Brexit: Nothing has changed!

Another Monday, another oral ministerial statement to MPs on progress (or not) in the Brexit negotiations. Two weeks ago, following the somewhat less than triumphant informal EU summit in Salzburg, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, Dominic Raab, who hadn’t actually been in Austria, had the job of trying to assure MPs that the negotiations are going swimmingly, despite little if any progress having been made since June. Then, last Monday, it was the turn of the Prime Minister, as John Crace noted in the Guardian, to “come to the Commons to give a statement on what hadn’t happened”.

And yesterday, we got the Full House, as Raab confirmed to MPs, in response to an Urgent Question by Dominic Grieve, that the amendable motion for the so-called meaningful vote may not be so amendable after all, and the Prime Minister revealed, in yet another ministerial statement, that a whopping 95% of the Withdrawal Agreement is now settled. Which sounds impressive, until you remember that the Agreement was supposed to have been 100% settled by last week at the very latest. And that the remaining 5% – the backstop on the Irish border issue – is the tricky bit that’s been holding things up and which might yet bring the whole enterprise crashing down.

So, where does that leave us? Well, three months ago on this blog, I rashly suggested that completion of the Withdrawal Agreement [a mere 80% settled at that point] and cobbling together a basic, all-things-to-all-people Political Declaration [on the future economic and trading relationship] – that is, a Blindfold Brexit – is the only game in town. And, despite the continuing and deeply worrying failure to find agreement on the Irish border issue, I (just about) stand by that prediction.

This is not because Blindfold Brexit is the ‘good deal’ promised by ministers – far from it. You wouldn’t buy a house without knowing how many rooms it has, let alone its location. Yet the Government is about to try and sell Parliament, and the public, a Brexit ‘deal’ under which we won’t find out what kind of future relationship we will have with the EU until after we have left the EU on 29 March 2019 (and quite possibly not until some years after that).

What this means was spelled out recently by Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s former ambassador to the EU, in a speech given in Cambridge that is well worth reading in full:

“If we do stagger over the line with a Withdrawal Agreement, coupled with a pretty thin Political Declaration which all – or enough – can just about swallow, I will make three brief confident predictions about where we shall be in two years.

First, we shall be having precisely the same debate over sovereignty/control versus market access and as frictionless trade as is possible from without as we are now. The trade negotiations, properly starting quite late in 2019 – a year of transition in Brussels and Strasbourg, and with the need for the 27 to agree amongst themselves a complex, detailed negotiating mandate for a new negotiator – will be getting to multiple real crunch issues. The private sector will still be yearning for clarity on where we are going, and not getting much.

The UK political class will, finally, be starting to understand what trade deals are, how mind-numbingly legally complex and turgid their provisions are, and how negotiations work. And that what they view as the essential pluses to make a Canada-style FTA tolerable are precisely the big sticking points.  And that any one of the 27 Member States can come in with killer ‘must have’ demands to which you either find the answer or you lose much more time.

Second, it will be obvious by early autumn 2020 – long before, in reality – that the deal will not be ready by the year end, and that an extension is needed to crack the really tough issues. The EU, in no particular rush to get this done, as it sits rather comfortably with the UK in its status quo transition, with all the obligations of membership and none of the rights, will use the prospective cliff edge to force concessions, or to offer a thinner deal, more skewed to its interests, in the hope that the UK is desperate enough, pre-election, to get it done.

There will be some loud calls to jump to our freedom without a deal, because, over four years on from the referendum, remaining in purgatory transition is intolerable. There will be louder calls not to jump in the year running up to an election, when a breakthrough to an unprecedentedly good free trade deal is just around the corner…

Third, the Irish backstop enshrined in the Withdrawal [Agreement] will still be in place, and no other prospective agreement being yet in sight which obviates the need for it.

As the rebel Tory MP Anna Soubry (❤️ *sighs*) noted during the short debate that followed the PM’s rather uninformative statement yesterday, that is a model of Brexit that “nobody voted for” in June 2016. No one put ‘We’ll be negotiating Brexit, and our politicians will be talking about nothing else, for the next 10 years’ on the side of a big red bus. And, if they had, they would not have won the Referendum.

But Brexit will indeed be Blind, because there simply is not time for the UK and the EU27 to transform a Political Declaration that does not even exist in draft form into a meaningful document encompassing the complexity of the future relationship. The much simpler EU-Canada trade deal took five years, remember. In the words of Sir Simon Fraser, former Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Office, in his oral evidence to the Exiting the EU Committee of MP (see Q2729) on 10 October: “It is going to be a Blind Brexit … that is now pretty well inevitable”.

The only other available option is ‘no deal’. But, as Anand Menon of The UK in a Changing Europe and others have noted, in reality that is not an option, as the UK has simply not made the necessary preparations to avoid weeks or months of chaos. And, when I say ‘chaos’, I mean ‘no food in the shops and no medicines in the hospitals’.

None of this is helpful to those calling for a People’s Vote on the outcome of the negotiations. For the earliest possible date for the so-called meaningful vote by MPs – the first (and almost certainly last) opportunity for Remainer MPs to force a People’s Vote on an unwilling Government – is now 22 November, a few days after the extraordinary EU summit previously pencilled-in for the weekend of 18/19 November but which now may or may not take place. And it could be as late as early December, depending on how long the Government gives MPs to read and debate any ‘Withdrawal Agreement + Political Declaration’ package signed off at that extraordinary summit, should it be resurrected by a breakthrough in the currently deadlocked negotiations.

In its recent report on the mechanics of and timeline for a People’s Vote, the UCL Constitution Unit concluded that it would take a minimum of 22 weeks to pass the necessary primary legislation, complete testing of the ballot question by the Electoral Commission, and hold the 10-week campaign required by law. Which would take us not just beyond 29 March 2019, but smack into the European Parliament (EP) elections scheduled for late May 2019. And, as Agata Gostyńska-Jakubowska and Beth Oppenheim of the Centre for European Reform have noted, “there are practical and political reasons why the EU27 may be reluctant to bend over backwards [and extend the Article 50 period] to facilitate a fresh referendum” that clashes with those EP elections.

In short, while anything could still happen, I see no great reason to change the prediction I made in early August: the UK and EU27 will continue to edge towards a position on the Irish border issue that satisfies both sides, while allowing for (widely) differing interpretations that Theresa May can sell to different audiences, such as the DUP and ERG MPs. Then, at some point in early November, it will be announced that the extraordinary summit is back on, and over the weekend of 18/19 November the UK and EU27 will sign off on Blindfold Brexit. Remainer MPs will then fail to force a People’s Vote on the ‘deal’, and the UK will leave the EU, for an unknown future, on 29 March 2019.

Alternatively, something else may happen.

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About wonkypolicywonk

@wonkypolicywonk is a policy minion who has been lucky enough to work at Maternity Action, Working Families, Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK. He currently bangs his head on a desk in Parliament.
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