The five-day debate in the British parliament on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the European Union did not start well for her. Everybody knows that she hasn’t got the votes to pass the deal, but it turned out that she hasn’t got the votes for lots of other things either.
It’s a rotten deal because it was bound to be. The EU is 27 other countries with a population seven times that of the United Kingdom, so it was always going to have the upper hand in negotiations. It played hardball in the talks because it needed to demonstrate that Britain would be worse off by leaving. Otherwise, other members might also decide they could ‘cherry-pick’ the bits of the EU they liked and skip the rest.
So the EU countries stuck together, and May’s government was forced to choose between a ‘no-deal’ Brexit that would cause chaos in the UK and the lousy deal that the EU offered her instead. In a moment of sanity, she chose the latter.
The deal leaves Britain still part of the common market the Brexiters wanted to quit and still paying into the EU budget, but no longer with any voice in the EU’s decisions. Moreover, Britain can only exit that halfway house with the consent of the EU.
That consent will only be forthcoming if May can somehow find a way to keep the border between Northern Ireland (a part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which will remain an EU member) ‘invisible’. Until then, Britain must stay in the customs union.
End the customs union and the inter-Irish border becomes a real barrier where customs duties are collected and illegal immigrants are stopped. But that would hinder the free passage of Irish people, which was the heart of the deal that stopped the killing in Ireland twenty years ago. The ‘Troubles’ would return – or at least that’s what people fear, including the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who effectively has a veto on EU policy on this issue.
So May’s deal leaves the UK half-in and half-out of the EU, “shackled to a radiator” until such time as it comes up with a magical solution to that border conundrum. In fact, there is none: the Good Friday agreement that ended the war in Ireland assumed that both the UK and the Irish Republic would remain EU members, and it cannot survive a full rupture of that relationship.
May’s deal was therefore never going to make it through parliament. Those who don’t want Brexit (at least half the members of the House of Commons) will vote against it, but so will the real Brexiters, who see it as a betrayal of their fantasy. And if party discipline is going to collapse anyway, then you might as well vote for what you actually want.
May lost three votes in parliament on Monday, which gravely undermined the authority of her government. The most important was one that took away her freedom to decide what to do next if (or rather when) her deal is voted down. Now, PARLIAMENT decides what to do next – and it could choose a number of courses, including a second referendum on Brexit.
The second referendum has become the unicorn of British politics, a fabled beast that never shows up in real life, but there are unicorn droppings all over the Houses of Parliament this week. As the fantasies fade and reality bites, the members of House of Commons (of whom a majority always supported ‘Remain’, even if many hid their views in order to survive politically) have become an extraordinarily volatile group.
There are half a dozen possible outcomes to the parliamentary manoeuvring of this week, ending with the decisive vote on May’s deal next Tuesday, but several of them would probably lead to a second referendum that might reverse the Brexit vote of June 2016. And the European Court of Justice’s advocate-general has just ruled that the UK could, if it wishes, just drop its application to leave without needing the permission of other EU members.
It would be a remarkable result: three years of huffing and puffing about ‘sovereignty’, followed by a meek resumption of Britain’s (quite advantageous) position in the EU. Of course, the angry Leavers would cry ‘Foul!’ and demand yet another referendum – ‘Best of Three’ – or they could just take to the streets.
There are frequent veiled threats in the right-wing press that any thwarting of the Brexit dream by a second referendum could result in blood in the streets. That may be so, although it’s more likely to be another of those ‘Project Fear’ campaigns that have disfigured the entire Brexit process.
In any case, if it should ever come to street-fighting, the Remainers would win easily. They are, on average, thirteen years younger than the Brexiters.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’