New twists in the Brexit tale

There were two big developments yesterday in the continuing drama of Britain’s (possible) withdrawal from the European Union.

The one that got most of the headlines was that prime minister Theresa May has opted not to submit her withdrawal agreement to a vote in the House of Commons this week, acknowledging that it faced certain defeat. Instead, she will hold further talks with Brussels, and parliament will probably not return to the subject until the new year.

But the other move is equally important. The European Court of Justice ruled that, provided it follows its own constitutional procedures, Britain can unilaterally revoke its Article 50 notice of leaving the EU at any time up until a withdrawal agreement enters into force or the two-year notice period expires on 29 March (whichever comes first).

So Britain can change its mind without getting the consent of the other EU members. Otherwise, as the court said, it could “be forced to leave the European Union against its will.”

But it can’t use this as a negotiating ploy: if it revokes the notice, it stays in, period. “The purpose of that revocation is to confirm the EU membership of the Member State concerned under terms that are unchanged as regards its status as a Member State, and that revocation brings the withdrawal procedure to an end.

So Britain has been thrown a lifeline; if in the next three months it can develop a political consensus for remaining in the EU, it can bring this whole sorry saga to a close. But the prospect of consensus, on that or anything else, seems as far away as ever.

May’s decision to walk away from tonight’s promised vote has added further uncertainty to what was already a maze of unknowns. Her agreement would have been voted down, and absent some unexpected new intervention, any lightly revised version will meet the same fate – and light revisions, at most, are all that the other EU leaders will agree to.

So then what happens? There have been various attempts to explain the different options; Katy Balls in (of all places) the Spectator made a good concise effort the other day. But they tend to mix up means and ends, or ultimate outcomes (membership or not, and what sort) with intermediate ones (election, referendum, leadership change, etc.).

Let’s instead start by just looking at the possible end states: where Britain could end up in its relationship with the EU. It seems to me there are five basic options.

  1. Remain. Britain revokes its notice of withdrawal and stays in the EU.
  2. Norway/EFTA. A status like Norway’s or Switzerland’s, where Britain leaves the EU but remains in the customs union and the single market and accepts free movement of people.
  3. Soft Brexit. May’s agreement or something like it; leaving the single market but retaining a close relationship with the EU, remaining in the customs union at least temporarily.
  4. Hard Brexit. Leaving the single market and the customs union immediately, telling Northern Ireland to go fend for itself.
  5. No deal. Same as option 4, but with no agreement to provide any sort of smooth transition.

If MPs were to vote their honest preferences, there is probably a majority for 1., or at least very close to it. Clearly there is nowhere near a majority for anything else. Substantial groups support each of 3. and 4., and a small number would support 2. Almost no-one wants 5.; it’s simply the default that will happen if no other decision can be made.

The only way a majority can be constructed for any option (except, possibly, 1.) is by tactical voting – MPs voting for a less-preferred alternative in the hope of preventing something that by their lights is even worse.

That sort of thing happens in legislatures all the time. But it seems unlikely here. The supporters of 1., the remainers, have little reason to move because they sense that the momentum is on their side, and the ECJ ruling has opened a pathway towards their goal.

The hard Brexiters, on the other hand, although it might be rational for them to shift from 4. to 3. as the only way of saving Brexit, will not do so for the simple reason that they are not rational people – and also because the default, 5., is close enough to their preference to make it in their interest to stymie any alternative decision.

Moreover, the largest single voting bloc, the loyal Labour MPs, although they are all over the place as regards their preferences for Brexit (but mostly 1. or 2.), have a common tactical interest in frustrating anything that the government tries to do, in the hope of forcing a general election that would bring them to power.

It’s hard to see how the Conservative Party can survive this. The only thing that keeps May in the leadership is that the forces on either side of her are reasonably evenly balanced. But if her leadership collapses under the weight of the Brexit contradictions (not to mention its own incompetence), then the party is likely to split down the middle.

Nor is Labour in much better a situation. Its divisions are less obvious at the moment, because the prospect of winning government produces a certain cohesiveness. But they are nonetheless very deep, not just on Brexit but on fundamental questions about what sort of party Labour is supposed to be.

For some ideas about where this could all go, have a read of Stephen Davies’s new essay for the Cato Institute on the global realignment of politics. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I think he’s absolutely right about the basic idea: that the divide between nationalist and cosmopolitan outlooks is going to become the primary axis on which politics is organised, and that divide runs through rather than between most of our existing parties.

But realignment takes time, and with the Brexit clock running out in three and a half months, time is one thing that Britain is short on.

 

7 thoughts on “New twists in the Brexit tale

  1. I think May should have stuck with the vote, and I find it rich that so many are now criticising her for cancelling it when they (and all the MSM) have been screeching that a vote would be a humiliation and her demise, blah, blah. That is just according to some weird interpretation of parliamentary behaviour as there seems no reason why a government should fall from one lost vote (the same idiocy applies here with the antics last week to avoid losing a vote for the first time for 90 years or whatever; one has to say that this is not how a mature democracy should behave, but the press and commentators, the politicians themselves and Westminster convention have locked themselves into it).
    I think a vote could have helped sort the sheep from the wolves, and each MP should/would have been responsible for their vote. The personal consequences for May is hardly the issue at this point. Neither is survival of the Conservatives–except for themselves, and even there …

    As to the choices, it seems a second referendum on these choices (but somehow rendered into a binary–that is the tricky part) will have to be held. I must have some peculiar blindness because I can’t see what advantage the Norway option provides–and especially to Brexiteers; further, apparently any of the EFTA’s three members can exercise a veto which means the UK bending to the will of the 40,000 voters of Lichtenstein! (Hmm, come to think of it, that probably means outsized influence of the 0.01% rich-listers of the City without whom Lichtenstein would be a tiny middle European town we have never heard of.)

    Meanwhile, I am having trouble finding good analysis of whatever Macron said last night. IMO, this is a more important story as it deals with actual real and important issues confronting a lot of the world: inequality, ruling elites, and the EU dilemma. The fracas in the UK is only nominally about their issues with the EU, almost all fake or distorted, and only seen to this day thru the eyes of an infant. It’s like comparing a infant throwing its toys out of the cot, with a group of adults actually trying to resolve serious issues. The former consumes all the attention in the room while it is happening but is utterly inconsequential.

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    1. Thanks Michael. I think it made sense to postpone the vote if she thought she was going to lose particularly badly, and that may very well have been the case – it would have exposed her lack of support within the party and given Labour a big boost in credibility. But her enemies in the party are now moving on her anyway, so it probably hasn’t really helped. Agreed that defeat on an issue like this shouldn’t be fatal for the government; its problem is more that it doesn’t seem to have any sort of fallback plan.

      But part of the problem, of course, is that modern politicians tend overwhelmingly to put their own interests ahead of their party’s, and the party’s ahead of the country’s.

      The Norway option doesn’t seem attractive to me either; you can make a case for it – there’s an Adam Smith Institute paper on it from a while back that’s been circulating this week – but I find it unconvincing. It’s really mostly an option for remainers who think they can’t stop Brexit so this is the next best thing. But yes, the real problem with a second referendum is, what do you ask? The Brexiters will keep insisting that some wonderful leave deal is possible if only they were in power, Labour will want the option of staying in the customs union, and then there’s May’s deal or some new variant of it …

      I also agree that France offers a more serious window into the debate that really matters. I haven’t had time to read the French papers today, but I’ll try to write something on it tomorrow or Friday.

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      1. The fact that her own party has lost faith in her leadership was an entirely predictable result of cancelling the vote; and worse, swearing for weeks it wouldn’t be delayed and then delaying it at the last possible moment. I still think she would have been better off facing up to the vote come what may. Even if she did lose by 100+ she would have gone out with head held high, with almost Thatcherite defiance. This is worse humiliation (though it is really in the eye of the beholder and history might have a different judgment), and assuredly jetting around the EU is not going to produce anything that will convince anyone of anything.
        I really don’t think it would have made things worse. Especially as to whether it is Tories or Labor who rules the UK doesn’t interest me. It would have probably revealed a lot of pollies standing naked, and led to a second “people’s vote”. As it is, if there is going to be a challenge to May it apparently can’t be finalised until January … and then what? They are edging closer to the edge of crashing out.

        I still haven’t read a press report on Macron’s speech that gets beyond the superficial. Though I heard someone–probably BBC World OS radio (on ABC News radio) in the middle of the night–that had a fair interpretation. That Macron did a fair apology without ceding his overall plan, and that while it won’t convince the thugs in Gilets Jaunes, it will tamp down a lot and combined with Christmas and weather it might work to give him more time.
        While I am disappointed that Macron has tended towards the econocrat, I retain a bit of optimism that he might think more carefully about prioritising various policies. Again, why on earth prioritise abolishing the Wealth Tax as it did absolutely zip for the budget, in reality zip to “encouraging” the wealthy to invest more (ridiculous proposition of econocrats) and sent the entirely wrong message to too many voters. I also admit to previously thinking that he had plenty of time, say 4 years, to show progress, but clearly that is not true now, if it ever was. I believe he made this same error and thought he could tough it out before his program would start showing results before his re-election. Of course this makes it almost impossible.
        Incidentally many commentators say that Merkel’s loss of stature is bad news for Macron’s plans for the EU. I never thought Merkel was good news for the kind of changes the EU needs (which mostly is not something Germans will tend to embrace since IMO Germany is a big part of the problem) so IMO a change is good in itself, even if unpredictable (that’s better than Merkel’s utter stasis on almost everything). And with the “Macron and France in trouble” perception it can surely only help convince others in the EU that changes really are required.

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      2. I guess what I am saying for Macron, both domestically and EU-wide, it is a case of “never letting a good crisis go to waste”.
        With Brexit, nah … but they still do need a swift kick to their senses, even if there is little evidence they will use it.

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  2. So, there you go! Despite her poor judgement (again), and all the bloviating by friend and foe, she won. Like I was saying, even if she lost a vote in parliament, IMO it would be a useful exercise. Just like this has revealed all that nonsense from some loud Brexiteers is piss and wind, none more so than the wobbly windbag and cowardice of Boris or the 17th century ramblings of Rees-Mogg. No one is stepping up to take the burden or can propose a solution. And they should really shut up, but of course won’t. This really adds to the momentum building to either delay the exit (entirely within the power of the British parliament now with the Hague court ruling) and/or have a new People’s Vote (one would hope a more orderly and rational one, but, hah, fat chance).

    Incidentally last night I heard (again on that BBC World radio) someone say how there is no precedent anywhere in the world for a solution to the Northern Ireland problem, ie. to have an open border despite completely independent sovereignties. But I am wondering. What about those “anomalies” right in the heart of Europe. Pre-EU, one thinks of Monaco, or Andorra, or more extreme the exclave of Llivia (wholly within France but legally part of Spain) and there is a very weird patchwork of tiny exclaves of Holland within Belgium (IIRC). Now you can say that there is no problem since today they are all part of the EU but Spain/Llivia weren’t for a long time (and Llivia has existed as an exclave for centuries).

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    1. There are plenty of precedents for open borders between sovereign nations. The problem is that if Britain leaves, the internal Irish border becomes, from the EU’s point of view, an external border, and the EU has to be able to control its external borders in order for the single market & free movement to work. Andorra isn’t a problem because you can’t get there without going thru the EU; Monaco you can, but it has a customs union with France. Either the internal Irish border has to have customs & immigration barriers, or Northern Ireland has to be part of the customs union – and if the latter, then either there have to be controls between it & the rest of the UK, or the whole of the UK has to be in it as well.

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