So much for the light at the end of the Brexit tunnel
The last time the UK parliament sat on a Saturday was in 1982 when Argentine forces invaded the Falklands, and yesterday’s sitting was no less of a watershed moment in modern British history. As MPs debated the revised Brexit withdrawal agreement obtained by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, outside in central London a crowd estimated at up to a million marched to demand a second referendum on the issue.
Johnson’s stated aim was to obtain a parliamentary majority for his agreement (unlike his predecessor Theresa May, who failed three times to do so), and thus keep his promise to take Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31. The numbers were tight, but all week it had looked increasingly likely that he would do so. Then came a spanner in the works, wielded by Sir Oliver Letwin, a Conservative Party grandee and former cabinet minister.
Sir Oliver supports the agreement, but fears that the complex legislation required to enact it may not be passed before Oct. 31 — resulting in an “accidental” no-deal Brexit. To avoid this, he successfully proposed an amendment requiring Johnson to seek an extension to the Oct. 31 deadline until the necessary legislation had been approved. Thwarted, Johnson called off the vote on his agreement, but declared: “I will not negotiate a delay with the EU.”
The UK is in for a rocky two weeks. Since Parliament has failed to approve a withdrawal agreement by Oct. 19, under the terms of the Benn Act the prime minister is required to ask the EU for an extension. Should he fail to do so, he may swiftly find himself before a court of law.
None of this will help the UK to heal the deep wounds Brexit has inflicted. On the contrary, it will widen and deepen the chasm that divides the country. Families are split, with husbands and wives, parents, children and siblings on opposite sides of the debate. Johnson’s deal is far from perfect, but at least it is a deal, and provides some clarity; sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the possible.
Brexit will be costly for the UK economy, but less so than prolonged uncertainty. Billions of dollars’ worth of investment have been withheld, because business leaders do not know the parameters of the UK’s relationship with its most important trading partner, the EU. They need certainty about the future legal and regulatory environment. Once they have that they will deal with the consequences, but nothing is worse than prolonged inertia.
Brexit has shot an Exocet missile across the bows of the two major parties. Since the vote in June 2016 their leaders have all too often put party before country, out of fear that acting in the national interest would drive away either their pro-Brexit or pro-Remain members.
Brexit has upended more than party and family landscapes, it has put in question the integrity of the UK itself: Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is ready to propose another referendum on independence.
The UK’s standing in the international community has also been damaged. The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has in good faith negotiated several iterations of the withdrawal agreement and political declaration, EU leaders have granted two extensions to the departure deadline, and yet the UK appears no closer to leaving the EU than it was three and a half years ago.
Brexit will be costly for the UK economy, but less so than prolonged uncertainty.
Meanwhile Jean-Claude Juncker and the European Commission he leads will step down on Oct. 31, followed by European Council president Donald Tusk a month later. The incoming commission president Ursula von der Leyen and her new team will need to find their feet. Whatever you say about Juncker, he is a skilled and wily politician, who steered the organization where it needed to go; even Donald Trump is said to be in awe of his negotiating skills. Von der Leyen is different; she was not a particularly strong force in her party or her country. Her six-year tenure as German defense minister received few accolades. In other words, the new commission may be less able to deal with this latest curve ball from the UK.
The EU also has many other challenges; a migration/refugee crisis, climate change, a slowing economy. Brexit has dominated its agenda since 2016. If there is Brexit fatigue in Britain, it is nothing compared to the weariness among EU leaders.
We truly are in uncharted territory, which sounds trite because it has been used so many times before — but there is absolutely no light at the end of the Brexit tunnel.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources