May’s rushed renegotiation was both tactical masterstroke & strategic suicide
The “Brexit breakthrough” triumphantly announced before Christmas is, on closer inspection, not nearly as fitting a compromise as many initially had it. Indeed, as some were heard to observe at the time, when counter-posed parties both appear to herald a great victory you can be sure that all is not quite as it seems.
Close to the 11th hour, the preliminary agreement placated fractious EU leaders, calmed the nerves of a manifestly “weak and wobbly” British Prime Minister, and finally provided the media and markets with something to spin in a positive way. Shame, then, that far from achieving clarity and consensus, Phase 1 talks have muddied the water and increased the likelihood of the process getting bogged down and grinding to a halt.
Yes, the joint UK-EU report skilfully sidestepped various sticking points, and ensured progress to Phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations, but sadly doesn’t bear scrutiny in cold light of day. In fact, it establishes essentially unworkable/incompatible commitments and principles that “must be upheld in all circumstances” and yet will need to be rapidly revisited or a constitutional crisis can be expected to follow.
Firstly, in continuing to grant newly arriving EU citizens various rights in the UK up until we formally withdraw, the parties have established a firm incentive for further waves of European migrants to head over before the drawbridge is pulled up in 2019. The inclusion of (future) family members in the extensions to this provision unfortunately only enhances this potentiality. Suffice to say, this is certainly not what the majority of Britons polled voted for during the EU referendum.
Instead, the date set should be the day that it became clear that we had voted to leave the EU (UK Independence Day, June 24th 2016). Failing that, at a push, the date it became clear that the process was going to happen as it formerly got underway i.e. the day we served notice of our intention to withdraw under Article 50 (March 29th 2017). No matter how the establishment media spin it, caving in to EU demands to shift that date well into the future could only ever be seen as a sell-out.
Immediately upon leaving we will have restored autonomy over immigration policy and should, therefore, be free to determine who retains rights of residency on our overcrowded isles. Naturally this ought to entail recognising, respecting, and protecting the life choices made, in good faith, by UK and EU citizens under prevailing political conditions. That is, up to the point at which it became clear that the UK would be leaving, and not beyond it.
Secondly, the UK’s guarantee to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland is described as being an “overarching requirement”, giving effect to the belief that it is of primary importance e.g. over and above fulfilling the will of the people in respect of the referendum. Northern Irish freedom of movement appears now to have primacy over the collective constitutional destiny of the whole of the UK and can be used to put the brakes on Brexit. To say that such a glaringly democratically deficient proviso is unsatisfactory is an understatement.
Still worse, more specifically the government has committed to maintaining “full alignment” with the single market and Customs Union insofar as this is considered relevant to certain Irish and Northern Irish interests. This surprise undertaking is wide open to interpretation and, again, related obstacles to a meaningful break with the EU could well be insurmountable.
These commitments also appear to nullify a scenario in which we leave the Internal Market but retain truly independent access thereto (subject to negotiation). Hence, they tie our negotiators’ hands behind their backs at the critical next stage of talks, placing us firmly in “bad deal”-by-default territory. They also betray the spirit of the leave vote e.g. to #TakeControl of borders and trade policy, as well as fee monies, our laws, and legal system. We did not vote to leave the EU only to remain wedged half inside a small corner of it and arbitrarily “aligned” with its diktat, let alone to pay for the privilege!
Finally, the European Commission gaining the right to “intervene” (read: interfere) in cases before UK courts is not at all in keeping with the popular mandate either; nor too, our commitment to continue contributing (tens of £billions) to the EU annual budget, plus backing (very major) EU financial liabilities, way beyond the date of withdrawal (up to 2021).
In summary, in attempting to mitigate against the prospect of a ‘hard Brexit’ e.g. liable to prove inflammatory on the island of Ireland, paradoxically the deal effectively militates against a ‘soft Brexit’, enhancing the prospect of the UK bombing out as a whole. That is, if the PM’s firm affirmation that “no deal is better than a bad deal” is to be believed. Regrettably, the compulsory and yet apparently contradictory nature of key commitments in the report will surely be its undoing, and probably also that of at least one political leader, if not an entire government.
Still, out of the embers a phoenix may yet rise and, as self-congratulatory officials keep reminding us, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. We must hope that a rebooted British cabinet will act swiftly, and ideally discretely, to correct this apparently self-defeating act of capitulation on two flanks. Our leaders must be responsible enough to unite and get on with the serious business of preparing for a prospective clean break (while there’s still time); canny enough to have spotted the growing desperation on display among senior EU officials in early December; and brave enough to call their bluff the next time they try to run rings round us.