The Brexit Mess Will Go On for Years

AP Photo/Alastair Grant

British Prime Minister Theresa May arrives for an EU summit in Brussels. 

It’s long been clear that British Prime Minister Theresa May would have to vacate 10 Downing Street sooner rather than later. On Wednesday, she finally agreed to step aside and let a new leader do the heavy lifting during the next phase of the Brexit train wreck —but only if Parliament agrees to her Brexit plan, one they have already rejected. Twice. Denis MacShane offers some important context on the mammoth catastrophe that has proved to be May’s undoing.

The deal agreed to between the United Kingdom and the European Union has detonated the biggest political dispute in British politics since Neville Chamberlain came back from Munich in 1938 waving a leaf of paper and proclaiming he had won “peace in our time.”

Far from uniting Britain after the bitterly divisive Brexit referendum vote when just 37 percent of the total British electorate voted to leave the European Union, the Withdrawal Agreement and linked declaration on future areas to be negotiated has launched a new round of recriminations.

Several ministers have resigned and others are forming a cabal to demand that Prime Minister Theresa May return to Brussels and renegotiate a new accord.

There have been loud calls from senior Conservatives headed by Boris Johnson denouncing the deal as the end of a thousand years of parliamentary supremacy in the U.K. The former minister of foreign affairs appears to think William the Conqueror brought with him a functioning House of Commons when he arrived in Britain in 1066.

This hyperbole can be heard for many other Conservative MPs who are demanding that May is replaced by a more passionately anti-European prime minister. The anti-European Tories now realize that their dream of amputating Britain from Europe to become an offshore Steve Bannon paradise of deregulated, alt-right capitalism has failed. The deal May has negotiated keeps Britain tied to the European Union, its social and trade union policies, its data protection rules, its human rights norms.  

Across the populist European right of Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Savini in Italy, the AfD in Germany, or Swedish Democrats, all references to Brexit have been dropped. The demands of the anti-EU hard right that France or Germany or Italy should exit the Euro or even the EU have been banished—as all of Europe looks at the Brexit disaster across the Channel. 

According to economic forecasts for growth in 2019, Britain will be 28th out of 28 EU member states. Brexit Tory Britain is now the poor relation of Europe.

May meanwhile continues to insist that her deal is the best possible outcome. She has yet to find a clear majority of MPs to support her.

May has been paying the price for her handling of Brexit since she became prime minister in July 2016. Instead of reaching out to unify the nation, creating a spirit of bipartisan cooperation, setting up working parties with the Confederation of British Industries and the Trades Union Congress, with universities, with different national regions of Britain—Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, or with the Mayor of London and other big cities—she decided to speak only for and to the hardline supporters of Brexit.

She insisted “Brexit means Brexit”, and that “No deal is better than a bad deal” and denounced those who supported the idea of European citizenship as being “citizens of nowhere.” May had hoped this continuation of the anti-EU rhetoric after the referendum that produced Brexit would win her support. But when in 2017 she tried to capitalize on this by holding a general election she was badly weakened and the left-wing leadership of Jeremy Corbyn made surprising gains.

May lost the majority the Tories won in 2015 and had to rely on hard right-wing Protestant MPs from Northern Ireland who dislike Dublin, dislike Brussels, and refuse to apply U.K. laws on gay and women’s rights to the people of Northern Ireland.

Now the extreme Northern Irish MPs say they will vote against her deal. So does the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, and Green MPs.

If that block against the deal holds together and is joined by the anti-European Tory MPs who want a complete amputation with the EU—rejecting membership of the Customs Union, the Single Market, freedom of movement for Brits to live in Europe or EU citizens to work in Britain, and a role for the Court of Justice of the European Union—then the deal will not be accepted by the House of Commons and Mrs. May cannot stay in office.

Supporters of a new referendum like Tony Blair and “People’s Vote” campaigners have also urged MPs to vote down the deal. All opinion polls now show a majority want to stay in the EU. Each year in England about 700,000 older people die and about the same number reach the age of 18 and can vote. It was older English voters who voted massively for Brexit while four out of five 18 to 24-year-old voters voted to stay in Europe.

So the argument is that the majority for Brexit has disappeared. The former prime ministers, like the Tory John Major and Labour’s Gordon Brown, urge a new referendum, as does the mayor of London and the editor of Rupert Mudoch’s paper, The Times.

May presents the demands for a new vote and a rejection of her deal as leading to economic chaos and collapse. Companies like Airbus and Siemens are stockpiling millions of spare parts. If MPs refuse the deal then the port of Dover through which 4,500 trucks arrive every day with food, medicines, and products will face delays for customs checks. South East England and the Calais region of France will become a giant parking lot.

She may yet win support as Angela Merkel and other EU leaders have said there can be no renegotiation. This is the only deal on offer.

But even if the House of Commons and the European leadership support May’s deal, the EU and the U.K. have to negotiate a completely new arrangement covering everything from trade in goods and services to data protection, aviation, police cooperation, and human rights. This will take years during which time the U.K. will de facto stay part of the EU even if formal political membership ends next March.

Switzerland rejected the EU and even the European Economic Area, to which Norway belongs, in 1992. Ever since Berne and Brussels have been quarrelling. Is that the future for Britain? A Brexeternity of endless negotiations with Brussels? The Brexit saga for the United Kingdom is only just beginning.

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