United Kingdom

Rocky road to Brexit

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Prime Minister Theresa May in the House of Commons in London on November 26 updating Parliament on the newly agreed Brexit deal. Photo: Jessica Taylor/AFP/U.K. Parliament

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (centre), E.U. chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (right) and European Council President Donald Tusk after the summit in Brussels on November 25 during which E.U. leaders sealed the agreement on Brexit. Photo: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

Members of a youth movement called Our Future, Our Choice that supports a people’s vote on the Brexit deal posing next to one of their campaign buses on November 27 in London. Photo: Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP

An abandoned customs post near the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland that runs through the town of Pettigo, a 2016 picture. Photo: Andrew Testa/The New York Times

The E.U. may have finally approved the terms of both the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the U.K.’s future relationship with it, but it is a bittersweet victory for Prime Minister Theresa May and her colleagues. The U.K.’s future looks as uncertain as ever.

On November 23, British Prime Minister Theresa May took part in her second radio phone-in, this time on the BBC, in an attempt to sell the terms of her controversial Brexit deal to the public. Ever since the terms of the draft withdrawal agreement emerged the weekend before, Theresa May has found herself further in a political quagmire, facing opposition not just from the Labour Party (which says it will only vote for a Brexit that meets six specific tests), the Liberal Democrats (who want a second referendum) and other parties but also from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, on whose votes the government has been dependent ever since the May 2017 general election.

From within her party, too, Theresa May faces much opposition. While some people are increasingly of the view that a second referendum is the only solution out of the chaos that British politics has found itself in, others have bemoaned the lack of sovereignty and taking back of control implicit in the deal that had been thrashed out. Several Ministers, including Shailesh Vara and Suella Braverman, both of whom are of Indian origin, resigned their positions, arguing that the Irish backstop (see box) would effectively lock the United Kingdom into an indefinite customs arrangement with the European Union (E.U.), with no provision for a unilateral decision by the U.K. to exit should it be triggered—or a “Hotel California Brexit deal” as one MP described it.

Letters expressing no confidence in the Prime Minister were tendered to the 1922 Committee, which comprises all the backbench Conservative MPs, in the hope of triggering a no-confidence vote against her as party leader. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the pro-“hard” Brexit group called the European Research Group, appealed to others to join in this effort, insisting that Brexit was at stake. So precarious was Theresa May’s position that when she announced a snap press conference on November 16, there was some speculation that it could be a statement of resignation.

But, Theresa May remained adamant that hers was the only course ahead. “Am I going to see this through? Yes,” she insisted, even warning that if MPs failed to back her deal, they risked a no-deal or even a no-Brexit. On November 24, the day before all 27 E.U. leaders agreed to the terms of both the withdrawal agreement and the (non-binding) political declaration on the U.K.’s future relationship with the union, she wrote an open letter to the British public appealing for “renewal and reconciliation” and insisting that the deal she had on the table was the only one that worked for “Leave” and “Remain” campaigners.

With this level of determination, one might have expected that when Theresa May came on the BBC radio show, she would be able to sell the virtues of Brexit which, as she has ad nauseam insisted, involved delivering on “what people voted for”. However, despite the best efforts of one caller and the radio show host, she simply repeated the points she had made before: that though she was a Remain campaigner, even before becoming Prime Minister, she had always insisted that Brexit was not going to be the disaster some suggested it would be. “You say, ‘are we better off, better off’, actually it’s a different sort of environment, and a different approach that we’ll be taking to things,” she said. She added that the question of E.U. membership was not what would make the U.K. worse or better off but what her government could do for the economy and prosperity beyond it. Earlier in the day, her former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab (who had resigned in protest against the withdrawal agreement) told the BBC that the U.K. would be better off in the E.U. and under current terms against what the government had negotiated. “We’d effectively be bound by the same rules but without the control or voice over them,” he said.

The U.K. is set to leave the E.U. on March 29, 2019, but the exit process remains as controversial, confused and divisive as ever. Suggestions that a deal was just one issue away from being resolved have proved to be wildly optimistic. Even as politicians across the political spectrum picked apart the most controversial issue, the Irish backstop, another swiftly reared its head. Spain had wanted the issue of Gibraltar to be subjected to separate negotiations with the U.K. rather than being part of any wider withdrawal agreement, but the Theresa May government was adamant that any deal must cover all parts of its territories without exception. The issue was resolved but only after a last-minute climbdown by the U.K., which was particularly embarrassing for it, given the bravado with which it had insisted that it would never let any of its territories be treated differently.

As Labour has pointed out, with concessions such as the backstop, the U.K. will have limited autonomy and will at the same time have no say over the future direction of E.U. policy. A “worst of all worlds” scenario was how the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described it. Others have pointed to passages within the political declaration that point to border customs checks and administration that are a far cry from the frictionless trade that had been promised to businesses, which are heavily dependent on the seamless passage of goods and services as part of a supply chain heavily integrated with mainland Europe.

Kafkaesque cloud

There are, of course, many reasons for Brexit continuing to be enmeshed in this Kafkaesque cloud of ambiguity and farce. The vague wording of the original referendum and the numerous groups that campaigned for it make it almost impossible to answer the question “What did voters mean when they voted for Brexit?” The contention that there is one “will of the people” that must be delivered on at all costs looks increasingly suspect when one considers the increasing number of questions around the Leave campaign and its main financial backers and the credibility of the vote. Arron Banks, one of the main bankrollers and advocates of a hard Brexit, is now facing an inquiry by the U.K.’s National Crime Agency, which has raised questions over the “true” source of some £8 million in funding he provided the Leave campaign.

Many have pointed fingers at the Labour Party, too, picking up on the long-running critique that Corbyn’s pre-referendum efforts to campaign to remain were half-hearted at best. It has resulted in Labour voting alongside the government at several points along the road to Brexit. The Labour Party has hit back at critics within and outside the party, insisting that it had to respect the vote and that, besides, the real challenge facing the U.K. was not whether to remain within the E.U. or not but to counter the government’s austerity regime and ensure strong protections for workers, the environment and human rights. In a recent podcast, Labour’s Shadow Home Minister Diane Abbott questioned the point of holding the second referendum that many in the party are clamouring for. “If we had a second referendum tomorrow, Leave would win again and not only would they win again but Leave voters would ask, ‘What didn’t you understand about Leave the first time?’”

There have been clear differences among the party’s top leadership too. Leaders like Diane Abbott, Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell have been adamant that a second referendum is not on the cards (or if it were, remaining in the E.U. would not be one of the options offered). Others such as Keir Starmer (Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the E.U.) have insisted that a second referendum with the option of remaining cannot be ruled out entirely.

Whatever is said about the other factors, it is the infighting and tensions within the Conservative Party that have been chiefly responsible for the crisis. When former Prime Minister David Cameron first announced the referendum, it was widely seen as an attempt to save the party from internal divisions: the modernists who sought a more liberal free market approach and the traditionalists who envisaged a return to the U.K. of old, supposedly unshackled from the confines of the bureaucratic behemoth of Europe. However, the aftermath has simply exacerbated those divides, making the party appear more fragmented than ever before. Conservatives such as Anna Soubry (an outspoken former MP) have all along questioned the rationale of the vision of the U.K. promoted by their colleagues and now believe a second referendum is the only solution. Others such as Rees-Mogg, former Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel, and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have campaigned to take the U.K. out of the E.U. on World Trade Organisation terms, often harking back to the ideas and symbolism of Empire in their attempt to quash voices of industry, unions and others who have expressed alarm at such a prospect. This right-wing movement has proved particularly successful at extracting concessions and a hard-line approach from Theresa May, whose tough non-compromising tone has often disappointed E.U. colleagues who are eager for a more collaborative approach.

A master stroke

The choice of Theresa May, who, as is widely known, campaigned to remain in the E.U., was a master stroke for the “hard” Brexit campaign. Her eagerness to show her commitment to delivering on the “will on the people”, and not give in to her “Remainer” instincts, often led to her erring on the tougher side of the spectrum when it came to crucial decisions and public addresses, which shaped the hostile environment in which the negotiations took place. Theresa May was Home Secretary for six years and introduced a tough anti-immigration regime. (That regime has come under the spotlight in the past year through its impact on what has come to be known as the “Windrush” generation. Dozens of people who came to the U.K. before 1973 were wrongly labelled illegal and treated abysmally. Some were deported, while others were deprived of crucial rights and benefits such as access to medical care and education.)

Her obsession with cutting net migration into the U.K. has seen her defy the view of pretty much most Cabinet members (and the U.K.’s university sector) in refusing to take international students out of net migration targets. This has meant that she has negotiated with gusto to end the freedom of movement that has enabled E.U. citizens to live and work in the U.K. It is noticeable that the deal that was hashed out is particularly focussed on this aspect of it, and most of Theresa May’s public defences of the deal begin with her pointing to this aspect. Many of her critics have suggested that her only true red line when it came to the negotiations was on the movement of people, her personal bugbear.

The U.K.’s ongoing obsession with its colonial legacy has also proved a toxic factor, helping hard Brexiteers create and sell their mythical vision of a Great Britannia totally out of step with the realities of the 21st century. It is all the more contradictory given their accompanying vision of a “Fortress” Britain, able to pick and choose the talent it wants, which has made the U.K’s hope of scoring trade deal after trade deal particularly illusionary. The government has attempted to portray Brexit as something favourable to non-E.U. citizens, including those from India. Barring short-term visits, E.U. citizens are set to face the same competition for visas based on skill levels that people from elsewhere, including India, will contend with. While the government has sought to position this as a positive thing, it is a vision that quickly falls apart. The government has also said it plans to make some things even tougher for immigrants, including bringing family members over. Given that many within the South Asian community were sold Brexit on the promise that it would make it easier for the U.K. to open up to their communities from back home, it is unsurprising that many of them feel disillusioned and betrayed.

The result of these factors has been a deal that pleases no one. In the House of Commons, after Theresa May secured the withdrawal agreement with the E.U., it was an hour before the first voice spoke up in favour of the deal. In the subsequent debate, in a session that went on for several hours, just two MPs voiced their support for it. While Rees-Mogg’s attempt to oust Theresa May through a no-confidence vote failed, many speculate that the opposition is keeping its powder dry for the parliamentary battles ahead.

Game of chicken

Speculation about where the U.K. could go from here is, unsurprisingly, rife. While some are hopeful that a failure to get the Brexit deal through Parliament could prompt a second referendum, Labour envisions that scenario could bring down the government and trigger a new election, which could enable it to form the government and negotiate a new deal of its own. Still others are talking of a so-called TARP scenario: a reference to the Troubled Asset Relief Programme in the United States to bail out banks that was first rejected by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008, before being pushed through after the markets tanked. Under this scenario, the theory goes, the U.K. economy would be taken to the brink. MPs would first vote down the deal, but then, faced with the prospect of economic Armageddon, back down and vote for it, which is effectively a game of chicken with the nation.

The E.U.’s 27 leaders may have finally approved the terms of both the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, but it is a bittersweet victory for Theresa May and company. There is no political relief in sight. With just four months to go until exit day, the U.K.’s path looks as uncertain as ever.

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