It was all looking rosy once British Prime Minister Theresa May persuaded—after a very long meeting—her cabinet to accept the deal agreed to by the European Union and the United Kingdom.
Then, the next morning, two cabinet ministers resigned—Dominic Raab, the Brexit minister who appeared to have been excluded from the negotiations, and Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary—along with what some allege are countless junior ministers and aides. Now May faces the possibility of a no-confidence vote that might unseat her, and the deal itself does not appear to have much chance of passing Parliament because of opposition from within her own Conservative party, the Labour party, and her coalitionists, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The chief blockade for the deal—ironically enough—is the EU and U.K. demands for a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The “backstop,” as it is termed, is written into the exit deal and means Britain is stuck inside the customs union for the foreseeable future. As a result, it must abide by EU rules without any ability to influence those rules. The DUP appeared to be “surprised” by the inclusion of the backstop because they didn’t believe May would sign up for it, though there seemed to be no alternative. This means that it is very likely the DUP will vote against the deal, and they have in fact already rebelled on several House of Commons votes to “send a message” to the government.
What are the main concerns for Britons?
While the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is of huge importance to their citizens, it is of less concern to other U.K. citizens. Although it is, and has been, one of the main sticking points in the two sides reaching an agreement, it is seen as a political problem. The backstop in the withdrawal agreement leading to a continuation of the customs union has made most businesses in the United Kingdom very happy, allaying fears of a no-deal Brexit, because it will allow free movement of goods and services, albeit for a limited time.
So what are the main concerns over the current deal for British citizens?
- Brexit fatigue: With over two years of news dominance, complications, disagreements, political backstabbing, concern that they were misled during the initial campaign by a “Leave” array of fake news, poor comprehension of the issues at stake, even less understanding of the potential economic consequences, and potential food and drug shortages, the British public is sick and tired of Brexit and wishes it would just be over with. According to research by YouGov, half opposed the deal, with less than a fifth supporting it.
- Doesn’t do what we wanted: YouGov’s figures show that a plurality (45 percent) believe the deal is not in line with the spirit of the 2016 vote—only 28 percent believe it is. Almost 6 in 10 Leave voters feel that the deal is a betrayal, but so do the largest proportion, over two-fifths, of Remain voters.
- New referendum: The most common response to the current situation is to forget Brexit and remain in the European Union; three times as many as want a second referendum, and a lot more think the country should accept the deal. But, given a straighter choice, a small majority wants a new referendum rather than not. And a majority would prefer a second referendum than the current deal.
- New leader: The YouGov figures show very clearly that if the deal fails, either with Parliament or the people, Theresa May should step down. On the other hand, they do not think that anyone else could have negotiated a better deal, not Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and certainly not any of the potential Tory leaders who might emerge in the wake of a leadership contest. Nor do they think that any of the current front-runners for taking over the Tories, who were characterised in an FT poll as “wimpy men,” “idiots,” or “jokers,” would be a better option than May. Nevertheless, a majority feels she should step down anyway, regardless of the outcome.
- No deal or this deal: While the deal is not popular, most think a no-deal Brexit would harm the country severely. Clearly half think that no deal would be bad for Britain, but almost two-fifths said they were either not worried or not very worried; showing that neither politicians nor business have done a very good job explaining the potential disasters that could result from a no-deal exit.
In contrast, business groups in Northern Ireland appear very happy with the proposed arrangement, as it gives them a privileged position to trade freely with both the European Union and the United Kingdom, a position that no other region or country has access to.
Brexiteers dislike the current deal, because this bare-bone customs arrangement will form the basis for any future relationship—not just for the transition nor the duration of the backstop, but possibly forever—because terminating the arrangement with a new one requires the agreement of the European Union. Brexiteers still want to rewrite the deal, but Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator, has said along with a large number of other influential EU leaders that “this is the deal,” and that’s it. The Labour opposition party’s leader has said that the deal fails their tests and even fails May’s own tests because it stops the free movement of people but accedes to all other EU demands.
This done deal is contained in a 585-page draft withdrawal agreement. It must still be approved by Members of Parliament in the House of Commons and by the 27 other EU member states and the European Parliament; only then will it be legally binding. There is also a separate, non-binding draft declaration that sets out the aspirations for the future trading relationship between the United Kingdom and European Union. During the transition period, and any backstop, the United Kingdom will have to follow all EU rules and abide by Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) rulings, but will have no influence on any new or changed regulations. Initially, there will be a “single customs territory” until the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020, during which time a trade deal will be negotiated—in theory. During this period, the United Kingdom can negotiate, but not enter into, new trade deals with other trading partners.
An EU summit will be held on 25 November, at which the 27 leaders are expected to agree to the Withdrawal Agreement and the future relationship declaration. The House of Commons vote is expected between 7 and 10 December this year, but no one knows whether any amendments will be suggested, though, as has been noted, the European Union is of the opinion that minor tweaks might be made to the language but the substance as agreed to will not change.
If the House of Commons votes against the deal, the government will nominally have up to 21 days to put forward a new plan. But any agreement on such a plan with the European Union would seem extremely unlikely. As well as the Irish backstop, the key disagreements among politicians relate to the circumstances in which the United Kingdom can withdraw from the transition arrangements and whether it can do so without an EU veto. The United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union at 11 p.m., which is midnight Central European Time, on 29 March 2019. Following this, the agreement posits a 21-month transition period. The draft Withdrawal Agreement does not give a specific end date for this extension, saying that it will end by “20XX.”
There appears to be very little room for negotiation, despite what some Brexiteer enthusiasts are telling themselves. And, in the main, British business is in favour of the deal; both the Confederation of British Industry and the Governor of the Bank of England came out in support of it.
So, what could happen if, as seems likely, the deal loses the vote in the House of Commons? If May loses, it seems hopeless for her to go back to the European Union for amendments. Any meaningful renegotiation seems out of the question, so we are left with: a potential Norway-style EEA (European Economic Area) option; a Canada-type deal, which has already been ruled out by many MPs; or no deal.
There is also the possibility that a challenge to May’s leadership could trigger a general election. That would put a lot of balls in Labour’s court, which would likely call for a second referendum. There is a slight possibility of a “negotiated no-deal exit,” with lots of little deals founded on a basic WTO (World Trade Organisation) arrangement, though that would still leave the United Kingdom paying the negotiated £39 billion (over U.S. $50 billion) divorce deal.
If Parliament votes down the first deal and any subsequent deal, even May might take the deal to the British public for a second referendum, with the question now rephrased as: “May deal” or remain? There is no support for no-deal exit, even within the government.