whom the Tories still view as their trump card. After noting that Watson hadn’t mentioned Corbyn during his speech, Gove, who is known at Westminster as a clever and slippery fellow, gleefully caricatured many of the Labour leader’s positions, claiming that Corbyn rejects Britain’s role in NATO and wants to get rid of the country’s nuclear deterrent. (A longtime antiwar activist, Corbyn has held these positions in the past, but official Labour policy, which Corbyn now supports, rejects them.) “No way can this country ever allow that man to be our Prime Minister,” Gove said, to loud cheers from the Conservative benches.

Since ten M.P.s from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which holds the balance of power in a narrowly divided Commons, had agreed to support the government, Gove knew that he and the Conservative government were on safe ground. But although the subsequent vote—of three hundred and twenty-five votes to three hundred and six—assured May’s survival, it merely confirmed the Brexit stalemate. A bit later in the evening, the Prime Minister emerged from 10 Downing Street to say that she had invited M.P.s from all parties to meet with her in an effort to find a way forward. Corbyn quickly rejected the offer, saying that the Labour Party wouldn’t join the talks unless May explicitly ruled out a no-deal Brexit—an option favored by some right-wing Conservative M.P.s.

So the show goes on, a very dark comedy. The hardline Conservative Brexiteers, led by the faux aristocrat Jacob Rees-Mogg, are encouraged because they have defeated May’s plan, and they know the default position is that Britain will crash out on March 29th.

Like a First World War general, May is soldiering ahead. Corbyn, relieved for now of the alarming prospect of having to step into May’s shoes, still says that he wants to honor the result of the referendum—in which many working-class, Labour-supporting areas voted Leave—but also to negotiate a better exit deal. (How he’d manage this, he hasn’t said.) But many Labour Party members—a large majority of them, according to recent polls—want to stay in the E.U., and seventy-one Labour M.P.s have now expressed support for the People’s Vote campaign, which is advocating a second referendum. In the coming days, Corbyn will face strong pressure to clarify his position and commit to another referendum.

 

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How and when will it all end? On Thursday, the government announced that Parliament would debate and vote on May’s “Plan B” on Tuesday, January 29th. M.P.s who spoke with the Prime Minister said that she still thinks she can tweak her deal and win, but few people outside of Downing Street believe it. The E.U. has ruled out making any more significant concessions. Both major parties are horribly split. And when the pollsters present the British public with the three options on offer—a no-deal Brexit, a Brexit on May’sterms, or a decision to Remain—there is no clear majority for any of them.

“I cannot recall Britain falling so low,” Philip Stephens, a veteran political commentator for the Financial Times, wrote in Thursday’s paper. “The Suez debacle in 1956? As supplicant at the door of the IMF 20 years later? These were moments of national shame. They were moments also that passed. The impact of Brexit has been cumulative. Each chapter in the story heaps on more humiliation. However it ends, the damage will not be quickly undone.”

And who, ultimately, is to blame? Before the vote on Wednesday, a BBC News crew approached David Cameron, the former Conservative Prime Minister who decided to hold the 2016 Brexit referendum, near his home in West London. He said that he didn’t regret that decision, even though the result went against his wishes. (He was a Remainer.) Then he set off on his morning jog.

A previous version of this post misstated the day that the vote on Theresa May’s Brexit plan took place.

https://www.newyorker.com/news

BreXit–GOD Save May


January 17,2019

BreXit–GOD Save May

LONDON — Ahead of a vote on her Brexit plan that could go down to a humiliating defeat in Parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain was fighting on Monday less to avert the loss than to limit its scale.

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In that vein, Mrs. May enlisted fresh promises from Europe’s most senior officials through an exchange of letters and warned supporters of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union that the whole project would be threatened if her deal was voted down as expected.

Neither tactic looked likely to change the overall outcome, but if Mrs. May can curb the magnitude of any defeat to manageable proportions, she could avert an immediate political meltdown. That, given the precarious state of events, would be a victory of sorts.

Speaking in a ceramics factory in Stoke-on-Trent, an area that voted heavily to leave the European Union, Mrs. May warned that Britain’s failure to withdraw from the bloc would risk “a subversion of the democratic process” and do “catastrophic harm” to faith in politics.

Though she carefully refused to rule it out, Mrs. May insisted that she has no intention of seeking to extend the negotiating deadline of March 29 laid down under Article 50 of the European Union’s treaty.

Even in defeat, Mrs. May wants to show that, in a Parliament paralyzed over Brexit, her plan still has more support than likely alternatives, like negotiating closer ties to the European Union, rethinking Brexit altogether through a second referendum or leaving without any deal at all.

The stakes are high because a crushing defeat in the vote on Tuesday could destroy Mrs. May’s strategy of keeping her plan alive in the hope that, as other options falter, lawmakers will support hers out of desperation.

A severe loss, meaning by more than 100 votes in Parliament, would reduce prospects of Britain’s winning further concessions from European Union officials. They are loath to give ground unless it seems like Mrs. May needs only a small push to get over the finish line. A loss of historic proportions might make her position untenable, forcing her resignation.

Lawmakers are preparing for a moment of parliamentary high drama on Tuesday. In one prominent example, Tulip Siddiq, a member of the opposition Labour Party, told the Evening Standard newspaper that she had ignored medical advice and postponed her cesarean section by two days in order to vote in person.

The last time a government was defeated by more than 100 votes is thought to have been in October 1924, when, academics say, a minority government led by James Ramsay MacDonald went down to a defeat of 166 over its abandonment of the prosecution of a left-wing newspaper, prompting a general election.

Mrs. May faces a rebellion from many of her own lawmakers who are angry about the so-called “backstop” plan to keep the Irish border open for the free flow of goods after Britain leaves the bloc. Brexiteers fear that this could keep Britain tied to the European Union indefinitely, while the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland, which props up Mrs. May’s government, is petrified about its part of the country being separated economically from the rest of the United Kingdom.

In a letter published on Monday, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, presidents of the European Commission and the European Council, emphasized that they did not want the backstop to come into force and hoped it could be averted by agreement on a trade deal that removes the need for border checks.

If it did become operable, the European Union would use “its best endeavors” to negotiate an agreement to replace it, “so that the backstop would only be in place for as long as strictly necessary.”

That did little to placate Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the D.U.P., who wrote on Twitter that “rather than reassure us, the Tusk and Juncker letter bolsters our concerns.”

Mrs. May seems to have calculated that, for the time being, her best hope is to cajole some hard-line Conservative Party Brexiteers into supporting her, even if they hate her plan, for fear of something worse. Her hand has been strengthened by machinations in Parliament in recent days, as lawmakers have tried to wrest control of the Brexit process, to inconclusive results, from a government that has no clear majority.

That wrangling has raised the possibility of a much “softer” Brexit, with closer ties to the European Union than Mrs. May wants, or a second referendum that might stop Brexit completely.

Mrs. May has also been trying to persuade lawmakers to side with her for fear of the disorderly Brexit that might arise on March 29 if, by then, there is not agreement. Prospects of that outcome have lessened lately because of the assertiveness of Parliament where a clear majority of lawmakers is determined to avoid a “no-deal” Brexit.

There was some bad news on Monday for Mrs. May with the resignation from her government of Gareth Johnson, an assistant whip, so that he would be free to vote against her Brexit plan.

But there was some movement in the other direction, too. One opposition Labour lawmaker, Kevin Barron, who represents a constituency that voted heavily for Leave, told The Times of London that his reservations over the plan were “far outweighed” by the risk of no deal, and that any attempt to reverse Brexit would be a “betrayal.”

A small group of Conservative Brexit supporters, including Andrew Murrison, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, Caroline Johnson and Edward Leigh, are also now expected to support Mrs. May. They are hardly the most enthusiastic cheerleaders, however.

Mr. Clifton-Brown told the BBC that he believed Mrs. May was headed for defeat but was “fearful that a coalition in the House of Commons will somehow find a way of either extending Article 50 or, worse still, preventing us leaving altogether.”

Asked about the merits of Mrs. May’s plan, he replied, “Well, basically I still think it’s a thoroughly bad deal.”

Follow Stephen Castle on Twitter: @_StephenCastle.

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A6 of the New York edition with the headline: May Scrambles to Save Her Accord to Exit E.U. From Crushing Defeat. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper |

 

 

 

 

The Sum of All Brexit Fears


December 29, 2018

The Sum of All Brexit Fears

The Leavers lied: The costs of withdrawing from the European Union were always destined to outweigh the benefits. Alas, the responsible, imaginative, and inclusive political leadership needed to minimize the damage is nowhere in sight.

 

LONDON – Day after day, week after week, most British citizens think that the turmoil over their country’s proposed exit from the European Union cannot get any worse. But, without fail, it does. Turmoil turns into humiliating chaos; a political crisis threatens to become a constitutional crisis.

Meanwhile, the date of the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU gets closer. It is fewer than 100 days until the UK leaves, and at the moment there is no deal in sight that is acceptable to both Parliament in Westminster and the European Commission and European Council in Brussels.

The problem began with the 2016 referendum vote to leave. Unfortunately, despite plotting and planning for this outcome for years, Leavers had no idea what quitting the EU would actually entail. Their campaign was rife with delusions and dishonesty. Leaving, they said, would mean a financial bonanza, which the UK would inject into its National Health Service. Negotiating a trade deal with the EU after departure would be easy. Other countries around the world would queue up to make deals with Britain. All lies.

The Brexit talks themselves, when they finally began, were hampered by the incompetence of the ministers put in charge. The UK’s negotiators were long on ideological certainty and short on workable solutions.

Moreover, the red lines that Prime Minister Theresa May laid down at the very beginning made their work more difficult. We must not only leave the EU, she argued, but also the single market and the customs union. We could not accept any jurisdiction by the European Court of Justice. We must be able to end the freedom of European citizens to come to the UK to staff our hospitals, pick our crops, fill gaps in our professional services, and increase our prosperity.

One of the central problems to emerge from this mish-mash of nonsense was how to avoid re-establishing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if the UK stayed within May’s red lines. Such a border would (as the head of Northern Ireland police noted) jeopardize the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after three decades of violence.

Recent negotiations have stalled on this point, because a successful outcome must square a circle. Britain has already accepted that Northern Ireland will have to stay in the customs union until the UK has concluded a long-term trade deal with the EU. Until then, there will have to be an insurance policy – a “backstop” – against possible failure. But hard-liners within May’s Conservative Party, and Democratic Unionist MPs from Northern Ireland, on whom May depends for her parliamentary majority, will accept only a backstop with a time limit, which is no real “stop” at all.

At the root of May’s difficulties is a simple truth that she and others are unwilling to accept. It is well-nigh impossible to negotiate an exit deal that is both in the national interest and acceptable to the right-wing English nationalists in her party. This became crystal clear during a grim week for the government earlier this month.

After May and her advisers concluded that the exit deal she had negotiated with the EU would be defeated in Parliament by a large majority, they suspended the debate before voting took place. May then announced that she was going to talk to other EU presidents and prime ministers to get the sort of reassurances that might satisfy her right-wing critics.

Those critics have operated increasingly like a party within a party. Halfway through May’s frantic diplomatic safari, they announced that they had gathered enough support to trigger a vote of no confidence in her leadership of the Conservative Party. She won the vote with about two-thirds support, but with her authority badly dented.

Capping an awful week, European ministers made clear that they were not prepared to reopen the agreement with Britain to renegotiation. They could offer “best endeavours” and “good will,” but no more.

So what happens next? May’s supporters think she is determined; others reckon she is simply obstinate and blind to reason. She has continued to put off any debate on her own proposals. Critics say she is trying to push any vote as close to the exit date as possible, in order to pressure MPs to support her plan. “Back my plan or face the disaster of no deal,” she seems to be saying. “Support me or we’ll jump off the cliff.”

But pressure is building for Parliament to take control of the process and work through a more acceptable range of options. Is there a majority in favor of May’s deal? Is Parliament totally opposed to crashing out of Europe with no deal? Should we seek a Norway-style relationship with Europe and aim to stay in both the single market and the customs union, at the cost of continuing to accept free movement of workers? Should we try to postpone the date of our EU departure until we have sorted out what exactly we want? Should there be another referendum, passing the final decision back to the people?

A fog of political uncertainty hangs over Britain after Christmas. Only four things seem clear. First, the Conservative Party will have growing difficulty accommodating its fanatical English nationalist wing. Second, to save the UK from disaster, Parliament will have to get a grip on the process. Third, life outside the EU will, in any case, leave Britain poorer and less influential in the world. And, lastly, whatever the outcome, Brexit will be a divisive issue for years to come.

The Brexiteers lied. The costs of leaving the EU were always destined to outweigh the benefits. Alas, the responsible, imaginative, and inclusive political leadership needed to minimize the damage is nowhere in sight.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

May’s BreXit Christmas


December 25, 2018

Image result for may's brexit goodbye

May’s BreXit Christmas

by

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/exit-from-brexit-referendum-by-jacek-rostowski-2018-12

After invoking Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon prematurely, British Prime Minister Theresa May has spent the past 21 months dancing around the impossibility of a quick withdrawal from the European Union. But with the House of Commons set to reject the exit deal she negotiated with EU leaders, the music is about to stop.

 

LONDON – British Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to withdraw her country from the European Union in an orderly fashion is collapsing. Though she has survived a no-confidence vote, in January the House of Commons will almost certainly reject the exit deal she negotiated with EU leaders. In order to avoid a chaotic “no-deal” Brexit, her government will have to ask the EU for an extension on the departure date, or withdraw its “intention to leave” notification, at least temporarily.

Either way, the next step would be to hold a second referendum with the option of a so-called exit from Brexit, which would reverse the 2016 decision to leave. Voters could still decide to back May’s deal, opt for a “Norway-style” arrangement, or crash out of the EU with no deal. But recent polling suggests that the choice of remaining in the EU would win the day.

How did a country with 400 years of constitutional governance and a culture of political compromise end up here?

Most commentators point to the seemingly insoluble problem of the . Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which put an end to decades of violent hostility between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, Britain agreed to permit the free movement of persons, goods, and some services across the border with the Republic of Ireland. A binding international treaty with no provision for exit, the Good Friday Agreement was signed under the assumption that both Britain and Ireland would remain in the EU indefinitely.

May’s deal with the EU includes a “backstop” that would prevent the reintroduction of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in the absence of a formal post-Brexit trade deal. The problem is that well over 100 members of May’s own party have rejected the backstop outright and will vote against her deal for that reason alone, making it dead on arrival.

But the Irish backstop is, in fact, a side issue. Even if there were no Irish problem, an orderly Brexit would have been impossible within the two years allotted to the UK under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. As I pointed out in October, British manufacturing supply chains are so deeply integrated with those of continental Europe that they could not survive the sudden establishment of customs and other checks on the British border. Britain’s automotive, aerospace, and precision-instruments industries would be decimated.

To be sure, many non-European countries export large volumes of industrial goods to the EU. But, unlike British goods, these generally cross the EU border only once. The same would hold true for Britain’s goods only aftert he country disentangles itself from the web of European supply chains. That task alone would be comparable to the restructuring of post-communist countries following the collapse of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon, the Soviet-era trade bloc). Completing it could well take five or more years.

After the 2016 referendum, May’s government should have had an adult discussion about the shape Brexit would take, rather than simply declaring, “Brexit means Brexit.” Scenarios in which the UK could remain in the single market, the customs union, or both were on offer from the EU. The government also should have done far more to apprise the business community of its plans.

Moreover, if the intention was always to leave both the single market and the customs union, retaining only a free-trade agreement with Europe, the government should have made clear that it would need an “implementation period” of at least five years to do this in an orderly manner. During this time it would be bound by European laws – including its obligation to pay around £13 billion ($16.4 billion) per year to the EU budget. May should not have invoked Article 50 until all of these decisions had been made, communicated to the relevant parties, and agreed upon at least in principle.

One reason May’s government ended up taking the exact opposite approach is that neither senior politicians nor bureaucrats understood the degree to which the British economy is intertwined with Europe. The fact that a quick Brexit into a free-trade agreement is logistically impossible seems to have been totally lost on them.

But the bigger problem was that a balanced consideration of possible options would have laid bare the lie upon which the “Leave” campaign was based. The idea that Britain could secure a “bespoke deal” and maintain “frictionless” access to the single market while pursuing its own trade accords elsewhere was always a fantasy.

Fearing the political consequences of acknowledging this basic truth, May adopted a completely unrealistic negotiating strategy, hoping that “some kind of Brexit” would happen before the British public realized it had been duped. Today, just three months before the departure date, this deeply deceitful démarche has disintegrated before May’s eyes – as well it should.

Jacek Rostowski was Poland’s Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister from 2007 to 2013.