The UK House of Commons will vote on coming Tuesday, January 15, 2019, on the Brexit deal agreed by the Conservative government led by PM Theresa May and the European Union, ratified by all its 27 member states. The vote to approve the deal was to be held five weeks ago, but May postponed it anticipating defeat by a big margin, including nays by many of her own Tory MPs. PM May spent the intervening period trying to get written clarifications or notes from the EU which she hoped would sway at least some MPs back to her side, but all indications are this gambit has not succeeded. Most commentators expect the deal to be defeated come Tuesday.
This will open up yet another Pandora’s Box in the tortuous Brexit saga. The EU has repeatedly stated that this is the best and only Brexit deal possible, and that it will not re-negotiate it. So, where does that leave the UK and the mandate received from the referendum to exit the EU? Three broad scenarios appear likely after Tuesday, although there are ifs, buts and maybes associated with each of them, as with all Brexit issues.
First, the UK could simply give up and crash out of the EU on March 29, 2019 as scheduled without any deal, a prospect favoured by some hard Brexiteers in the Tory ranks, who pooh-pooh apocalyptic fears evoked by this option. However, sufficient MPs on both the sides have been scared enough to come together last week and push through a rare majority vote in the Commons rejecting a “no-deal Brexit.” But, of course, that leaves unanswered the question of if not this deal, and also no “no-deal,” then what? Having failed to shift the needle, PM May and the senior Cabinet colleagues in her camp, are now resorting to scare tactics, raising the spectre of a no deal Brexit or lately even no Brexit at all!
Second, some messy compromise could be cobbled out of the utter confusion that prevails in Parliament. No formulation, however, appears to have anything close to a majority.
Third, the issue could be kicked down the road, and a postponement of the March 29 deadline sought from the EU, which itself is not certain to be granted as it requires ratification by all 27 EU states, some of whom are tired of the Brexit drama.
Some other alternatives have also been proposed. A campaign for another referendum, a so-called People’s Vote, is gathering momentum. Argument is that no idea commands a majority in Parliament, and while the people had earlier voted to leave the EU, they were insufficiently aware of the repercussions and different options available for leaving or for relations with the EU after. Others, however, consider this anathema and a betrayal of the people’s mandate, the counter being that a People’s Vote is no less democratic than the earlier referendum!
Yet another choice, demanded by the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, is for a general election if the government loses on Tuesday. It is not at all clear how that would resolve any of the tangled issues bedevilling Brexit, though, since the EU has repeatedly refused to renegotiate the deal which Labour says would be taken up. Further, a fresh election cannot be called before 2022, unless of course, the Theresa May government is defeated in a no-confidence vote that Corbyn has promised will be tabled a few days after the deal is defeated, and no alternative government can be formed.
To help readers stop their heads spinning, and unpack the Brexit conundrum at least somewhat, a brief recap of the deal and the referendum results, the opinions and concerns of different political Parties, other major players, and sections of the electorate may help.
The deal itself is essentially a 588-page Withdrawal Agreement pursuant to the invocation of EU Article 50 by the UK following the referendum. In brief, a transition period of 18 months will ensue after March 29, 2019, extendable by a maximum of two years i.e. till December 31, 2022, during which the UK must abide by all EU rules but without any participation in any EU institutions – legislative, regulatory or administrative. Not exactly “taking back control,” as the ‘Leave’ slogan says! However, this period would be useful for businesses to adjust to the WTO rules that would succeed the divorce, and for the UK and EU to agree on new stable arrangements. Citizens of the EU and UK currently or during transition residing in the respective other territories would retain their rights to work, residence, welfare etc. and, if residence exceeds five years, would be eligible for permanent residency. However, there are many grey and yet unresolved areas in this regard.
There is a divorce bill, of course, estimated to be around £39 billion including annual payments during transition amounting to around £10 billion, which has led to much grumbling in the UK since the bill comes without any certainty about what the new UK-EU relations would look like.
The most contentious aspect, and almost the deal breaker, is the so-called Irish Backstop. This is a provision necessitated because of the virtually open border with free movement of goods and people between Northern Ireland, a part of the UK, and the independent Republic of Ireland, South of the border which is an EU member. This arrangement was agreed as part of the Good Friday Agreement which brought an end to the long-lasting armed conflict between militant (mostly Catholic) Republican forces in Northern Ireland favouring unification of the Island of Ireland, and (mostly Protestant) Unionist forces and Britain itself which together form the United Kingdom. Question is how is this arrangement to be preserved when the UK leaves the EU and when, unless otherwise provided for, customs and passport barriers must again come up between the independent South and Northern Ireland? And if this does happen, it raises the fear of the armed militancy breaking out again.
The Backstop states that, if no permanent arrangement is agreed by December 2020 that prevents a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, then a single customs territory between the EU (of which the Irish Republic is a part) and the UK (of which Northern Ireland is a part) will be triggered, leaving the open border within the Island of Ireland undisturbed. As far as customs rules are concerned, in effect, the UK will then be governed by EU rules in which it has no say, and also cannot leave it without agreement by the EU.
The 10-MP Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, on which the Theresa may government depends for its parliamentary majority, has categorically rejected the backstop, and therefore the deal itself, but has not suggested any concrete alternative. Many Tories and other MPs are also very upset with this provision.
The outcome on Tuesday, and after, will be shaped by the contours of the responses of the political parties and different sections of the public to the referendum, the basic pattern of which seems to have shifted somewhat, but not overmuch since then.
The two major British Parties, Conservative and Labour, are both divided, the former more than the latter. Many leading Tories, who had also campaigned for ‘Leave’ in the referendum as then permitted by their party, are hard Brexiteers wishing to regain nation’s autonomy in decision-making and would prefer to exit the EU even without a deal.
Labour, which campaigned for ‘Remain’ with the slogan “remain and reform,” opposes the deal, and would prefer to stay in a reformed customs union and common market, an option favoured by all major trade unions as enabling greater employment potential. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn himself is widely believed to be an old-style socialist to the left of the most trade unions and a reluctant European. Complicating matters for Labour, a large section of traditionally labour-supporting blue-collar workers, especially in England, voted ‘Leave’ due to fears that an increasingly neo-liberal EU favouring big business, austerity, lower social spending, flexible labour-markets with immigration across borders within it, has not been and will not be in their interests, as evidenced by falling economic and living standards, and closures of factories and small businesses especially in provincial England. It is not known if this perception has changed much since the referendum.
On the other hand, London and its surroundings voted substantially for ‘Remain’. People in the financial districts in London, businesses, services and other professionals including academics that see advantage in job mobility across the EU, had voted ‘Remain’, and are leading the clamour for a People’s Vote. Labour has not committed itself to this idea unless all else fails, but Corbyn’s priority is clearly a general election.
Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to ‘Remain’, the former quite heavily with the pro-independence Scottish nationalists supporting this option, as did the Republican parties in the latter. (In this sense, it was England outside London that determined the ‘Leave’ outcome of the referendum.) Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party also championed for ‘Remain’. So, did the Communists, other Left, Socialist and Workers’ Parties. The Liberal Democratic Party has always been ardently pro-European. All these Parties have also extended their support to a People’s Vote.
It now remains to be seen how all this plays out on and after Tuesday’s crucial vote. Watch this space!