No easy alternative to May’s unpopular Brexit deal
The people of Britain woke up on Wednesday to a morning that seemed more surreal than a Salvador Dali painting. The previous night, Prime Minister Theresa May had announced that the UK and the EU had been able to agree on a Brexit deal. Neither the 585-page withdrawal agreement regulating the “divorce” between the UK and the EU nor the 15-page political declaration outlining how the two parties would go about negotiating their future relationship had been released at that time. But ignorance did not stop several MPs from appearing on breakfast television shows and steadfastly rejecting the deal. Over the next 24 hours, things worked themselves up to a crescendo, resulting in the resignation of several Cabinet ministers.
During Wednesday, ministers were briefed one by one, followed by a long and bruising Cabinet meeting. In the evening, May appeared in front of the iconic black door of her official Residence, 10 Downing Street, to announce that, after a long discussion, the Cabinet had signed off on the agreement. She said that, in her heart and in her mind, this was the best deal she could have negotiated for the country. She continued that it was either this deal, no deal at all or no Brexit.
In short, the nearly 600 pages stipulate that the UK will uphold its financial obligations — the divorce settlement will run to £39 billion ($50 billion). There will be a transition period of 21 months to hammer out the country’s future relationship with the EU. During that time, the UK will stay in a “temporary single customs territory,” which looks very similar to the customs union the government had vowed to leave. This was necessary to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in the Irish Sea, because the former would remain, for all intents and purposes, in the customs union. Anything else would not do for Ulster, which needs open borders with the Republic to guarantee the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 — a political accord that ended decades of bloody sectarian strife. Northern Ireland will apply the full customs union code and the UK will adhere to more basic rules, while agreeing to minimal divergence from customs unions rules in order to avoid that hard border in the Irish Sea.
The UK also agreed to adhere to some laws governing competition, labor and taxation in order to help facilitate business between the UK and the EU, which is the island nation’s largest trading partner. As far as dispute resolution is concerned, the negotiators had borrowed leaves from the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine. The European Court of Justice would still have the final say though.
This is, by all accounts, a very watered down version of taking back control over borders, laws and money for the duration of the transition period, if not beyond. In other words, for a time at least, the UK will remain bound to EU rules without having any say over them. This prompted the outspoken former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to declare the deal was turning the UK into a vassal state of the EU.
May is in a real muddle because so many on all sides of the argument object to the deal. Four ministers resigned on Thursday morning and several others are said to be unhappy. The most significant resignation was that of Dominic Raab, the Brexit Secretary, because it could trigger several more senior ministers to follow suit.
The hard-line Democratic Unionist Party is unhappy with the Northern Ireland backstop. Leader Arlene Foster and her nine fellow MPs are important because they prop up the prime minister’s minority government. The Brexiteers, especially members of the backbench Conservatives’ European Research Group (ERG) under Jacob Rees-Mogg, are seething. Pro-remain MPs are also unhappy and want a second referendum. Over the weekend, Johnson’s brother Jo, an ardent Remainer, had resigned from the Cabinet demanding another referendum, which the PM has rejected many times. The younger Johnson called the current situation a failure of British diplomacy on a scale not seen since the Suez Crisis.
Early Thursday morning, on the other side of the English Channel in Brussels, EU Council President Donald Tusk and EU Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier announced the deal, as well as the subsequent EU timeline and process. Brussels is now informing the various member governments and soliciting their comments, of which they hoped there would be few. There would then be an EU summit on Nov. 25 to sign off on the deal. Tusk thanked Barnier for admirably having protected the interests of the EU and its 27 member states.
May can only win the vote by depending on the 'kindness of strangers.' That looks highly unlikely — to put it mildly.
Once the final deal is agreed, May can then bring it to Parliament for a “meaningful vote.” There are two questions: Will the prime minister survive this long; and, if she does, will she get a majority in Parliament?
The government has been weakened by the resignations, and the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee must by now have enough letters allowing for a no-confidence vote. The Tory hardliners need to weigh up whether the chaos ensuing toppling May would result in new elections, which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party may well win.
As to the “meaningful vote,” at this point it is unclear how the PM can secure a majority. She seems to have lost the 10 votes of the DUP. The members of the ERG are bound to vote against the Bill, as will several pro-remain MPs who want a new referendum. She can only win the vote by depending on the “kindness of strangers,” in other words Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrat and wayward Labour MPs. That looks highly unlikely — to put it mildly.
Where does that leave the country? To be short, in an uncomfortable spot. The withdrawal agreement and the political declaration at least provided some certainty. While Chris Southworth, the Secretary General of the International Chamber of Commerce, might have had a point when he said on the BBC that business would have preferred a transition period exceeding 21 months, the document at least provides business with a buffer of nearly two years to proceed with contingency planning. May had tried to get business leaders on side on Wednesday afternoon, but they remained remarkably silent. None seemed eager to stick his or her head above the parapet.
Brexit has already cost the country dearly in terms of a sliding currency, falling productivity and dwindling inward investment. Prolonged uncertainty will not herald better things to come. It is important that politicians now start putting country before personal or party interests for once. Crashing out of the EU without a deal is not an option — even Corbyn admits that. A new general election or another referendum may prove to be incredibly divisive. This deal is suboptimal for sure, but there are no other easy alternatives on offer at this time.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources