Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
What will happen with Brexit? It’s the political question of the moment. And it’s also somewhat unanswerable. Since the Government’s botched handling of its Chequers proposals, the divides in the Conservative Party seem cavernous. Can a majority be found in the divided Commons for any sort of Brexit? Equally with Brussels’s intransigence over the Irish border question, it’s possible that both sides will be unable to come to an overall agreement. However, some sort of deal on the terms of exit remains the most likely scenario. But we will know more about the future of Brexit in the months ahead.
Despite the profusion of new groups forming to oppose the Chequers plans and recent critical comments by Michel Barnier about those plans, the question of the UK’s future relationship with the EU isn’t actually directly crucial to Brexit itself. Parliamentarians in the UK may demand details of the future relationship to be spelled out (threatening otherwise to vote down the deal). But in terms of the negotiations, the only determinant of whether we leave with a deal, and hence with a transition or not, is getting the withdrawal agreement over the line. The withdrawal agreement – primarily about money, nationals and Ireland – is largely complete, but the issue of the Irish backstop remains unsolved.
Can it be solved? Perhaps not, and therein lies the risk of a no deal exit. As ever, part of the problem has been the UK Government’s inaction and inability to make any sort of decision in a timely fashion. And part of the problem is also intransigence from the Brussels side, and a seeming refusal to recognise that imposing a hard internal customs border within the UK would be an impossibility for any political party. An additional complication is the absence of a functioning assembly in Northern Ireland.
The British Government has been saying for months that it will not accept a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. But the penny only seemed to drop when the Government accepted an amendment to the Trade Bill to this effect which was originally proposed by the ERG. On this question, the Commons didn’t even divide. When I spoke to London-based diplomats from EU countries before they went off on their summer break, there was some genuine shock that this amendment had ruled out various options for the Irish backstop, as if they hadn’t quite grasped that even pro-EU MPs would not want Northern Ireland in an entirely separate customs regime from the rest of the country.
Dominic Raab has accelerated the pace of talks with Barnier over the last few weeks. His team will be working with their counterparts on the EU side to seek to find a ‘way through’ on the Irish backstop question. Some argue that the UK can sign off on an undesirable version of the backstop, confident in the knowledge it wouldn’t be used. But that seems a very risky strategy. On the other hand, the EU side are refusing to accept a backstop applying to the whole of the UK. So the options for a fudge are limited, even though one is sorely needed.
Theresa May will hope to press her case face-to-face with the EU leaders and to impress on them the risks of a no deal exit, for both sides. But, although she has been meeting EU leaders individually, the next opportunity for her to push for a breakthrough will come at the European Council meeting later this month in Salzburg. We shouldn’t hold our breath, though, despite the desire of the Austrians (who hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union) to achieve some progress on the Brexit impasse.
Although a breakthrough then is unlikely, May will hope that the Government’s Chequers plan will convince the EU that the UK is willing to compromise to deliver a good Brexit, and therefore that she should have some goodwill. She will surely remind the assembled leaders that she has already had her Brexit Secretary and Foreign Secretary resign, and her political space to move further is very limited.
The Prime Minister’s next moment to turn on her charm will come at October’s Council meeting. After that, there’s the prospect of an emergency meeting to allow the leaders to meet again at some point in November. By then, the timetable will be getting tight, and the UK may have to begin to activate plans for a no deal exit – some aspects of these need quite a significant lead time. There also needs to be time to pass the relevant legislation through the Commons (allowing for a meaningful vote) and through the EU side, including the European Parliament. The Commons will be asked to vote on the withdrawal agreement which will spell out the terms of exit, plus include a political declaration on the future relationship. If the Commons votes it down then that would not in of itself stop Brexit – the Article 50 clock would still time out by April 2019, and the UK would be out but there would likely be no transition.
It’s seem unlikely at this point that Parliament will have the opportunity to vote directly on Chequers itself, unless backbenchers and the Opposition engineer some sort of debate and then division on it. But that would be of limited effect. It might be possible for the Commons to try to amend the implementation legislation for the withdrawal agreement to rule out a Chequers-style arrangement with the EU, but it’s not clear what that would actually mean for the negotiations.
Over the weekend, Nick Boles launched a campaign arguing for the UK to leave the EU but temporarily to remain in the EEA. This so-called ‘Norway then Canada’ option is attractive in various ways, and is also backed by Open Europe advisory council member George Trefgarne who is writing for this site this morning. However, whatever its attractiveness in policy terms (and I myself believed back in January 2017 that the UK should leave the EU in this manner), it’s hard to see how May could now make it work in political terms. Nonetheless, the possibility of the Government reaching for the EEA as an emergency off-the-shelf transition if all else breaks down should not be discounted, and it might have some attractiveness for Brexiteers keen to ‘reset’ the negotiations.