“Love is blind, and lovers cannot see”, says Jessica, daughter of Shylock, in The Merchant of Venice. And, while we can only guess what Shakespeare would have made of the tragicomical farce that is Brexit, with its unappealing cast of posh boys, snake-oil merchants and sovereignty-mad aristocrats, he probably would have come up with a more dramatic final scene than that which we are going to be forced to sit through a few weeks from now. Because you can forget about Canada Minus, Norway Plus, the slightly less titillating Jersey Model, the fantastical Chequers Plan, or a shit-your-pants exciting ‘no deal’ Brexit – we are sleepwalking (or, more accurately, sleep-stumbling) towards an anticlimactic Blind Brexit.
In recent weeks, with the point at which there is still time to negotiate any of the above ‘final deals’ having long passed, lots of journalists and policy analysts, and a few MPs, have been working themselves into a frenzy over the likelihood – and likely cataclysmic consequences – of a ‘no deal’ outcome to the current negotiations with the EU27. And they have been ably assisted by clueless Ministers uttering not entirely reassuring assurances that “there will be adequate food” after the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019. One group of ‘leading social scientists’ has even put the chances of there being a ‘no deal’ Brexit at “around 50%”.
A ‘no deal’ Brexit would indeed be chaotic and extremely damaging, to both the UK and the EU27. Which, as Jonathan Lis of the think tank British Influence and others have pointed out, is why it is (almost certainly) not going to happen. I’ve included that ‘almost certainly’ because, with irrational actors like Liam Fox and Dominic Raab around, anything is possible, and there can be no absolute certainty about anything Brexity.
But the bottom line is that, whatever they might say in public, both sides are desperate to avoid a ‘no deal’ outcome to the current negotiations – the EU27 want their £35-39bn (the financial settlement agreed in March), and an orderly, treaty-based departure of the UK, while Theresa May does not want to go down in history as the PM who presided over food rations, fuel and medicines being delivered by the army, in peacetime. Oh, and a ‘no deal’ outcome would be very bad for Michel Barnier’s burning ambition to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the EU Commission in 2019. Never underestimate the power of personal ambition.
On top of that desperation lies the fact that the currently stalled negotiations with the EU27 are less a negotiation than a bureaucratic process. More to the point, it is the EU’s bureaucratic process, and the UK negotiators (in the form of David Davis, when he could be bothered to turn up, and now the ventriloquist dummy Dominic Raab and his operator, Olly Robbins) have been monstered by Michel Barnier and his team at every turn.
From the ‘staged approach’ to the negotiations, under which the UK’s disentanglement from the EU has had to be sorted before the future relationship can be discussed (remember ‘this will be the row of the summer’?), to the £35-39bn financial settlement (remember ‘go whistle’?), to the still not resolved NI border issue, Barnier has called all the shots. And, in doing so, he has simply carried out the mandate handed to him by the EU27 a few days after Theresa May stupidly triggered Article 50 before working out what she and her Cabinet actually want Brexit to mean.
As Tim Durrant of the Institute for Government and others have noted, what this process will deliver – what it can only deliver – is what it was designed (by the EU27) to deliver: a Blind Brexit, consisting of a Withdrawal Agreement covering the financial settlement (sorted), the transition period (sorted), citizens rights (almost sorted) and the NI border issue (not yet sorted), plus a quite possibly vague and definitely non-binding, so (almost certainly) meaningless, Political Declaration on the future relationship.
Work on turning that Political Declaration into a legally-binding treaty (or ‘final deal’) will not start until after the UK has left the EU. But it is the content of this non-binding Political Declaration that the UK and EU27 should have been discussing during the second phase of the negotiations that opened after the joint report of last December.
Instead, the negotiations have been stuck on trying to sort out the 20% of the draft Withdrawal Agreement that remained to be agreed when the draft was published in March. So, as of 24 July, when Robbins and Raab appeared before the DExEU committee of MPs (see Q2409), there was not even a first draft of a Political Declaration. (And, since 26 July, the two negotiating teams have not met – they next meet on 16 and 17 August).
One week later, a senior EU official told the Guardian that the Political Declaration could be as little as four sides of paper, as “we have not time to thrash out the details”. Quite. And, on 2 August, Michel Barnier himself said “we will not know what the future relationship will bring by Autumn 2018”.
However, if both sides want to avoid ‘no deal’, which they do, then completion of the Withdrawal Agreement (80% done, remember) and cobbling together a basic, all-things-to-all-people Political Declaration is the only game in town. Indeed, that is pretty much what the Government itself says, in its latest white paper, Legislating for the Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU, published on 24 July.
Sure, that means finding some form of compromise on the NI border issue but, as others have noted, the EU is a master at cooking up last-minute fudges on difficult issues that can, at a squeeze, be put off to another day. On 25 July, the Telegraph reported that “after 16 months of facing off over the most politically sensitive issue in the EU-UK divorce, creative solutions are now being considered by both sides”. And the NI border issue can be put off, at a squeeze, as strictly speaking it does not need to be resolved until the end of the transition period, in December 2020.
In short, by far the most likely outcome to the current impasse – much, much more likely than ‘no deal’ – is completion of the Withdrawal Agreement at the October EU Council meeting, and the UK’s departure from the EU on 29 March 2019, without anyone knowing what the future relationship between the UK and the EU27 will look like. Or, more accurately, with everyone from Boorish Johnson to your next-door neighbour having their own interpretation of what the future relationship will look like. Nice.
“But the Brexiteers will never swallow that”, I hear you shout. But they will, because their long-dreamed of prize will be just weeks away, and by then the only realistic alternative will be not ‘no deal’, but no Brexit. The UK Government and EU27 will have shaken hands on the deal, neither side will want to re-open the negotiations, and MPs will be presented with a fait accomplis: vote for the Withdrawal Agreement; vote against the Withdrawal Agreement, and crash out with ‘no deal’; or cancel Brexit and stay in the EU. And there is simply no majority in the Commons for either ‘no deal’ or ‘stay in the EU’. This was always going to be the case, and the bitterly fought for meaningful vote was never going to be meaningful.
This may or may not be why some Remainer MPs have put all their eggs in the People’s Vote basket. But if Brexit is blind, and MPs cannot see the future relationship, then the voters will be no better sighted, and any People’s Vote would simply be reduced to a no doubt divisive re-run of the in/out farce of June 2016. For Leavers like Liam Fox it would be the easiest political campaign in history, to make up for not getting the easiest trade deal in history.
But for us Remainers it would be the opposite. What, exactly, would we campaign for, or against? As Anand Menon of UK in a Changing Europe said trenchantly late last month: “phrased as vaguely as the time constraints imply it must be, [the Political Declaration] will not provide a firm basis for informed debate. Instead, expect another campaign replete with competing claims about competing futures.”
Furthermore, as both the Institute for Government (see pp 24-25) and the UCL Constitution Unit have noted, holding a People’s Vote on the outcome of the negotiations would be “fraught with difficulties and added complexities”. Not the least of which would be that, given the time needed to pass the necessary primary legislation, make preparations for the ballot, and hold a meaningful campaign, an extension of the two-year Article 50 period beyond 29 March 2019 would be necessary. However, there are European Parliament elections due only two months later, on 23-26 May 2019, which would raise complex legal questions about the UK’s participation in those elections, were the extension of the UK’s membership of the EU to go beyond that point.
In any case, there will only be a People’s Vote if Theresa May decides it would be in her best interest for her to hold one. Which it would be, if she could be sure of winning it, since that would give her Withdrawal Agreement-based ‘deal’ legitimacy and quite possibly firm up her grip on the keys to Downing Street. But, if she’s not sure she can win it, then there (almost certainly) won’t be one. For the chances of at least 40 Tory MPs voting against her on the issue – as would be necessary, since there are at least 15 Labour MPs who would vote with the Government, regardless of their Party’s position – are negligible.
In short, the Brexit towards which we are sleepwalking while MPs holiday will be Blind, and neither they nor the voting public will see or know the future beyond.