Britain gets a deal, now the chaos begins
After 17 months of torturous negotiations and several rounds of hard bargaining between British prime minister Theresa May and Brussels, Britain recently got an exit deal that has been savaged by both anti-and pro-Brexit members of parliament. However, a determined Mrs May, despite significant dissent, launched a high stakes battle to sell her Brexit deal to the House of Commons and British people, claiming that her deal was the best one for the UK and the only alternatives were no deal, or no Brexit.
Armed with a ‘collective’ decision of her cabinet to press ahead with finalising the deal in Brussels, Mrs May finally brought an end to the debate around Brexit on November 25: at an emergency summit of European Union (EU) leaders, all 27 member states approved Mrs May’s contentious withdrawal agreement and future relationship between the UK and EU, which sets out how the UK and EU will manage issues such as trade after Britain’s exit. However, while the prime minister has warned the British MPs that her deal was the ‘only one on the table’ and that it would not be possible to renegotiate it with the EU, Mrs May’s troubles have not ended.
The November 25 agreement is far from her final hurdle she is likely to face in the mutinous British parliament next week when, after a five-day debate, MPs will vote on the deal on December 11. Having survived so far amidst ministerial resignations and threats of no confidence vote in her leadership over the deal, no one seems to believe that the prime minister can pilot it through the divided parliament. As the numbers look worse, the fate of Mrs May’s premiership also remains uncertain if parliament votes out the deal. The prime minister has to accomplish a feat that almost everyone thinks is impossible. Her foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt admitted that the government could collapse in the next few weeks if it cannot get its Brexit deal through parliament.
But this was not entirely unexpected either. After the self-inflicted blow of historic proportions when Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016 and the way things have panned out in the last one year, it was quite obvious that the UK’s 45-year union was headed for an unhappy and chaotic end. The sorrow expressed at the Brussels summit was evinced entirely by the EU leaders. For them, it was not a ‘day to celebrate’. But politics obliged Mrs May to sound upbeat, though the undoing of her hard-won deal is almost taken for granted. Leave aside her optimism for Britain’s future, the reality is that the loss is entirely Britain’s, simply because no Brexit deal is a good deal for her country and the referendum was a historic mistake inflicted on Britain by Mrs May’s predecessor David Cameron.
By staying in the Union, the UK has had the sweetest deal with the EU, enjoying more of the benefits and suffering less of the burdens of EU membership – UK is outside the euro, has its own currency, it’s not part of the Schengen border-free area and gets a hefty rebate from the EU budget. So, while they were in, UK had many opt-outs, thanks to its geographical size, financial influence and economic standing. After the Brexit vote, Britain wants to opt out with many opt-ins intact. But Brussels says Britain will not be allowed to pick and choose policies that it wants to participate in or abstain from. Now Britain, particularly the Brexiters, has realised that there is no easy, cost-free way of leaving the EU, which became obvious as the promises of an easy and lucrative exit faded gradually.
So, what has Mrs May’s deal in store for Britain? The UK will be out of EU after March 29, 2019, but it will be governed by EU rules for at least two years of the transition period which could be extended, if necessary. Britain will also remain in the customs union till a permanent solution to Irish border issue is found. The three main issues dealt with in the withdrawal agreement are citizens’ rights, the 39 billion pound divorce deal and the problem of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland. On all the three issues, the UK had to give in to EU demands. The most contentious part of the agreement is the mechanism for ending it: a collapse in talks on the future relationship would mean Britain might have to accept European rules and regulations indefinitely. This is unacceptable to hard line Brexiters who have trashed the deal.
Government analysis published on October 28 sees no model of Brexit is better than the deal Britain currently enjoys as member of the EU. Taking a gloomy view, the treasury analysis anticipates slower economic growth under every Brexit scenario: leaving with no deal would shave off 7.7 per cent of GDP by 2036; a softer Brexit would cut 1.4 per cent in growth, while a hard Brexit (the Canadian model) would leave Britain poorer by 4.9 per cent of GDP during the same period. In view of such large scale economic damage, some influential Tory and Labour MPs have suggested a compromise proposal based on membership of European Economic Area plus a negotiated customs union or a Norway-style compromise. But the prime minster has rejected any other plan to her negotiated deal.
The trouble is that everybody hates Mrs May’s version of Brexit. Remainers say that it will damage Britain’s economy compared with staying in the EU. Brexiteers say it doesn’t fulfil their promise to ‘take back control’ of immigration, regulation and trade. So, what happens next? At this stage nobody knows for sure. But several possibilities are being speculated: a second vote on the deal after it goes through minor tweaks; prime minister’s resignation and a new leadership which could offer a softer deal; a no-confidence vote against Mrs May; a general election; a second referendum; or a no deal Brexit.
Members of parliament are unlikely to let a no deal Brexit go ahead. Having lost her parliamentary majority in June 2017 snap poll, it seems unlikely that Mrs May will risk another election when Labour Party is trailing slightly behind Tories. Therefore, a second referendum appears a distinct possibility. If public opinion shifts in favour of remaining in the EU, Brexit could possibly be revered. Brussels would not be averse to the idea.
A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist.