By Arab News
By Cornelia Meyer*
Monday night saw a frantic last dash to Strasbourg by British Prime Minister Theresa May. The EU subsequently agreed to a series of compromises and she emerged with three documents modifying the contentious Northern Irish backstop. The backstop had been devised to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic in case the UK and EU could not reach a trade deal. It was a bone of contention for many, especially the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 MPs prop up May’s minority government, because it could potentially have left a permanent border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
When May reached the agreement, “uber Brexiteer” and head of the Conservative Party’s European Research Group (ERG) Jacob Rees-Mogg was more conciliatory than usual, stating that his vote would be informed by the verdict of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and the DUP’s position.
On Tuesday morning, Cox firmly put a nail in the coffin of the PM’s hopes of winning the meaningful vote on her Brexit deal. He proclaimed that, while the amendments made a permanent backstop politically far less likely, it did not eliminate the legal risk entirely — however small that risk was. This swayed the DUP, the ERG and others.
May lost by 149 votes, which throws open all options. On Wednesday evening, the House was scheduled to vote on eliminating no deal. It was widely expected to rule out a no-deal scenario and opt for an extension of Article 50 on Thursday.
The strain showed in May’s croaking voice when she defended her deal for several hours before the vote. Physical feebleness is never good for a leader ahead of a watershed moment — as a side note and comparison, think of President Gerald Ford falling down the steps when getting off Air Force One during an election campaign or President George H.W. Bush fainting at a state dinner in Japan (neither managed to get re-elected afterwards). The poignant moment came when May announced after the defeat that the next day’s vote on no deal was free: She ceded power from the executive to the legislature. This is an age-old fight between governments and Parliament, to which up to now no sitting government yielded of its own free will. The squabble has become an ever more pronounced undercurrent as the Brexit saga unfolded.
So, what now? We know about the votes, but we have no idea what is to follow. Will May stay or will she have to go? Will there be further resignations from her Cabinet? Will there be a second referendum or a general election? How long should the extension of Article 50 last and will the EU’s 27 other member states agree? Will the UK leave without a deal or will it remain after all? It is a mess and the outcome is uncertain. Nobody — except for some of the hard-line Brexiteers — wants a no-deal Brexit. However, if Parliament cannot agree on a way forward or if the EU refuses to grant an extension, we may end up there by default.
The problem is that Brexit has not just been divisive among the electorate; it has also split the main parties. The Conservatives have the ERG, those who want a second referendum and those supporting May’s deal. Labour is torn between MPs from constituencies in the south, which voted to remain, and their colleagues representing a northern electorate that wanted to leave. One observer summed it up by saying: “Theresa May has lost her voice and Labour has nothing to say.” This is a mild assessment of the situation.
Meanwhile, there is the Scottish National Party and the Scots to consider. They voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU and recently there has been ever more talk about a second Scottish independence referendum. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon expressed fury, calling the government incompetent and bemoaning the fact that May had never really engaged with Edinburgh in a meaningful way.
As for the EU, the body language of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke volumes during Monday night’s press conference. He really saw no point in revising agreements if they were all but certain to be voted down the next day. He said that politics sometimes afforded second chances; then it mattered whether one was able to seize them or not. He was unequivocal that there would be no third chance.
An extension will be tricky, mainly because of the elections to the EU Parliament in late May. If the UK wants to delay much beyond that point, the question will be how to handle the situation. Fielding candidates is a legal obligation for every member country. The current EU Parliament also stands behind May’s deal and newly elected MEPs may see things differently, which would put us back to square one. France’s Emmanuel Macron and Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite have already flagged that they would veto an extension if the UK could not come up with a clear road map. An extension requires the unanimous approval of all 27 member governments.
As of Wednesday, there were just 16 days left until Brexit day. This is not enough time to reach a consensus in a deeply divided Parliament, especially when the government’s leader feels uncomfortable reaching across the aisle for consultations, let alone finding a compromise.
The danger of crashing out of the EU without a deal by default rather than by design is clear, present and very real. The government is ill-prepared for a no-deal Brexit, only announcing its new tariff policy on Wednesday morning. Borders, ports and airports are not prepared. Business is in limbo. Supply chains, exports, the NHS and the financial sector, which is a large part of the UK’s economy, are gravely affected by this situation. Nobody in their right mind wants to invest in a country where uncertainty runs amok. The ramifications of a no-deal Brexit will affect everybody across business and the entire population.
Wherever we end up, the last two years have affected Britain’s standing in the world well beyond Europe. Hitherto, the country was widely admired for its diplomatic skills. Indeed, it punched way above its weight on the international stage. The Brexit saga has revealed a country that lacks a sense of direction. Worse, the UK seems incapable of ushering through its domestic agreements, which were negotiated in good faith.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources