It was a remarkable moment when Angela Merkel and the EU at large put the challenge to the Prime Minister to produce a plan to replace the backstop, thus opening an avenue to a new deal that could ensure an orderly exit from the European Union. Political commentators and MPs instantly assumed that the Prime Minister had no concrete proposals, and that his talk of a deal was just bluff and blunder. The then-cabinet minister Amber Rudd, someone who’s always been openly uncomfortable with the idea of leaving, claimed the PM was not going to negotiate and that taking the country out without a Withdrawal Agreement was his real plan. This, in my eyes, was what led to the so-called Surrender Act being passed: this was a defining moment. The act sought to take No Deal off the table by forcing the Prime Minister to request an extension to Article 50.
But it went beyond that. The act also means the EU can offer any extension they like, regardless of length and condition, and the UK must accept it unless the Prime Minister can get the House of Commons to agree otherwise within two days. It surprises me when people claim the MPs that backed it were pragmatic moderates just ensuring we leave with an agreed deal, when that is not what the intention of the act is. It’s clear that the EU’s refusal to budge on the backstop was only worsened by the Benn Act, for it meant they could sit back and force the UK back to the table to meet their demands or simply let Parliament force an election or second referendum, either before or after an extension has been agreed.
So what was the Prime Minister’s proposal, that now lays dead on the floor? Essentially, the attempt to avoid friction at the Irish Border by keeping Northern Ireland in the single market for four years, subject to a vote by the assembly or a veto by the DUP. Meanwhile the entire United Kingdom would leave the customs union, and any potential checks would be conducted away from the border to ensure the border remains relatively open for people and goods. The idea being that long-term solutions could be found within the four year period or beyond.
Whether this proposal has any credit or not, it was a detailed and workable solution that observed the consent required from both sides in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement. This was something the backstop did not do, as it failed to give any exit mechanism thus making it a potential trap to keep the whole of the UK within the EU. This was a fear rejected by the other side, but recent talk from the Irish government seems to confirm the fear that the backstop could be used as a trap. This was where things really began to fall away, and any talk of movement from the EU collapsed. It became clear that the Irish government will not allow Northern Ireland to leave the customs union, and thus it would become a vassal state of the EU as the rest of the UK left.
Leave or Remain, asking a British Prime Minister to carve out a part of the UK and sell it to the EU is completely outrageous and shows that the EU is not serious about securing a deal. They bark that we keep sticking to our red lines, while they do the same – except to the extreme. If the EU had objections that could be worked around then the UK government could come to the table but they’ve, yet again, flatly refused to work for a deal that could be acceptable to both sides. If the Prime Minister takes us out without a deal, which he is serious about, then the EU would be to blame as they have not shown any desire to further negotiate some of the proposals to make them more acceptable, but instead wish to curtail to Dublin and carve out Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Where does that leave us? Well it’s very uncertain. The Benn Act still stands, meaning the PM must, in all likelihood, request an Article 50 extension and that extension could potentially be long enough for Parliament to have the room to hold another referendum. Or if the Conservative Party is damaged by an extension (which they likely would be) then a cross-party government could be elected and then it’s anyone’s guess whether Brexit would happen; I’m afraid to say that it likely wouldn’t. But all hope is not lost, for the UK government clearly has some plan to get around the Benn Act: whether that be sabotaging the EU by vetoing the budget and electing an intransigent commissioner; or by sending a second letter to make the extension null. It could be that the government is gunning for a different plan entirely. Either way, October the 19th is crunch time for Brexit. Trust in democracy hangs by a thread, and the constitution that has already been damaged massively by Parliament and the judiciary, could be damaged further. As of now the chaos continues and the waters look choppy ahead. So stay tuned, if you can cope with it anymore.
Photo by TeroVesalainen on Pixabay.