Last reviewed 13 August 2018

Paul Clarke takes us through some of the recent developments in the world of EU withdrawal.

According to those who supported remain in the Referendum, the last few weeks have seen the harsh realities of the vote’s implications coming sharply into focus; according to those who voted to leave, we are seeing remainers desperately trying to reverse the result aided by a recalcitrant EU which would rather punish the UK than move towards a mutually-beneficial trade deal. In other words, the position has become polarised and the Prime Minister’s attempts to broker a compromise deal are running up against entrenched positions on both sides – that is both sides in her own Parliament, indeed in her own party.

Mayhem in Parliament

The Chequers White Paper was undermined within days, not only by the resignation of two Cabinet ministers who had signed up to it, but by the Government giving way on amendments put up by Brexiteers determined to undermine the idea of co-operation with the EU on customs matters. This led one MP to ask who was really running the Government – the Prime Minister or Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the European Research Group (which has brought together those members demanding the hardest version of Brexit). So desperate did the Government become as it tried to maintain its authority through a series of votes on Brexit legislation that the Chief Whip reportedly urged Conservative MPs to break pairing arrangements with absent members from other parties. One voted despite having agreed not to do so to match a Liberal Democrat MP who was on maternity leave (although he, and the Prime Minister, later claimed that he had made a mistake).

Over to EU

Theresa May then sent her proposals to Brussels warning the EU that “the clock was ticking” and calling on the European Commission to act quickly if matters were to be concluded before the next (October) deadline. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, did not remind the Prime Minister that the EU had been asking for the detailed proposals that she has now submitted for more than a year.

As to the substance of the UK position, he told a meeting of the EU’s General Affairs Council: “We can use elements [of the White Paper] to build common ground, although there are some elements that do seem to contradict the principles agreed by the EU-27 … the indivisibility of the four freedoms.” He also queried whether the UK really expected the EU to delegate the collection of tariffs to a country outside the Union.

For the UK, the new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab described Mr Barnier as “a man who wants to do a deal with us” and said the fact that he was asking questions about the UK’s Brexit White Paper instead of “blowing it out of the water” was “a good, positive sign”.

Searching for a solution

It is an indication of how difficult the current position has become that so many different options are being put forward to break what many are coming to see as an impasse at Westminster. These include:

  • A second referendum

    Supporters of this idea argue that positions have become so entrenched in Westminster that “the people” must be asked to reconsider. This time there would be three options on offer: stay in the EU; accept whatever deal Mrs May agrees with Brussels; or leave with no deal. Far from resolving the problem, however, many people feel that this could actually make matters worse. A close vote with no obvious winner from the three options would, opponents suggest, be a disaster.

  • A Government of national unity

    This worked during the Second World War but then everyone agreed on their ultimate aim (victory over the Nazis) and they had a charismatic leader pulling everyone together (Winston Churchill). It is hard to see anyone from the current batch of politicians emulating Churchill and even harder to see enough MPs agreeing on one over-riding aim.

  • Joining the EEA

    Popular with the Labour Party, this option was aired in the run-up to the Referendum with many proponents arguing that Norway seemed to manage very well with its membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) giving it access to the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union. However, the counter-argument remains that Norway and the other EEA members pay heavily for this privilege and crucially they have to accept EU legislation to which they have had no input. It is hard to see how this position can be reconciled with the Brexiteer’s claim that leaving the EU is all about “taking back control”. EEA members also accept the right of EU citizens to freedom of movement so, again, this does not tally with UK demands for “control of our borders”.

  • Extending the Article 50 period

    There is a strong school of thought that Mrs May made a huge mistake when she triggered the Article 50 process before her party, let alone Parliament, had come to any sort of conclusion on what Brexit actually means (hence the over-use of “Brexit means Brexit”). The result has been that many months have been wasted in trying to arrive at a compromise solution. The Chequers White Paper should, many analysts have suggested, have appeared more than a year ago and been the basis of discussions with the EU in the intervening period. While it is possible that the EU would grant an extension, it is hard to see how Mrs May could persuade the Brexiteers in her party that remaining in the EU for a longer period is a good idea.

  • Giving Northern Ireland special status so that it stays in a customs union with the EU even if the rest of the UK does not

    While this solves the intractable problem of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, it is unacceptable to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) whose votes currently give Theresa May her narrow majority in the UK Parliament. The Irish Sea would effectively become the border between Britain and the EU in this scenario but Mrs May has said that no British Prime Minister could ever accept a solution that divided the UK in this way.

  • Holding another general election.

    As with a second Referendum, this has the advantage of giving the electorate the chance to think again about its 2016 decision. To go any way towards resolving the problem, however, would require the two main parties to enter the election seeking a clear mandate for action. With both of them divided, it is hard to see how this can be achieved. An election could be forced on the country if Mrs May loses a vote of confidence and no clear alternative leader emerges. The possibility that this could see Jeremy Corbyn as the new Prime Minister seems to be enough at the moment to stop even the most ambitious Conservative politicians from trying to replace their current leader.

Doomsday scenario planning

Preparing for the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 30 March 2019 is a Commission memo, available at bit.ly/2O2pk6U, which highlights the immediate changes that will occur when the UK leaves and becomes a “third country”. These repercussions range from new controls at the EU’s outer border with the UK, to the loss of validity for UK-issued licences, certificates and authorisations and to different rules for data transfers. Checks and controls would be immediately introduced for customs, sanitary and phytosanitary standards and there will be significant delays in road transport and at ports. The Commission reminds the UK Government that, however the negotiations turnout, the UK will cease to be a Member State and that there will be no having cake and eating it (as Boris Johnson once predicted).

“The European Council has consistently recalled that a third country cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits as a Member State,” the memo states. It then goes on to spell out what Brexit means for the EU27 and what preparations they should be making in sectors including: transport; customs; financial services; food safety; pharmaceuticals; personal data; and professional qualifications.

Publication of this paper was dismissed by Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab as merely an attempt to pile pressure on the UK. The Commission said it had a duty to prepare for all eventualities. This point seemed to be accepted by the UK Government which said it would start issuing weekly information bulletins about how to make sure the UK is ready for “a disorderly Brexit”. For example, it said, small businesses will be given information about how to make customs declarations. Mr Raab has not denied claims that the Government is planning to stockpile food.

Long hot summer

As the UK Parliament and European Commission head into their summer recess, there will clearly be little time on the beach for Messrs Raab and Barnier. Only weeks remain before the October meeting of the EU Council at which the UK’s withdrawal agreement has to be agreed if the Article 50 timetable is to be adhered to. Just to add to their worries, the new Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said that there is now “a very real risk of a Brexit no-deal by accident” if the EU side failed to show a real change in approach. After a tumultuous few weeks, surely things can only get better?