On Monday 10th December, cabinet ministers were confirming on breakfast-time radio that the scheduled Commons ‘meaningful vote’ on the Draft Withdrawal Agreement (WA) would proceed the next day. By lunchtime that vote had been pulled to prevent its defeat on the floor of the Commons by a margin large enough to topple the Prime Minister (PM). By Wednesday evening she had faced and won a confidence vote in her leadership, albeit with 117 of 317 of her own MPs voting against her.
By Friday her attempt to persuade EU leaders to provide sufficient comfort to the Ulster Democratic Unionist (DUP) members and the 80-100 Conservative hard-Brexiteers and European Research Group (ERG) MP’s within her own party to time-limit the Northern Ireland (NI) backstop provisions within the WA, or, at least set out a route map with legal standing as to how it could be escaped, had demonstrably failed, notwithstanding some vague assurances that its activation was not desired and that ‘further clarifications’ could follow.
On Monday 17 December, the PM confirmed that he meaningful vote will take place deal in the week of January 14, and that debates on her deal would restart in the week of January 7, when MP’s return from their Christmas break.
She further stuck to her Brussel-summit line of seeking further political and legal assurances on the WA backstop line: the futile and misconceived insurance policy to avoid a hard Irish border, contrary to the NI backstop that she agreed to in December 2017.
Her game plan still appears to go to the wire to put pressure on MP’s of both parties that simply want done with Brexit to avoid both a second referendum and a no deal departure.
After the defeat in parliament that can be expected to follow, the government will have 21 days to report back as to how it intends to proceed providing opportunities for MP’s to debate, put forward, and perhaps even secure majority support for one of the alternative options, discussed earlier. That period will end in mid-February.
That process is likely to be interrupted by an opposition no confidence vote in the government. Jeremy Corbyn will table a vote of no confidence in the PM today (Tuesday 18th December) but whether it will take place is uncertain.
The die was cast for all of this when the UK committed to the NI backstop. This was defined in Section 49 the UK-EU December 2017 Joint Agreed Report on the Phase 1 Negotiation process.
as follows: ‘The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement’
That commitment bookends what has become known as the Northern Ireland (NI) backstop.
Coupled with the government’s (and widely supported) blood-red line ruling out an Irish Sea regulatory border and/or specially agreed arrangements for NI, that NI backstop meant and continues to mean, in effect, that the UK would need to: (i) stay in an equivalent CU with the EU; and, (ii), cede continuing regulatory alignment with the EU for goods, at the very minimum, for the foreseeable future.
As explained in The May Agreement, the WA backstop , if activated, would not allow frictionless trade between the EU and UK to continue. The WA relies instead on the operation of a separate regulatory treatment regime for NI.
For that reason alone, it is difficult to discern how it could never be accepted by parliament without jettisoning the overarching principles of the overarching December 2017 NI backstop.
Any reliance that a future trade deal will render that WA backstop unnecessary is a mirage. There is close to unanimous agreement among informed commentators that the time-frame for putting in place an alternative trade deal would extend far beyond 2020. Recent EU trade negotiations have taken far longer to negotiate and ratify. The Canadian Free Trade Agreement (CETA) took over six years.
To expect the UK to conclude a more comprehensive and deep agreement with the EU in less than two years is widely unrealistic. And that is after taking on board heroic assumptions that all the negotiation stars are all aligned to produce a treaty within, to all intents and purposes, 18 months, which is then approved by the EU national and, as required, by some regional parliaments, such as Wallonia in Belgium, without, as the UK Trade Observatory recently put out, any quibble and delay. That certainly was not the case with the recent EU Canada and Ukraine agreements. A future UK agreement is not going to finalized and approved soon enough to render the WA backstop, or an extended transition, unnecessary. Full stop. To assume otherwise is either dishonest or self-delusional.
Besides it remains unclear how a replacement Canada-style agreement could ever avoid the re-imposition of a hard border within Ireland. Technological fixes that could allow the UK to levy differential tariffs on imports depending on their ultimate destination will not come to the rescue in the foreseeable future, if ever.
In that light, Parliament’s unanimous December 2018 Brexit Select Committee report re-affirmed that a Canada-style agreement with the EU would not, on its own, ensure the type of friction-free trade with the EU that many UK companies with just-in-time manufacturing supply chains need, concluding that it is not a viable option, insofar that ‘the commitment to avoiding a hard border enshrined in the Withdrawal Agreement will continue to shape the future relationship between the UK and the EU because it will not be possible for the UK to decide on customs and regulatory arrangements which negate that commitment’.
A time-limited NI backstop is a contradiction in terms, therefore, and can never be accepted by the EU in a legally tangible form within the current or any amended WA.
The Hard-Brexiteers who voted no confidence in the PM on Tuesday, in any case, will not be persuaded to support the WA. They seek instead a disorderly no deal exit occurring by default, regardless of its impact.
The WA can now only pass Parliament with some measure of Labour support. The PM to secure it will need to tilt at the very least the Revised Political Declaration (PD) towards a more permanent Customs Union (CU) and on-going regulatory alignment with Single Market (SM) rules.
But she continues to be boxed-in by the malign influence on the government that the hard-Brexiteers can exercise. This is through their power to determine the parliamentary selection of the two candidates to be submitted to the hard-Brexit-leaning rump party membership for the next Conservative Party leadership contest.
If either no deal or a second referendum is to be avoided, she must break out of that box and find a way to secure cross-party support for an option acceptable to the majority in parliament, with or without Labour whipped support, that will preserve an open border within Ireland.
Her difficulty is that could risk the break-up of the Conservative party in parliament, rather like the Liberals did over Irish Home Rule in the nineteenth century.
But, if she doesn’t, Tory Remainers are quite likely to jump ship at the prospect of a rigid, and, ultimately, an unelectable government beholden to the hard-Brexiteers and their accompanying neo-liberal economic and social policy agenda.
It did not help that some EU leaders were indicating post-December summit that they would still like to give Mrs May some comfort concerning the application of the WA backstop to help her to secure a parliamentary majority. That is a forlorn hope that will encourage May to extend the impasse or the agony, rather than to cut her losses and strive to strike a deal with MP’s.
The Labour front bench needs now to act in the national interest and hold Mrs May to account properly by highlighting her capture by – in the words of her own chancellor – extremist hard-Brexiteers, who are wedded to a no deal exit that would cause at very least considerable short-and longer-term damage to the economy, household incomes, and the public finances, undermine and even destroy the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement, before ushering-in a neo-liberal race to the bottom inducing greater inequality in market incomes amid further welfare state retrenchment.
May messed up by going back to Brussels in a self-defeating exercise to secure concessions bending to that destructive faction, living the lie that an alternative deep and comprehensive trade deal consistent with her December 2017 NI backstop commitment is negotiable with the EU within a time-limited period.
The only way, indeed, that a border within the island of Ireland and separate treatment of NI to the rest of the UK can be avoided and the industry supply chains integral to the protection of UK manufacturing industry and employment can be protected and fostered is by the maintenance of frictionless trade between the entire UK and EU.
That, in turn, as this website has consistently argued, requires an equivalent CU with no rules of origin checks along with continuing UK regulatory alignment with SM rules for goods – at least until institutional and technological means can be identified and implemented that will allow the UK to levy differential tariffs on imports, depending on origin and destination.
The real impact of Brexit and the actual choices that are available continue to be obscured in the mainstream media Brexit debate, reflecting not only the government’s, but also Labour’s failure to demonstrate through forensic precision and focus that:
- The current WA backstop, whether time-limited or not, is incompatible with the December 2017 overarching NI backstop;
- A comprehensive and deep economic partnership with the EU cannot be achieved in the short-to-medium term through the agreement of a Canada-style FTA;
- The future benefits of any future UK trade deals with the ROW will be miniscule compared to the economic damage inflicted by loss of frictionless trade with the EU;
- Frictionless trade, in turn, depends upon the maintenance of an equivalent CU with no rules of origin checks and continuing UK regulatory alignment with SM rules for goods into the foreseeable future.
The time for tactical posturing is over if either no deal or a divisive and, for the reasons discussed in The Dangers of a Second Referendum quite possibly destructive second referendum, are to both avoided.
The Labour front bench needs to be up-front and hammer home each of the points above – evidenced by the government’s own published documents and supported by the mass of independent expert opinion – not only in the national interest, but for its own wider electoral and strategic political purposes.
Each potentially commands a majority in parliament, and could be subscribed to by at least a significant minority in the cabinet.
Informed political and media focus on them will help to drive a wedge between the sensible majority in parliament and the hardline ERG faction, who continue to peddle their no deal exit vision by falsehood and misrepresentation – for example, it would be feasible for the UK to unilaterally declare tariff-and quota-free access to EU imports.
Such a wedge would assist the government to tilt towards the Labour position and at least increase the likelihood of an agreement acceptable to the parliamentary majority being agreed that could then be taken back to Brussels.
It would also help to define the dividing lines for any second referendum process in the event that transpired as the only alternative to no deal, and would begin to set them also for the next general election, whenever that happens.