April 01, 2019
The UK parliament’s new rejection of the withdrawal treaty on Friday is serious, because the UK is no longer in control of the process. If the UK parliament were to pass a final meaningful vote this week we see no reason why the UK should not be able to leave on May 22, even though the official deadline for that was last Friday. But we are now at a point where accidents can derail the process.
Today is the second and, we presume, final day of the indicative votes in the Commons. By next Monday at the latest, Theresa May will have to tell the European Council what the UK wants to do. After today, there are at most four days to reach a compromise.
We agree with the words of David Gauke, the justice secretary in Theresa May's cabinet, when he says that if the indicatives votes come out in favour of a softer Brexit option it will be hard for the government to leave without a deal. For this reason, the outcome of today's indicative votes matters. But if no single option carries a majority, the risk of an accidental no-deal Brexit would increase.
The problem with all the alternative Brexit versions is that none is fully worked out. Ken Clarke's version of a customs union probably stands the best chance of securing a majority today, but it is best to think of this and the other proposals as broad aspirations. A customs union is not as clean-cut an arrangement as it may sound. It would facilitate, but not solve, the Irish border issue. There are many regulatory complications that would need to be addressed. The good news is that they do not need to be addressed now. The way forward does not lie in the acceptance of a very specific version of the future relationship, but in a relatively simple re-drafting of the political declaration that allows alternative versions to be considered.
May has already said she would give the UK parliament the right to set the agenda for the trade talks by accepting an amendment, brought by six Labour MPs, that would give parliament co-decision rights in the future trade negotiations. Lisa Nandy, one of the six MPs, said that even with this amendment it was far from clear that a fourth meaningful vote would draw support from the Labour Party.
We were reminded of the Labour Party's state of Brexit confusion when we saw an interview with Emily Thornberry, Labour's shadow foreign secretary. Her lack of knowledge of the Brexit process stands out even by the low standards of the House of Commons. She claimed, wrongly, that there was no need to hold European elections if the process went beyond May 22. And she was not aware that the backstop related to all of the UK and not only Northern Ireland. She also repeated the idea that Labour would renegotiate the withdrawal treaty, which of course the EU will not do.
Despite the failure of last Friday's vote, there is a chance that this week’s meaningful vote could pass. Robert Peston writes that there is a narrow route to victory. 15 Tory Brexiteers could switch - and then May needs only 15 Labour MPs, which would be doable if May supported the amendment by the six Labour MPs. There is still no sign that the DUP will cave in. The DUP is not averse to a customs union, however. For them the bigger issue is the possibility of a regulatory wedge between Northern Ireland and the UK. A customs union would, in fact, mitigate some of their problems. But a customs union might not deliver the 15 votes from Tory MPs. So May is really facing a difficult trade-off between gaining and losing MPs from both sides.
In his FT column, Wolfgang Munchau considers the strategic questions for the EU when considering a long extension. The EU has an innate tendency to kick the can down the road. There can be no question that a majority of EU leaders would choose that option. It is in their DNA. But since this is a decision that needs to be taken by unanimity, the discussion in the European Council on April 12 could be more difficult. If the UK were to agree only to holding European elections, but had no other plan, the European Council would face the prospect of a hardline Tory eurosceptic prime minister soon joining their ranks as a full member. France and Spain would lose the five seats in the European Parliament that they would get if Brexit were to happen. And, given the likely distribution of British MPs across groups in the European Parliament, Macron’s leverage in the EU would likely be lower than otherwise. Munchau makes no prediction about what leaders will decide when faced with the concrete choice. But he says that the issues are real, and that at least some members of the European Council should be expected to raise them.