The long Easter weekend is behind us and the May Day holiday has come and gone. I hope you are all feeling refreshed because the difficult issues that couldn’t be solved before the holidays have not gone away, they have only been sleeping. Here in Hong Kong we come back to the enigma of how to progress with political reform and Article 23 legislation – now with its wonderful new partner subject of extradition – while in Europe it is the “fishbone in the throat” of Brexit.
Some weeks ago British prime minister Theresa May expressed the hope that all parties would take advantage of the coming holidays to reflect carefully on how the UK could implement the decision of the 2016 referendum to quit the European Union. I don’t know whether members of her own Conservative party, or the opposition Labour party led by unreconstructed Marxist Jeremy Corbyn, have done so or what answers they may have come up with. But I did consider the different options and come to a rather unnerving preliminary conclusion. By chance I then had the opportunity to discuss the subject with various consuls general from different European countries at a recent diplomatic cocktail party.
The simple fact is that there is no magic formula to undo the original decision in the 1970s for the UK to join the then European Economic Community. In other words there may be no deal to be done. Perhaps there is only a stark choice between No Brexit, and No-Deal Brexit.
Over the past 40 years, with the UK inside what grew into the EU, life in all its many aspects did not stand still. Rather it developed in ways that accommodated the new facts. Thus millions of EU citizens have found themselves living and working in other member countries. Companies’ supply chains became much more complex and sophisticated because completely free trade made this possible. Components move backwards and forwards between countries many times before a finished product emerges as an export from one of them. Most tellingly, the removal of the hard border between the independent country of Ireland, and the corner of the island – Northern Ireland – which remains part of the UK, made possible the peace deal of 1998 known as the Good Friday Agreement.
It has been a cornerstone of the EU’s negotiating position in the talks with the UK about its proposed exit that nothing should be done which reintroduces a hard border between the two parts of the Irish island because that would jeopardise the peace agreement. The UK is also committed to maintaining the peace. From this situation emerges the now notorious Irish backstop. In effect what this means is that for a long time after the UK has notionally left the EU, for trade purposes it will have to remain part of it until in some unspecified way to be devised in future it becomes possible to have a soft border between what are legally two different trading entities.
Since the backstop stays in place indefinitely until a solution is found, the Brexiteers are naturally unhappy. Throughout the twilight zone of being neither in nor out the UK would not be free to negotiate its own independent trade deals with non-EU member states. Thus the door to the land of these supposed exciting opportunities would remain barred for the foreseeable future. On top of this unsatisfactory situation, UK companies wishing to continue to sell goods and services to the 27 remaining states (far and away their largest market) would have to comply with all the existing regulations governing such dealings. Moreover they would also be bound to comply with any subsequent changes made to those regulations and procedures but now with the added disadvantage of having no voice in shaping them. Brexiteers say, not unreasonably, that this is not the real Brexit the country thought it would be getting when it voted.
The Brexiteers want a finite date by which the backstop would lapse. The Remainers want a new vote on whether the UK should leave at all.
May has sought to negotiate a way forward which captures these conflicting objectives. She has been unable to do so because – quite frankly – it is not possible. Her leave deal has been voted down three times by the House of Commons because the circle cannot be squared.
Every consul general to whom I have spoken believes the UK is stronger as part of the EU, and the EU is stronger with the UK as a member. The argument in favour of staying in and seeking to reform the organization from the inside are, in their view, very powerful. As a graduate of the London School of Economics I find the economic arguments compelling. But clearly the Brexiteers are not convinced. Taking a wider view, this is a very dangerous situation for the future of UK politics.
If May’s departure deal or any likely variant of it is finally agreed and implemented, it will be a disaster. But those who favoured leaving will always be able to blame the situation on the fact that they did not get a real Brexit. Paradoxically those in favour of remaining – the Remainers – will be able to say this is proof the UK should have stayed in. The argument will rumble for decades and never be resolved.
This is what has led me to the conclusion that attempts to forge a deal are doomed to fail and the new deadline of 31 October will not be met. There is a straight choice between a Parliamentary vote to stay, endorsed by a confirmatory referendum, or just crashing out without a deal. When I put this conclusion to one consul general, he said simply “We in Europe worked this out two years ago. What surprised us was that the Brits, who are supposed to be the clever ones, still haven’t realized it”. Just so.