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No Deal remains imminent and likely

March 30th, 2019


Picture Judy Goldhill

The Withdrawal Agreement remains an unmet EU expectation

A failure to understand the other side’s point of view has been more than a running Brexit theme: it’s infected every aspect of Britain’s relationship with what’s now the EU throughout the last seven decades. Unsurprising then that miscalculations and misunderstandings continue to be made. That the same problem affects the domestic dialogue of the deaf that represents the Leave-Remain debate is hardly a cause for consolation.

The cost of the failures resulting from that lack of empathy on both sides is profound and on both sides (EU and UK) results from an excess of introspection and a lack of imagination. Nor are those failures necessarily over and some of the worst may yet be to come.

You might think that the European Council was clear in its statement that any A50 extension beyond April 12 was conditional on passing the Withdrawal Agreement (in which case it would be to May 22), or on presenting a clear alternative way forward which implicitly is both credible and deliverable but that the Withdrawal Agreement is a sine qua non whatever else might be proposed or agreed. Apparently not.

This is important because without the Commons’ approval of the WA there can be no agreement and, quite possibly, no further extension: Britain would leave the European Union without a deal a week on Friday.

Since the start of the year, I’ve thought that when it came down to it, enough Labour MPs would come to the government’s rescue to see it over the line precisely because of the risk of No Deal. No longer. Labour remains remarkably united in opposition to the deal (which is commonly referred to as May’s Deal but which is just as much – probably much more, in fact – the EU’s deal). Without the DUP and without 20-30 ultras on her own benches, May cannot get her deal ratified without Labour support, official or otherwise.

Here again the bedevilment of introspection and distraction strikes. Parliament will spend Monday and possibly Wednesday of next week debating options for Phase 2 of Britain’s withdrawal; the nature of the future relationship post-transition. However, without an agreed exit to Phase 1, this is not just pointless but delusional. It’s not so much rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic as heading back down to the Dining Room and arguing over whether to order venison or lamb.

When the EU talks of “the UK indicating a way forward”, it does not mean re-writing the Future Relationship (though it is open to that, within limits); it means that if the WA will remain unagreed beyond a further short extension, then either some extra-parliamentary political process that will lead to either the Agreement’s ratification, or an outright reversal of Brexit. Nothing else makes sense.

Some will argue that there is in fact an overlap; that the government could gain approval for its Withdrawal Agreement if it were to link it to either a permanent customs union post-transition, or a second referendum (details to be confirmed – don’t think these would be trivial), or both. In one sense that’s true but there’s a political problem here. While those two options did come closest to gaining the House’s support last week, they did so almost entirely off the back of the votes of opposition MPs. Tories were almost entirely opposed. Even if the government were to try to make the linkage, it’s difficult given May’s weak authority to believe that it could carry it through. The No Confidence vote in Dominic Grieve from his constituency association last night could well be indicative of a new and unwelcome front in the battle; one which makes the scope for compromise still harder.

Where does this leave us? Whatever the House decides next week – which may well be that it still doesn’t like any of the options unless artificially forced into supporting one through preferential voting, which isn’t really of much use – the fundamental question on the Withdrawal Agreement will remain unanswered. At some point reality will bite in an unpleasant way, possibly at the European Council meeting due on April 10. As Sabine Weyand noted yesterday, the Commission regards No Deal as a likely outcome, with what appears to be a large degree of acceptance. By contrast, to the extent that the Commons considers No Deal to be a risk, it’s a distant or conceptual one; this unreality is not helpful.

One scenario which I haven’t seen mentioned before but which I think we should now take seriously is the possibility of a post-Brexit ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement. If Britain does sleepwalk into a No Deal Brexit, the awakening won’t be a happy one – not for Britain but also not for the EU and especially Ireland. And despite every attempt to kill it off, the Withdrawal Agreement would still be there, unloved but available (Bercow permitting, though he’d find it hard to stand in the way of the will of the House, should such a will exist). For want of anything better, it could probably still be agreed: Article 50 isn’t entirely unambiguous on the point but to me, the wording doesn’t suggest that the window for concluding the agreement closes when the departing state leaves. Indeed, it would be bizarre were such a bar to exist – and if one doesn’t exist, then why not use what’s already there?

Of course, implementing the Agreement would have huge domestic consequences. The DUP, who would accept Remain or No Deal but practically nothing in between, would probably withdraw support from the government, leading to a general election. The Conservatives would be split and led by a lame-duck leader. Labour would have finally, in some numbers anyway, backed the Tory Withdrawal Agreement, and would be split between Rejoiners (who might see the transition period as the last realistic option to get back in before divergence takes place), and those who accept the fact of Brexit and want to move on.

That, however, is several moves down the line. Before then, we have the small matter of seeing the wood out of the trees these next two weeks.

David Herdson