THE TRAGEDY OF BREXIT (TWO)
The United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland) has been facing a crisis so severe that it has seemed reasonable to question whether its parliament is capable of dealing with withdrawal from the European Union (the beginning of the English parliament can be traced to 1215). Faced with voters’ economically calamitous decision to break away from membership in the twenty eight nation European Union, both national parties have broken into multiple factions which seem powerless to agree to a program for withdrawal. Unless the European Union’s government in Brussels agrees to extend discussions, the UK could officially end its relationship its major economic market on the 29th of March, about four weeks from now!
First, a clarification of Theresa May’s attempt to deal with the border between Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland. The solution Prime Minister May offers is the poorly named “backstop”. As a “backstop,” if no agreement can be reached about Northern Ireland’s border with Ireland, then England, Wales, and Scotland will agree to abide by the European Union’s customs rules until the border issue can be resolved.
The “backstop” would only end when all parties could agree there was no longer a need for physical customs stations along Northern Ireland’s border (there is talk of employing some, as yet, undeveloped technology). During that open ended period London would have to abide by EU’s customs union rules and standards but would have no voice in them. Brussels has resisted any fixed date for the backstop’s termination.
The backstop is part of a larger Withdrawal Agreement worked out between the very overworked Theresa May and the negotiators for the European Union. It sets a transition period to run till the end of December, 2020, during which the UK would remain a functioning member. It would continue to be part of the EU’s customs union. It would not be represented in the Union’s governing bodies. It would provide a period of adjustment during which trade agreements would be worked out between the UK and the EU (it could be extended if the parties agreed to do that).
The Prime Minister clearly believed that this was the best deal that she could get. It quickly became clear that the Parliament (including many members of her own party) was distinctly less than enthusiastic. After a number of delays while Theresa May lobbied her members, the Parliament voted on January 15 of this year. The Withdrawal Agreement was rejected by a vote of 432–202. After that record breaking historic rejection, May would have been expected to resign. She did not. She has continued to soldier on as the date for complete termination, March 29, draws ever nearer.
There was probably a time back in 1912 when the majority of those people on the Titanic did not believe that it could sink. And then there was a sudden awful moment when it dawned on them all that it could. With March 29 looming, this is the moment when everyone both in London and in Brussels realizes that the unthinkable could really happen. They are scrambling for the lifeboats.
The Prime Minister has been putting off a promised revote on her plan in Parliament until March 13, only the briefest of times before the March 29 end date. Now, as of yesterday (Feb., 26th), Mrs. May is signaling that if there has not been a “meaningful vote” on her proposals before March 12th she will back a brief extension of the exit date to provide more time to work out something with Brussels. The EU leadership in Brussels has been talking extension too but they want the extension to be two years (till March, 2021). That extension would, of course, cause the UK to remain in the European Union for that longer period of time. The leadership in Brussels undoubtedly hopes that by then people in the United Kingdom will have come to their senses. Certainly some extension compromise seems possible.
Many in the leadership of the Labour Party in Parliament have been dubious about leaving from the beginning, but their Leader, Jeremy Corbyn has been purposefully non-committal. An old Labourite, he has been straddling the factions in order to keep his fragile party from falling apart (within the last two weeks a number of members have broken away and formed an Independent Group). Now, just yesterday (Feb. 26th), with disaster looming, Corbyn has agreed to back a second national referendum which would, to paraphrase the old song; “call the whole thing off”. If May’s plan comes up for a vote by March 12, Labour members will attempt to add an amendment calling for that referendum.
And that is where things stand. After a foolish national vote based on rampant falsehoods promoted in the very free British press, it is finally clear to all but the most obsessed that the iceberg is real and national disaster awaits on March 29th. The Empire may still loom large in some British minds but withdrawing from the very real current interconnected world will not bring it back. It certainly appears that Theresa May’s Herculean efforts could end as a kind of historical footnote.
So, what will happen? It is probable that there will be an extension of the March 29th deadline. It is something on which all parties can probably agree. Certainly the organization in Brussels has nothing to gain from a severely weakened British economy just off its shores (to say nothing of an isolated Ireland). After that logic would dictate that there be an opportunity for a new vote. Should the “leavers” win that vote than chaos will have been freely chosen. The best option would be a strong vote to remain after which the long nightmare would be over. One hundred and eight years later the Titanic would not sink after all.