“No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws applied, nor the ability to decide to exit the arrangement.” – Dominic Raab in his resignation letter as Brexit Secretary.
I pity the journalists who have to do this kind of thing for a living. Especially the ones who have to wait several hours before seeing their article in print. A week is a lifetime in politics. Today, an hour merely felt like one.
The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement has finally been agreed between the EU and UK negotiating teams. It has also been agreed by the Cabinet of the government – albeit only “collectively” (read: not unanimously – merely by majority. Rumours speak of an 18-11 vote). It now needs to be passed by the UK and EU Parliaments and then it’s done. So…what could go wrong?
So, what’s in it and what has happened
As I’ve written about previously, the UK had set itself three cast-iron but mutually incompatible red lines.
- England must have a “hard Brexit” – As it must be allowed to make trade deals and slash regulations as it likes.
- Northern Ireland must have the same Brexit as England – This maintains the “unity of the precious Union” (and the votes of the DUP who are propping up the government). It also means no need for border checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
- There must be no border controls between Northern Ireland and Ireland – This would be a breach of the Good Friday Agreement and may open whole barrels of worms that are best not thinking about.
But the UK could not satisfy all three conditions simultaneously. The best it could manage were two.
- + 2. – A Hard Brexit across the whole of the UK would mean that border controls would be required to ensure that goods illegal in the EU could not be smuggled into the EU.
- + 3. – A borderless arrangement in Ireland with Northern Ireland having the same arrangement as England implies a “soft” Brexit for England and the whole of the UK remaining under EU regulations after leaving the EU.
- + 1. Would imply that Northern Ireland would remain under EU regulations but would imply different arrangements between it and England.
Compounding all of this was a complete ineptitude on the part of the UK Government which spent so long flatly denying that a “hard” Brexit would require any kind of change to border arrangements elsewhere in the UK. This is best illustrated by the fact that the Brexit negotiator Dominic Raab only last week started to understand the magnitude of trade moving between France and Dover combined with the “peculiar geographic entity that is the United Kingdom” (hint: He means that the UK is comprised of an archipelago of islands).
So it should be no surprise that the prediction that I’ve been making for months now has come true. The UK, utterly unable to provide solutions to problems of its own making, has allowed the EU to pretty much write the Brexit deal itself and has passed the document over to the UK with a pen. The UK may now “capitulate” and sign it, or own the “chaos” of walking away.
So what’s in the Draft Agreement?
It essentially recommends scenario 2. + 3. The softest of Brexits. The whole of the UK will remain in the Customs Union with the EU and will abide by all regulations made up till now and all regulations and changes made from now and throughout the transition process which is scheduled to last until December 2020. But the UK’s MEPs, Commissioner and other EU officials will leave their posts in March 2019 and the UK will play no part in the making of any of those rules and regulations. There are also some extra provisions in there aimed to grant extra protections to Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement with Northern Ireland remaining within the Single Market as well as the Customs Union.
Post-2020, if the UK has not built the infrastructure required to go it alone outside the EU, it may then bilaterally agree an extension of the transition period with the EU. If the UK feels that it is ready to walk away then it cannot do so unilaterally. It must be by agreement with the EU. This is a key sticking point for many hard Brexiteers.
Here’s the thing. If you are a Remainer or in favour of a soft Brexit or even if you are in favour of the UK rejoining EFTA, this isn’t actually a “bad deal”. Not really.
The UK’s supply chain economy would remain intact and without catastrophic disruption. We’d be protected against Trump flooding the market with chlorinated chicken and life should more-or-less go on with little actually changing. Well…so long as you don’t want live in one EU27 country but work in another, you weren’t born in the UK or you’re unconcerned with trivialities like the massive democratic deficit caused by the loss of our voting power within the EU.
Apart from all of that, things could have been worse.
Of course, if you’re a hard Brexiteer then this is a disaster. Not only have you lost influence in Europe but you haven’t really regained any powers of note that you can use to rebuild the Empire into your vision of “Global Britain”.
As it stands, I certainly wouldn’t want to be the trade minister who found themselves negotiating a critical trade deal only for an aide to pass me a bit of paper stated that the EU had just rendered it impossible.
There’s going to have to be a lot of hard graft to prepare the UK for leaving the transition period but the restrictions mentioned above really do make it unclear how that can happen. Even if the infrastructure can be put in place in Dover and elsewhere to allow the UK to basically function outside of the EU, it still leaves the problem of the Irish border. There’s a very real possibility that the transition period could be extended basically indefinitely. It might not be, objectively, a “bad” deal but I doubt that many who voted for Brexit envisaged something like this coming to pass. There can’t be many on any side of the divide who are happy with what we’ve ended up with.
So, what next?
The Agreement has been approved by the negotiators and has been passed, unhappily, by the Cabinet. Several have resigned over the matter – including Dominic Raab, the man who fronted the negotiations – although it’s not really his fault as he had his negotiating writ taken off him shortly after accepting the job. The top page quote pulled from his resignation letter may look very familiar to those who make the case for Scottish independence – I’m sure that he was as aware of the nuances of that quote as he has been of his geography.
As of the time of writing, David Mundell is a notable exception to the resignations. Having stated explicitly that he’d go if Northern Ireland was given any kind of special treatment, he spent this afternoon denouncing Raab for resigning on precisely those grounds.
There are rumours that the Tory party is about to implode again and there is the very real risk of a leadership challenge in the days to come. If that DOESN’T happen, then the next hurdle is getting the deal passed by the UK Parliament and that is looking decidedly unlikely.
First, the DUP have come out against the deal. They really don’t like even the slightest hint of a difference in the deal between NI and England, The “precious Union” must be maintained (unless it involves things like gay rights, abortion laws and suchlike).
They have pledged to vote against the deal and no longer support the Government as they have been doing since the 2017 General Election.
The SNP and Plaid Cymru are rightly upset that whilst the deal has spent a lot of time discussing Northern Ireland it doesn’t even mention Scotland, Wales or the devolved administrations. If Northern Ireland is to gain special provisions (as can Gibraltar and the military bases in Cyprus), then – so the argument goes – special provisions may be granted to Scotland as well. To not do so may place Scotland at a competitive disadvantage to Northern Ireland.
I appreciate this argument and certainly back the Scottish Government in their push on this but I also appreciate why Scotland is unlikely to get such a deal. Special provisions in Ireland would act to prevent noticeable border issues whereas a special deal for Scotland would act to create one. Furthermore, the EU has a vested interest in acting on behalf of Ireland and in upholding the Good Friday Agreement which is a treaty which affects one of its member states. If Scotland wants the backing of the EU, it’s going to have to be an independent country within the EU.
The Lib Dems and Green Party of England and Wales are unhappy and have refused to back the deal unless it is approved by a Peoples’ Vote referendum (something the SNP and Scottish Greens also support – though Robin McAlpine lays out why such support should not be without conditions)
Finally, Labour are against the deal as it goes against their “six tests” which were written specifically to give a reason to vote against the deal (as all such “lists of tests” are wont to do). I have my doubts that all of them will actually vote against it though. The party is still riven with divisions so I could well see rebels breaking the whip to abstain or vote for it. It will be extremely interesting if this results in the deal being passed.
If it is not passed then it is unclear what will happen next. Maybe the Government will go back to the EU to renegotiate but there’s very little time left to do that. The EU might extend deadlines slightly or even agree to a formal extension of Article 50 beyond March 29th but this can’t be pushed by more than a couple of weeks without the UK facing the prospect of having to vote in the EU elections next year or being involved in the next round of EU budgeting – this is a concern to those who are already kicking up a fuss about the UK paying for things that it has already signed up to.
And if May is chucked out or resigns – what then?
There are a couple of ways it could go. If the PM resigns then there’s no actual requirement for anything other than the party of government to elect a new leader and appoint them as PM (which is how May initially got the job). It is likely that such a replacement will be from the Brexiteer wing. Rees-Mogg has ruled out a run for the job but I think he’d be happier as Chancellor of the Exchequer under his able deputy PM Boris Johnson. A cliff-edge hard Brexit awaits if this happens.
Or there could be a general election. This has profound implications for Scotland as it opens the path for the SNP to place itself in the position of potentially propping up a Corbyn Labour government. If this happens, a second independence referendum is almost certainly going to be the price for such an arrangement.
Of course, we can already see that Labour’s campaign strategy in Scotland will be to prevent this scenario by campaigning harder in SNP/Labour marginals than in Tory marginal seats (Good old FPTP at its “finest”…).
If Labour is capable of forming a majority on its own then they are just as likely to grant an independence referendum as has been Theresa “Now Is Not The Time” May.
Of course, Labour would then be thrust into fixing the Brexit problem too and I can’t see any evidence of them having a clearer plan than May has had. And those internal divisions are not going away either…
The future is incredibly uncertain now. The UK has squandered almost all of its international prestige as well as burning almost every bridge it can with its allies.
I don’t know what’s going to happen from here on in. I *think* we’ve managed to avoid the worst possible cliff edge Brexit catastrophe where “adequate food” is the best offer the government can make but we’re very far from the “sunlit uplands” initially promised.
Maybe things will have changed by tomorrow morning. In fact, that’s as close to a prediction as I’m going to make.