Fringe Box



Letter: The Most Likely Brexit Options

Published on: 14 Dec, 2018
Updated on: 14 Dec, 2018

From David Roberts

In response to: Democracy Demands a Second Referendum

For what it’s worth, this is how a retired diplomat who was deeply involved in the Maastricht negotiations sees current prospects for Brexit:

1. Hardly anyone wants “no deal”. That doesn’t stop it now being one of the two most likely outcomes. In international affairs, just because no-one wants something doesn’t mean it won’t happen (like the partition of Ireland 100 years ago). But arguably this week’s parliamentary amendments already establish a House of Commons veto on this option.

2. A second referendum is becoming the other likeliest outcome. It would be perfectly constitutional, especially if (as is probable) the question is different. There are 1.6 million new voters than there were in 2016, and a million or so of those who voted then (mainly Leavers) have died. Give the vote to 16-17-year-olds, as in the Scottish referendum, and the electorate would be a substantially different lot of people. The result would not be a foregone conclusion, though whoever loses would certainly feel sore. But, there again, they do already.

3. “Norway plus” (ie EFTA/EEA membership, with maybe a customs union). A compromise which is probably too late to negotiate and so far has the support of only about 100 backbenchers. A much softer Brexit than the May compromise, since it maintains freedom of movement and most of the obligations/benefits of EU membership without a seat at the table. There is an old Brussels saying: if you are not at the table, you are on the menu. OK for small hanger-on countries such as Norway, but why throw away the chance of a bespoke arrangement?

4. The May compromise (or a tweaked version of it). With perhaps 150 Tories against it, hard to see how it can pass unless she persuades Labour backbenchers to defy their party whip. This would require an imaginative political coup (not the sort of thing May is noted for) such as the promise of a general election or a confirmatory referendum in, say, May 2019. But first, the country needs to grow up and understand that you can leave the EU but you can’t leave Europe.

The only Brexit deal ever negotiable has always been one that involves quitting the EU legally but staying put in practice – hence the transition periods, backstops and all the rest that hard Brexiteers despise. It is fanciful to suppose different negotiators could ever (or still can) get a materially better deal, since we have the weaker hand: Brexit is patently more important to the UK than the 27, and the idea of Boris negotiating anything is laughable.

Anyway, there is no time: the 27 won’t agree to extend the Article 50 period except to accommodate a General Election or a second referendum, since it would bump up against the EU parliament elections in May and the appointment of a new Commission in September.

Conclusion: Having thrown their tantrums, MPs should swallow hard and accept whatever legal/political gloss May agrees to the backstop and vote her deal through albeit on the completely specious grounds that this is an entirely new deal. Logically, Brexit cannot be reconciled with the Good Friday Agreement, since you can’t have strong borders on the one hand and no border on the other. This was clear from the outset. Ergo, the only answer must be a fudge. They should have their fudge and eat it.

But the Unionists are not the only ones in the grip of Brexit cognitive dissonance. If logic doesn’t prevail, which it may not, then as-yet-unknown twists and turns will probably lead to a second referendum and a vote to stay in – on existing terms. Thanks to the European Court we can do that, some consolation in the midst of this sorry mess.

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