Britain can think again on Brexit


In the ever more cynical effort to salvage her Brexit deal, Theresa May has notched up one victory. For the prime minister, the splits and swerves at Westminster have served as a useful diversion. Her proposed settlement with the other 27 EU member states has gone largely unexamined. Yet the one constant in the present political chaos is that Mrs May is still determined to sign up Britain to a truly rotten agreement.

A week ago she was insisting that parliament had to choose between her deal and no deal. Now, under pressure from some of the saner members of her cabinet, she presents another binary choice. MPs can opt for her deal or they can ask for a strictly limited extension until June of the Article 50 negotiations.

The first of the prime minister’s propositions was transparently fraudulent. The second is equally so. If they seize the moment, MPs now have a range of options from which to choose. These reach from a short extension to a long timeout or revocation. Britain can actually restore to itself the space for the careful deliberation and consensus building that has been blithely disdained by Mrs May. And, yes, if it so decides, parliament has the unilateral right to revoke Article 50 and allow voters an informed choice in a second referendum.

Stopping the clock, of course, requires the consent of the EU27. All the signs are that they would concur, in spite of the problems this would throw up for this summer’s elections to the European Parliament. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, has said as much. Even before Mrs May’s latest U-turn, senior figures in Berlin could be heard talking about an extension lasting quite possibly until the end of 2020.

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For all their fully-justified exasperation with the prime minister’s duplicitous antics, Britain’s biggest partners still want it to stay in the EU. With a lengthy timeout, parliament could make time both for a general election and a referendum that would present the people with the facts denied to them in 2016.

To the extent there has been any debate about the agreement with the EU27 struck by Mrs May, it has been the wrong one. The arrangements in the withdrawal treaty to retain an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are a necessary contingency to underpin peace on the island of Ireland.

The charge laid by the Democratic Unionist party and by kamikaze Tory Brexiters that the EU has a secret plan to imprison Britain in a permanent customs union is palpable nonsense. Such an outcome would privilege the UK over the EU27 by conferring rights without responsibilities. No, the real fear of Brexiter opponents of the so-called backstop is unconnected with concern for Northern Ireland. It is that the provisions might be deployed at some future date by those who want to preserve a sensibly close economic relationship with the bloc after Brexit.

All in all, there is nothing remarkable about the withdrawal treaty. Alongside the Irish border question it settles Britain’s EU membership bills and safeguards the rights of British and EU citizens after Brexit. The stunning failure of Mrs May’s bargain lies in the document setting out the proposed future relationship.

Beyond the normal diplomatic niceties and expressions of good intent, the agreement does nothing to assure Britain of privileged access to its most important market, of access to the co-operation vital to underpin national security and law enforcement, and of a voice in shaping Europe’s approach to shared regional and global challenges.

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Instead the framework promises years more of uncertain negotiations. Hidebound by the red lines drawn by Mrs May to appease her party’s English nationalists, the agreement foresees the break-up of supply chains by new barriers to trade in goods, and offers nothing to the services businesses now dependent on a place in the European market.

Any concessions that might be secured would rest entirely at the discretion and goodwill of the EU27. The essential truth about the Article 50 process is that it gave Britain precious little by way of negotiating leverage. Once it has actually left the Union, the government in London will be left entirely dependent on the choices of the EU27. At every turn they would know that an agreement was more important for the UK than for the union.

All this has been to a single, selfish end — to satisfy Mrs May’s desire to redeem her premiership with a place in history’s footnotes as the leader who presided over Brexit. The interests of the nation — whether its prosperity, its security or its standing in the world — are to sacrificed to her chosen epitaph.

The horrifying thought is that she might yet succeed. The threat of a delay could win over both Tory Brexiters and those backbench Labour MPs who have been running scared of the voters in their Brexit-backing constituencies.

Mrs May has offered the House of Commons three consecutive votes during the second week of March. In the first of these MPs must seize the opportunity to throw out for a second time the prime minister’s wretched bargain. Then they should decide by an even larger margin to rule out a no-deal Brexit. In the last and final vote they should back a lengthy extension of Article 50 so that the nation can think again before inflicting upon itself the terrible act of self-harm that is Brexit.

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philip.stephens@ft.com



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