This Brexit soap opera badly needs a final scene
The EU Withdrawal Bill returned to the House of Commons from the House of Lords last week with 196 amendments. When it is finally enacted, the legislation will govern the shape of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and the subsequent relationship between the two entities.
Most of the bill was not contested and went through easily. One amendment, however, caused Prime Minister Theresa May particular grief. The Lords wanted Parliament to be in a position to give the government “direction” in the event that no final deal can be struck with the EU. The government would have none of that, maintaining that it needed to be fully empowered to negotiate, and that potential meddling by Parliament was not helpful in that respect. The UK’s chief negotiator was particularly vociferous, and insisted that he remain fully in charge.
The amendment was tabled for a vote on Tuesday morning. When Justice Minister Phillip Lee resigned so that he could vote against the government, a chain reaction ensued. Fourteen Tory MPs, led by the former attorney general Dominic Grieve, threatened to support the amendment. What followed was a lot of horse trading and a vaguely worded government promise to give Parliament a meaningful vote in the event of there being no agreement on Brexit. The amendment was rejected with a slim majority of 26 votes. All seemed fine until the government appeared to backtrack on its promise, and the Tory rebels cried foul. The bill will now go back to the Lords and we shall see what happens when it is returned to the Commons for the final vote. At that stage it would take only 14 rebel votes to undo the government’s position.
This Brexit soap opera might be amusing on the face of it. However, Brexit is looming and the UK needs to secure itself a deal with the EU. Some aspects of the Westminster hullabaloo are comic, but others are deadly serious.
Let us start with humor: May repeats time and time again that she wants to take back control from the EU of “our money, our laws and our borders.” Interestingly, she seems not too keen on conceding power to Parliament. The UK is a constitutional monarchy and a democracy. Prime ministers are appointed by the Queen on the basis that they can secure a working majority in the House of Commons. In other words, the government of the day serves at the pleasure of the monarch, of course, but especially of the elected representatives of the people. So refusing Parliament any say beyond a binary yes no vote over final Brexit arrangements seems curious to say the least.
Now to the important matters: The longer the UK spends on internal constitutional navel gazing, the longer it will take to engage in the next round of meaningful negotiations with the EU. In the end the deal will not be struck in the House of Commons or between the warring factions of Theresa May’s cabinet, but with the EU. Time is running out and the country as well as business are left in limbo, not knowing what the future relationship will look like.
It is high time for the UK to make up its mind and go into the negotiations with the EU with an agreed and coherent position. The time for Westminster soap has run out, and there is no more road left down which to kick the proverbial can.
First there is the case of the Irish border. May’s midnight trip to Brussels last December saved the day, but it was a fudge. The free movement of people and goods is pivotal for both peace in Northern Ireland and for the economies both north and south of the border; they are deeply interconnected. The government cannot give Northern Ireland a different status from the rest of the UK, which was suggested by the EU as a compromise, because it would effectively create a new border in the middle of the Irish Sea and undermine the unity of the United Kingdom. May, furthermore, governs with the support of Northern Ireland’s DUP, and they will not budge on the issue of unity.
The business community is deeply concerned too; manufacturers fear losing access for their goods to the 500 million people in the EU. Their supply chains are also to a large part inextricably interwoven with the continent. The government says they want out of the single market and the customs union. But no one knows what is to follow. The situation is even direr for the financial sector. It will lose passporting rights, which means the right to carry out euro-denominated transactions on British soil.
The UK economy has suffered some impact already. The pound is down, which admittedly helped UK exports for the time being (as long as the country still has access to the juicy EU markets). Investment is also markedly down and companies are beginning to relocate staff or in some cases even headquarters. Brexiteers tend to gloss over these problems with the promise of elusive trade deals with the world at large. The trouble is, 44 percent of UK exports go to the EU and 53 per cent of its imports come from the EU. Such a relationship is not going to be overhauled overnight.
The prime minister’s speeches in Florence last autumn and at the Mansion House this year read well. However, they were aspirational, and she will not achieve the desired degree of access to the European market without concessions. As far as the EU is concerned the four freedoms — goods, services, capital and people — are indivisible. The EU also faces plenty of other issues endangering its cohesion, not least the wave of refugees and rise of anti-EU populist parties in many of its member states. The EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier may simply not be in a position to give too many concessions. It is high time for the UK to make up its mind and go into the negotiations with an agreed and coherent position. The time for Westminster soap has run out, and there is no more road left down which to kick the proverbial can.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources