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Has the ERG won?

March 13th, 2019

The sight of long-standing opponents of the EU voting on Tuesday against leaving the EU because May’s Withdrawal Agreement was not “proper Brexit” must have infuriated those MPs who voted for the deal despite not wishing to leave the EU. Ken Clarke, for instance.

What a “proper Brexit” is will probably end up being the Schleswig-Holstein question of our time. (“The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.”) It has certainly driven many MPs mad, most of them Tories, and a significant chunk of the rest of the population would dearly love to be in a position to have forgotten about it.

But is it quite the case that the ERG has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory? After all, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 is now the law of the land, as is the the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The two-year period under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty expires on 29 March, after which the UK is no longer a member of the EU. There is no requirement that there has to be a withdrawal agreement for that to happen, whether in the Lisbon Treaty or in the implementing UK legislation. None. This may seem obvious but it seems to need saying. Repeatedly. A No Deal exit will happen in just over two weeks time.

And when that happens, the ERG will have attained its goal. Exit from the EU without any of the compromises inherent in any withdrawal agreement. Nirvana will have been reached. Britain will be free. The fact that the ERG seems to have given no thought to what compromises or agreements may be needed to ensure that commercial, cultural and business life continue thereafter without too much hindrance or costs is, presumably, one of those tiresome details we should not worry about. The concerns that have been expressed that a departure, in such a way, could cause economic shocks, not just in Britain but in Europe and possibly further afield with who knows what consequences are overstated, yet more Project Fear. Nothing bad happened after the referendum. So nothing bad will happen now. Those – in business or elsewhere – who point to practicalities which need to be addressed are being so tedious.  To echo Lord Melbourne: “I wish that I was as sure of any one thing as the ERG is sure of everything!”

Still, on one thing the ERG is correct. Unless Parliament takes active steps to stop a No Deal exit by implementing legislation which will stop it, this will happen. It is not enough to vote for a motion saying how much you deplore or dislike or really really don’t want it. That changes nothing. If MPs don’t want this to happen, they need to make something else happen in its place.

Currently, MPs are behaving like Harry Enfield’s Only Me character: busy telling us and themselves how things should not be done but refusing to decide on what should be done.  So is the government.  The Withdrawal Agreement has been defeated.  Twice.  Another choice needs to be made.  And fast.  There are only two left (revocation of Article 50 or its extension) and one of those needs the EU’s consent.  It would be most unwise to assume that such consent will be forthcoming.  Pretty much every MP assumed that a Withdrawal Agreement would be agreed and look how that has turned out.  Pretty much every MP is now assuming that the EU will be willing to agree an FTA once this little difficulty has been overcome.  Will it?  Having been messed around for the best part of three years, as the EU sees it, by a country which was apparently adamant about what it did not want but wholly unable to say with any coherence what it did want – and despite two extensive negotiations (we’re not forgetting the Cameron negotiation, are we?) which were then rejected- why would it want to embark on another one with that same country?  With the same group of politicians?  Wouldn’t it risk being another wasted pointless venture? How reliable is Britain? How can its word be trusted? It’s not as if the EU does not have other issues to deal with.

If a No Deal exit is to be avoided, the only step which Britain can now take – alone – is fraught with serious difficulties.  It may be politically impossible.  It involves telling voters that the referendum result will not be honoured, at least for now.  It involves admitting that the process of exiting the EU on acceptable transitional terms has proved beyond the political classes, both here and in Europe.  But if such a step is not taken then – unless some clear plan for why Britain wants an extension and what this will achieve is presented to and agreed by all the other EU states – a No Deal exit is what will happen, however many motions have been passed saying that MPs don’t want it.

To govern is to choose, as someone once said.  He went on: “To appear to be unable to choose is to appear to be unable to govern.”  Well quite.   MPs have two weeks to make a choice.  If they don’t, then a No Deal exit will happen.  And it will be the ERG having the last laugh.

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