LONDON CORRESPONDENT: As Britain prepares to formally leave the European Union on March 29, little seems to have changed despite frenetic activity. A dozen or so MPs have defected to form a new cross-party political grouping; there are fresh challenges to Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn …
But the choice facing the UK is exactly the same as it was at Christmas: accept lousy terms in return for a smooth sort-of-exit or leave without an agreement and try to patch up the useful bits of the broken relationship.
The hard choice arises because the EU is not offering reciprocity in the new relationship. It wants the UK to compromise its sovereignty, comply with EU market rules, limit its ability to trade freely with other countries and pay money as the price of preferential access to each other’s markets.
There are many ways to describe this proposal but it’s hard to say it’s Brexit. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, has been alternating between selling this deal (first to her party, then to a majority of MPs) and trying to get a better deal from Europe, unsuccessfully in all cases so far.
What you think about this depends on who you are.
Remainers say “this proves how stupid Brexit is, we must stay in Europe“; leavers respond “we were idiots to expect a fair deal, its cleaner and cheaper to leave the EU without one“.
Britain’s parliament has not taken control – perhaps because it embodies both these responses to the existential choice and has not been able to summon a clear and unambiguous majority for either.
May has avoided the choice so far by saying she can negotiate a better deal. But at a certain point, avoidance is no longer possible. Indefinite delay becomes the same as staying in Europe.
That point looks pretty near. As the pressure builds, three things could happen before March 29.
- First, the EU can make last-minute concessions to improve the deal.
- Second, the Government gets massive support for Mrs May’s deal from pro-EU Labour MPs terrified that Britain will leave without a deal on 29 March. (These two could conceivably occur singly or together).
- Third, the Government can ask the EU for an extension (you know – to keep negotiating with the people who have said the negotiation is over).
Travelling to an EU-Arab League summit in Egypt, May is reported to have ruled out holding another so-called “meaningful vote” this week. But she said MPs will be able to have a fresh vote on the Brexit deal by March 12.
This delay in a House of Commons vote will put pressure on Labour MPs (as mentioned in the second point above). If she were to win that vote, the fracture in the Conservative party would be complete.
It would be a huge irony if Britain left the EU only because the EU offered unbalanced terms and the pro-EU faction in the UK rejected even this basis for settlement.
Leavers might swallow a short extension, which would help in finalising Britain’s scrambling preparations for a ‘no-deal‘ exit. But the terms would be crucial.
If the extension changed the fixed withdrawal date to a contingent one (say one requiring an affirmative vote in Parliament), they would fear – probably rightly – that the Government had given up on Brexit. That would have two effects: it would prolong the uncertainty over Britain’s political and economic direction and it would intensify the already-ferocious power struggle between the leave and remain factions in the government and in the opposition parties.
All bets would be off.