This week began with unexpected coming and going and the announcement of a fresh Brexit deal — to cement the main “deal”, which has since been defeated. Media editor Dr Lee Duffield reports on the UK standoff.
BRITISH OFFICIALS originally imparted on Sunday (10 March) that Prime Minister Theresa May would not be going to Brussels for a late bid at renegotiating. But then she did make a last-minute flight the next day, to the European Parliament at Strasbourg.
There she announced concessions had been obtained that would cut through some of the main sticking points, which had been blocking acceptance of the "Withdrawal Agreement" on separation from the European Union.
GETTING BLOCKED BY THE “BACK-STOP”
That Withdrawal Agreement committed Britain to pay €39 billion (AU$62.09 billion), to clear up long-term commitments and would then set it up for an eventual disconnection — once they worked through a settlement on the land border in Northern Ireland.
The arrangement – known as the “Irish back-stop” – has been to continue trading with Europe under a customs union, meaning there would be no need for a controlled foreign border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic — an EU member. However, the customs union arrangement would prevent a complete break and frustrate British legislators wanting to get into immediate direct trade talks with countries like Australia, China and the United States.
A CONCESSION — AND BREAK-THROUGH?
This week, May declared that the European Union had agreed to long-demanded legally binding assurances that the Irish back-stop would be wound up on a definite timeline. There’d be arbitration on disputes, mitigating British fears that the Europeans could refuse to end the agreement and keep it going indefinitely.
President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said the changes were in addition to the previously settled agreement but that there could be no further concessions on the content. It is something he has said before — now more urgent given the timetable.
COLD DAY’S WORK
The previous day’s work, ending very late during a cold night at Strasbourg, gave the British Prime Minister some ammunition for her efforts to get her EU agreement through the House of Commons, beginning early on Tuesday (12 March).
She had been hoping for a reversal of the vote taken on 15 January, where the proposition was steamrollered out of consideration, by 432 votes to 202. Members of the governing Conservative Party looking for a way out of the deadlock might have decided enough was obtained and given their support. It would have been a great victory, clearing the way to British secession from the EU by the set date of 29 March — an "Article 50" separation under the European Union Treaty.
However, with a minority Government and many Conservatives wanting more – including some with designs on the prime ministership and a new Party leadership well to the right of Theresa May – it was again defeated. The House of Commons voted "No" to the agreement by 149 votes: 391 to 242.
For decades, Conservative “Leavers” have been interested in an “independent Britain”, able to ditch European laws on the environment, labour standards and financial or economic regulation — setting off a “free market” reaction.
The Opposition Labour Party had declared against the latest proposition, saying very little was added in the 11th-hour meetings at Strasbourg. It wants a new “people’s vote” – whether a general election or a referendum on the Withdrawal Agreement – now that its terms are known. The Labour Party has been edging towards a “Remain” position, recognising that staying within the EU might be the best deal possible for Britain to obtain. Its slow shift has been in step with moves in public opinion since the Brexit Referendum in 2016 — then 51.9% in favour of leaving, more recently down to 47% or 46%.
TIMETABLE FOR DECISIONS
TUESDAY — VOTE I
The UK House of Commons on Tuesday will vote, again, on May’s agreement with the EU. Should the Ayes have it, a deal-based Brexit will happen as planned on March 29, the UK and the EU will move to negotiating a trade agreement — and assuming they manage that monumental task, the Irish backstop will never be triggered and the two will live happily ever … Except life isn’t quite that easy …
[That move has now failed and the Government has declared it will go to Vote II.]
WEDNESDAY — VOTE II
If the Nays prevail Tuesday, MPs will a day later vote on whether they want a no-deal Brexit. There are plenty who do indeed want that to happen … because that will at least mean leaving the EU on March 29.
THURSDAY — VOTE III
If the Dealists prevail, on Thursday the Commons will vote on whether to force the government’s hand and make the UK ask for a short and limited extension of the Article 50 negotiating period. That seems reasonable if we ever get to that point, a mere fortnight before Brexit Day. But reason is one thing and politicking another one.
The news service made some logical conclusions. Since Prime Minister May’s new deal was voted down, if Vote II, “no deal” is also rejected, they would be back to where they were at the beginning of the week. Should they go for Vote III asking for extra time, it would be the same, but with less time pressure – for a while.
The EU says it would have to consult its Treaties to see how much time might be allowed.
Since Prime Minister May’s new deal was voted down, if Vote II, “no deal” is also rejected, they would be back to where they were at the beginning of the week. Should they go for Vote III, asking for extra time, it would be the same, but with less time pressure — for a while.
Once more the observation has to be made that the United Kingdom – politicians and public together – have encountered a reality that leaving Europe was not just theirs to decide on. That applies especially in England, though not so much to regions which voted for Remain, such as London, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The EU is a level of government, something like the federal government in America, Canada or Australia. The Brits have been enmeshed in its lawmaking and its economy since 1972 and might all have realised that the “other side” also had interests — they could not just set their own terms.
The Referendum process they went through in 2016 was a time of passion, setting off pent-up feelings about immigration and a fixed cunning intent to “change the system” towards more corporatism and a neoliberal free-for-all. Sobering-up time has arrived and the options have been democratically thrashed-out in the Parliament and country. The UK might now go to some informed and concerted decision-making to get an outcome, whether in the present Parliament, through an election or a second referendum on Europe.
Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.
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