By Arab News
By Cornelia Meyer*
To say that British politics is in an unhappy place right now is probably the understatement of all time. The Brexit saga goes on and on in never-ending circles, never achieving a conclusion. The Financial Times described the withdrawal agreement (the 585-page, legally binding divorce agreement between the EU and the UK) as being in a comatose state.
Prime Minister Theresa May has twice failed miserably when she tried to push her Brexit deal through Parliament. Earlier this week, she seemed to make some progress in as much as some members of the Conservative Party’s European Research Group, who are strong advocates of Brexit, said they might vote for her package this time. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose MPs prop up May’s minority government, also seemed to be coming round after Lord Trimble said he felt that the PM had obtained sufficient concessions from Brussels about the duration of the Irish backstop. Trimble is an important voice when it comes to the Northern Ireland issue because he was one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Ulster after decades of sectarian strife.
Some MPs from Labour and other opposition parties were also willing to vote with the government, not because they liked the deal but because they wanted to avoid a no-deal Brexit at all costs. It is still doubtful that May would have obtained sufficient numbers to pass her Brexit deal, but she had a better chance than ever before.
The chances of resolving the Brexit issue once and for all looked vaguely possible until the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow put a spanner in the works by advising the government he would only allow the bill to be voted on for a third time if there were material changes. He argued that he would not allow the same piece of legislation to be brought before the House endlessly, citing an ancient precedent of 1604. It is in the gift of the speaker to allow or deny legislation to be brought to a vote — as much as this frustrates proceedings in this case.
May was backed into a corner, with the Brexit date of March 29 fast approaching. She drafted a letter asking the EU for an extension until June 30 because Britain was not ready to leave. She could only send her note after ministers had seen it in yet another contentious Cabinet meeting. Until after lunch on Wednesday, the EU had no clue how long the PM was asking for. When the President of the European Council Donald Tusk finally received the letter, there was just half a day left until Thursday’s EU summit, when heads of state were due to decide whether or not to grant the extension. Under normal circumstances, the lateness of the request could be interpreted as impolite. In this case, it is a mere reflection of the dysfunctionality of the UK’s government.
Tusk said he thought a short extension should only be granted if the House passed the Brexit deal. He personally would see the need for substantial changes, such as an election or a new referendum, if the UK was seeking a longer extension. A longer extension has one more difficulty: Europeans will head to the polls to elect a new EU Parliament at the end of May. The UK would be legally obliged to field candidates if it planned to stay in the EU beyond the beginning of July, when the new Parliament will sit for the first time. Tusk can opine and advise, but in the end it will be the heads of government of the 27 EU member states who will decide if they want to grant May a short extension.
Nobody in Europe wants to see a no-deal Brexit because it also has economic ramifications for the EU. The UK is one of Europe’s largest trading partners and many industries and supply chains are heavily integrated. When it comes to the financial sector, Frankfurt, Paris, Luxemburg and Dublin have been able to attract many international institutions who wanted to leave the uncertainty of Brexit behind. As much as a trillion dollars is reported to have left the City of London and, with it, many jobs. This being said, Europe as a whole has a big interest in London as a financial hub. If London loses its status, Frankfurt and the like may take on some of it. The real winners, though, will be New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai. The real loser will be Europe as a whole.
All of the above may be true, but EU politicians are exhausted by Brexit, which has dominated most summits. They want to get on with their business. Patience with Britain is not wearing thin; it has run out. True, there were tough moments during the Greek crisis too. However, Greece remained a member of the EU, and its economy is relatively small. Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis may have been obstinate, but they did have that Mediterranean charm that goes down well with Northern Europeans. EU leaders rightfully feel that it does not behove the government of one of the world’s oldest democracies and its fifth-largest economy to behave with such dysfunction.
In the UK, May did not make any friends in Parliament when she explained to the people in a televised address why she had gone for an extension — laying the blame firmly in the court of MPs. There was not a hint of self-doubt. Parliamentarians were enraged, which will do nothing to help her pass the Brexit legislation. As they say in the American Midwest: “It is with honey that you attract bees, not with vinegar.”
Brexit has totally spun out of control and the country is staring a no-deal Brexit in the face, with all its economic ramifications. The people of Britain have been let down by their political classes — big time.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources