Brexit: Britain doesn’t know what it wants - GulfToday

Brexit: Britain doesn’t know what it wants

Ivo Daalder


President of The Chicago Council. Former US Ambassador to NATO.

President of The Chicago Council. Former US Ambassador to NATO.

Theresa May.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” When it comes to Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May seems to have taken this schoolteacher’s maxim to an extreme. Having seen her deal for withdrawing from the European Union voted down by a 2-1 margin in January, May earlier this week tried again, only to lose by a whopping 149-vote margin.

Undaunted, May will try and get her deal through Parliament one last time next week in the faint hope that she can still succeed. And she just might. For the choice before her Conservative party, which still nominally controls Parliament, is now clear: Either they vote for her deal and secure a rapid exit from the EU, or they open the door to a lengthy extension of the Brexit timetable that could end in a much softer Brexit, a second referendum or even no Brexit at all.

This is the choice May has tried to put before her recalcitrant party members, a good number of whom are set on getting out of the EU. For three years, these Euroskeptics have argued that Brussels will cave and give them what they want — a clean break from Europe. Brussels was prepared to grant London such a break, but with one proviso: that the Irish border, the only land border between the UK and EU, remain fully open to ensure that the peace in place since 1998 be preserved.

As a signature to the Irish peace agreement, London accepted that condition, which in turn led to the inclusion of the so-called Irish backstop in the withdrawal agreement — that with or without a new trade agreement between the UK and EU, the Irish border would remain open. Euroskeptics and Northern Irish Unionists objected to this provision, fearing that it would keep the UK forever tied to the EU through a customs union, or divide Great Britain and Northern Ireland into different economic relationships with Europe.

Brussels has been adamant that the backstop remains in place to ensure the continued economic integrity of the remaining 27 EU members. May tried to find a way to bridge the difference in late-night negotiations earlier this week in the hope it might sway her party to back her deal. It didn’t. And on Tuesday, Parliament once again forcefully rejected her agreement. It then swiftly moved against her government and voted to oppose any UK withdrawal from the European Union without a deal. Finally, Parliament voted Thursday to ask the EU for an extension of the timeline for Britain’s withdrawal, now set for March 29.

The series of votes made clear that when it comes to Brexit, the British Parliament doesn’t know what it wants. It doesn’t want May’s deal, which is the only withdrawal deal on offer. It doesn’t want to leave Europe without a deal. And it doesn’t, at least as yet, want a second referendum, a new election or to give up on Brexit altogether.

With Britain divided and Europe increasingly exasperated, there is a real risk that nothing gets settled in the next two weeks and Britain still crashes out of the Union on March 29. The only way for that not to happen is for Parliament to embrace May’s deal on a third try or for the EU unanimously to agree to extend the March 29 deadline.

It is this reality that allows May to make her final stand. She can offer Parliament a clear choice next week: either you vote for her deal and Britain leaves the Union in an orderly fashion, or she will seek a long-term extension from the EU to allow time for agreement on a different course, none of which will be as clean a break from Europe as is possible under her deal.

It’s impossible to tell whether such clarity will bring around the 70-odd members who have twice voted against her deal to back it this time. The odds are against it, however, and a third failure would be the end of May’s deal. She will instead have to ask Brussels for a long-term extension, and Britain will then remain a full EU member for months, if not years, to come.

An extension will, of course, prolong the Brexit debate that has paralysed British politics and much of its interactions with the world for three years. Yet, it would create much-needed clarity on Britain’s economic relations with Europe and the rest of the world. Having rejected a hard Brexit, Britain would need to negotiate a softer Brexit that would continue its participation in the European single market, a customs union or both. There’s even the chance that, having seen what real Brexit entails, Britain would opt to stay in the Union. Sometimes you just can’t succeed, no matter how many times you try.

Tribune News Service