This blogpost was written on Thurs March 21, 2019
How did it come to this? Just eight days before the UK is due to leave the EU and we still do not know whether it will leave on agreed terms or leave with no deal. What a megashambles!
A megashambles is beyond an omnishambles, it is on route to being a blackhole-shambles, into which everything disappears. If that happens there is every chance that the UK, as we have known it, will never be seen again.
That would be a great pity because, leaving aside dark times past and crimes in foreign lands, in recent times the UK has given the world so much. I am of the 1960s generation. When Ireland was still a closed, introspective, Catholic-dominated country, the UK in general, and London in particular, opened windows and showed us that other lives were possible. Clothes that went beyond the drab, rock concerts in Hyde Park, the West End on a Saturday night. Magazines and writers suited to all tastes. Best of all, no church on a Sunday.
Ireland has changed a lot since those days. While Ireland is going forward, the UK is going backwards.
From “Swinging London” to a frosty-faced Farage sending a rag-tag bunch of mostly pensioners on a march from Sunderland to London to protest the “Great Brexit Betrayal”. Of course, Farage himself did not march. The march, like Brexit itself, is for the little people, while the Brexit elite take care of themselves, elsewhere. “You take the wet road and I’ll take the jet road and I’ll be in London before you”.
It will be for future historians to determine what happened and how it happened when the files are finally opened. However, even today, three things seem clear to me.
First, Brexiteers of all hues and stripes promised things that could never be delivered. Believing that in any negotiation with the EU the UK would hold all the cards, they told voters that they could have all the benefits of EU membership with none of the costs or obligations. As Boris Johnson put it, the UK could have its cake and eat it. With cherries on top. How do these guys now sleep at night?
Second, when she became prime minister, Theresa May, defined Brexit in such a way that would enable her to do what she most wanted to do: close down freedom of movement for EU citizens as part of her obsessive desire to cut immigration into the UK. The fact that during her six years as Home Secretary she had failed to cut non-EU immigration over which the UK had complete control was conveniently overlooked. But then, as recent days have shown, Theresa strongly believes that failure was never her fault. There were always evil forces conspiring against her.
As she more or less said on Wednesday night, Brexit would have been easy but for the sovereignty of Parliament. Those damn MPs. All she was short of doing was singing a chorus from Evita:
Santa santa Theresa
Madre de todos los ninos
De los tiranizados, de los descamisados
De los trabajadores, de la Brexitina
In defining Brexit as she did – out of the customs union; out of the single market; out of the jurisdiction of the European Court – she shut down options that might have commanded a majority in the House of Commons (HOC). It was always: her way or the highway. When it came to the fork in the road, her way or the highway, the HOC stood frozen not wanting to go either way but unable to agree on any other way.
Third, was the complicity of the leadership of the Labour Party in all of this. As poll after poll has indicated the vast majority of Labour Party MPs and of the wider party membership are opposed to Brexit. They want none of it. But the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a life-long anti-European, seeing the EU as part of the western “imperialist” infrastructure, hostile to the rights of “struggling peoples” everywhere. Corbyn and his inner circle are Brexiteers to the core and want Brexit done. Then they can get on with “building socialism in one country”.
When it comes to the EU, Corbyn has never been able to answer any question he was asked with anything approaching honesty.
It is unlikely that Corbyn will ever become prime minister because generations of young voters will see him as having sold them out in pursuit of his 1970s, past its sell-by date, ideology. You can only pretend to be all things to all people for so long before the truth comes looking for you.
On January 18, 2017, the Times carried a headline: May to EU: Give us a fair deal or you’ll be crushed.
Two years later, on March 20, 2019, the same newspaper headlined: May pleads for delay to Brexit as EU stands firm.
These two headlines tell it all. From braggadocio to bended knee.
May has now been forced to ask the EU for extra time. She wants Brexit to be delayed beyond March 29th because the House of Commons has twice voted against the Withdrawal Agreement. “Please, can I stay, just a little bit longer? I’ll keep going back to the HOC until it gets it right. I want to stay as prime minister.”
As I write, the EU has responded to May’s request by telling her that the UK can have extra time, but only if it accepts the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement before March 29th next. Otherwise, what’s the point? More time to kick the can down the road or dance around the Maypole?
All of this is a tragedy for the UK and for the many millions of ordinary, hardworking people whose jobs depends on the frictionless trade with Europe made possible by the single market and the customs union. But the “Brexit elite”, the politicians, the journalists, the commentators, the think-tankers, all of those who never had to send a truck across the Channel against a deadline, will still draw their salaries and their investment incomes. When things go wrong, as they will go wrong, they will say, like Theresa May, “not down to me guv. Brexit wasn’t done right. It wasn’t a true Brexit. Brexit was betrayed”.
Even at this late hour another way forward is possible, if MPs in the HOC have the courage to take it. We hope they do.
Let’s clear one thing out of the way first.
The EU is not going to offer the UK a long extension of the A50 two-year notice period. If it did so, the UK would be a continuing EU member, sitting in all its decision-making bodies, able to exercise leverage when it came to policies and people. Theresa May will not last long as prime minister. As we have written previously, she never crossed a bridge that she did not burn behind her. The flames are now lapping around her feet.
Now, imagine a hard Brexiteer as UK prime minister. I don’t mean Boris Johnson, who doesn’t believe in anything other than Boris Johnson’s career. But a true Brexit believer, someone like Dominic Raab. As a member of the EU Council, Raab would have a veto on the appointment of the next EU Commission president, something that has to be settled later this year.
Suppose he decided to veto every candidate as leverage in the Brexit negotiations? Nothing the rest of the EU could do about it. So, why put yourself in that position in the first place. You only have to ask the question to know the answer. No rational political actor says to another party: “Here’s a big stick. Beat me with it as often as you want”. It just doesn’t happen.
The Withdrawal Agreement is locked. The EU will not reopen it. It simply covers the UK’s settling of its accounts with the EU, citizens’ rights and the Irish backstop. But the Political Declaration of the future relationship between the UK and the EU is an open book. It is where it is because of Theresa May’s obsession with ending freedom of movement. Drop that obsession and another world is possible.
We have written previously that there is no deal that the UK can do with the EU, as a third country outside the bloc, that will ever be as good as EU membership. Cake and eat it aways was a fantasy. EU membership remains by far the best option for the UK. It would be in the best interests of all if the HOC voted to revoke A50.
Sadly, the current political configuration of the HOC does not seem to make that possible. (See above on Corbyn).
Yet it still remains open for the UK to opt out of the political dimension of the EU while remaining in the economic dimension. Were the HOC to decide that ending freedom of movement was no longer the overriding priority and that it was interested in a customs union/single market deal, then the Political Declaration could be quickly rewritten to reflect that.
After all, the Withdrawal Agreement is simply the overture. It is far from being the full symphony.
If the UK puts a customs union/single market deal back on the table then negotiations in Phase 2 could progress relatively smoothly and quickly. The Irish backstop would drop away as an issue.
There is, however, one major problem with this. When it comes to making the rules, the UK would no longer have a seat at the table. Forget Corbynista demands that the UK should sit alongside the EU as an equal partner in negotiating future trade agreements. A “third country” having more say in EU trade deals that a member state? That is just not going to happen.
Yet, if the UK resented rules in which it had a hand in crafting being “imposed” on it as a member of the EU, think of its reaction if it was a simple rule-taker as a single market member. For example, if in the next few years the EU decided to strip the “48-hour opt” from the Working Time Directive and impose that on the UK, imagine the reaction.
I have long held the view that, with the exception of death, everything else is negotiable. (There are some in Silicon Valley who think that even death is negotiable. I somehow doubt it).
So, if the UK was committed to a customs union/single market relationship with the EU post-Brexit, a way could be found to allow its voice to be heard on rule-making. Not a veto but a strong voice, nonetheless.
The hour is late. The HOC should vote to ask the EU for a rewriting of the Political Declaration. Nail its colours to the mast and ask for a future framework which allows for the involvement of the UK in the internal market, bordered by the customs union. Vote for a strong European internal market within strong external borders. It is doable within the time available.
A postscript. As readers of this Briefing know, I am Irish. There have been suggestions in some UK newspapers recently that Brexit has triggered a wave of anti-English feeling in Ireland. This is simply not true. Yes, Irish people hate Brexit and hate the Brexit charlatans for the damage Brexit will do to Ireland.
The idea that we suddenly hate the English is nonsense. Yes, we hate the history between us, but that is history. We live in the present.
I have been a Manchester United fan all my life. Many of my fellow countrymen, who do not share the one true religion of Manchester, support Liverpool, Spurs, Arsenal and others. Some even support Leeds. Nightly we watch EastEnders, Coronation Street, Holby, Endeavour, and the rest. Some of the biggest TV stars in the UK are Irish: Graham Norton and Dara O’Briain, for example.
British sports, culture, politics and media define a good part of who we Irish are. We are two small islands off the Eurasian mainland locked together by geography, history and culture. No one can wish that away. We are forever destined to live together, to define and shape one another.
Within the European Union we had found a safe space where we could talk and work together. Our common membership dissolved many old antagonisms. We often found common purpose.
Now, because of Brexit, the EU, the UK and we Irish, to rethink our common future.
Not an easy ask.