Off with their heads: Britain’s EU bunglers


Off with their heads: Britain’s EU bunglers

The ghost of King Henry VIII hovered over the British Parliament during its latest vote on Brexit. How many democratic states dredge up royal powers from the 16th century to push through major legislation? 
Well, the British government is doing just that. A bill that will incorporate 40 years of EU regulation into British law passed its first vote on Monday night, incorporating the so-called “Henry VIII” powers that date from 1539. 
What do these do? Essentially they give government ministers the authority to amend or repeal laws without the consent of Parliament. Crudely, Henry used these powers to rule by decree. In 2017, Theresa May’s government will use them to change or scrap 12,433 pieces of European regulation that, to avoid chaos, must be part of UK law before Britain leaves the EU in 2019. 
Of course, Henry VIII was infamous for his divorces, not least from two European wives. Britain is divorcing 27 wives at once, and many opponents of Brexit fear the consequences if the government is allowed to legislate on such a huge scale without parliamentary scrutiny. 
Ironically, a key plank of the argument for Brexit was that it would empower Parliament, take back control from an unaccountable Brussels mega-bureaucracy and restore sovereignty. In this new legislation, critics see not a great repeal bill but rather a great power grab. That said, such a weak government as May’s would be ill-advised to succumb to temptation and treat elected representatives with contempt. 
As with any divorce, the bill is painful. Voters were sold a pup by leading pro-Brexit politicians, most now in the Cabinet, who promised that £350 million a week would be diverted by Brussels to the British health service. 
Beware politicians bearing gifts! Estimates of the EU exit bill range from £25 billion to £100 billion. 
As well as a divorce, ministers also want a period of limited separation, a transition period to avoid a jump off the cliff-edge without a parachute. The opposition Labour party would prefer a much longer period. British politicians cannot even agree on this. 
The whole disentanglement process is a lot more complicated than British people were led to believe by ministers such the trade secretary, Liam Fox, who claimed that a new EU trade deal would be the “easiest in history.” The harsh interim judgment is that ministers have underperformed, failed to act in the national interest and wasted precious time. If Henry VIII were still in charge, perhaps someone would have lost their head.

UK ministers have invoked Henry VIII’s powers to ease Brexit, but they lack the autocratic monarch’s ruthless efficiency.

Chris Doyle

Exacerbating this are tribal squabbles at court. May has to juggle the whims of the hard-line Brexiteers who want to speed up the divorce and pay nothing, the soft Brexiteers who are imagining some mystical deal that includes remaining in the single market but without freedom of movement, and a hotchpotch of remainers including those who dream of a happy marital reunion.
It is tempting to believe that the gargantuan shambles of the Brexit negotiations is nothing more than a clever ploy to render Brexit impossible. What would have to happen to “exit Brexit,” an option EU politicians still claim is available to Britain. The current Conservative government would never contemplate this, but elections and a change of government cannot be ruled out. A Labour minority government would be tough to form, barring a grand national “remain” coalition. Some dream of a second referendum, perhaps on the proposed eventual deal. 
The sober, dispassionate assessment is still that Britain will leave the EU fold. Overturning the popular vote is a step too far for most pragmatic politicians across the aisles, but there is still a huge gulf between the electorate and the elected, the political classes and the voters. Most politicians, even ministers, do not believe in Brexit but cannot work out how to avoid it, an argument made by former prime minister Tony Blair, who called for real leadership to solve the underlying problems that led to the Brexit vote in the first place. 
EU figures are for the most part bemused, even angered by what they see as the lack of seriousness on Britain’s part. A no-deal scenario is in no one‘s political or economic interests, but with the fourth round of negotiations beginning on Sept. 18, few can figure out how to bridge the divide on the key first-stage issues of the Irish border, citizens’ rights and the divorce bill. The EU team robustly refuses to dilute its position that these files must be resolved before any talks on future relations, including trade.
For Brexit opponents, options abound on how to slow up and hijack the process. The Conservative minority government may be further sucked into unending Parliamentary battles over the repeal bill, not least with the House of Lords. This risks accusations of irresponsibility, and does not guarantee either a reverse of the Brexit decision or even an improved deal. 
The truth is that the best-case scenarios for a Brexit deal that establishes a constructive and close UK-EU relationship of partners are fast evaporating. Soft Brexit options are hardening by the day, with the odds on a no-deal Brexit surely increasing. Divorces are rarely pain-free, but most Britons are looking for a powerful painkiller.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Twitter: @Doylech
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