Against seemingly all the odds, we have a new Brexit deal. As an apparent vindication of UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s strategy to ramp up the threat of a no-deal departure from the EU and to force concessions from Brussels, one would imagine that Number 10 is rather happy right now. But that happiness will be tempered with caution, because some major issues lie ahead.
Negotiations in Brussels have produced legal texts on arrangements for Northern Ireland and on the political declaration, which outlines the broad outline of what the two sides want from their future relationship. These are the product of months of planning by the British government, so it’s reasonable to ask what has actually changed since former prime minister Theresa May struck her original deal.
Reading the text, the first impression is that there’s much more that hasn’t changed than has.
The protocol on Northern Ireland and Ireland has long been in the firing line. It proposes a backstop arrangement that would keep Northern Ireland in close alignment with the EU unless and until both UK and EU agreed to change that.
On that front, the introduction of a section on “democratic consent” is an important shift on the EU side. This provides a mechanism for the Northern Ireland Assembly to vote on whether to maintain the provisions of the protocol, with a requirement to have cross-community support. That means the UK is now no longer subject to the EU’s approval if it wants to end the backstop arrangement.
That said, a voting requirement to have majorities from both unionist and nationalist groupings makes it very hard to achieve – especially since the Northern Ireland Executive broke down several years ago and is still not in operation. While the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) might control unionist voting, it can only do the same with nationalists if it creates a much more benign and cooperative environment. And even if that does happen and arrangements are voted down by Stormont, there is still a long phasing-out period, so things cannot move too quickly.
From the EU’s perspective, this arrangement provides a degree of security, mainly because any decision to overturn the system is not solely in the hands of the UK – which has not been the most reliable partner of late.
The other big change is on customs arrangements. Instead of creating a temporary customs area for the whole of the UK, the revised Protocol makes Northern Ireland a part of the UK’s customs territory. Because that would imply border controls, a rather convoluted system of custom duty collection is set out.
In essence, the system collects duties from businesses, dependent upon where goods are coming from and going to, with the possibility of various exemptions that will be agreed down the line.
It’s a much more complex system than before, but it does allow Johnson to argue that the entire UK is leaving the EU’s customs union, allowing it to benefit from any new trade deals that might be concluded.
Meanwhile, the political declaration, the main change is that the UK now suggests it is looking for a much looser future relationship, based on a free trade agreement, rather than anything that might include participation in the EU’s single market or customs union.
While these are all noteworthy, they do represent only a very small part of the totality of the withdrawal agreement, as agreed by May last November. The Protocol still kicks into effect at the end of a transition period and the effect is still that Northern Ireland is kept very close to EU’s regulatory standards for many years. The future relationship remains as aspirational as May’s plans – until such a document is negotiated and ratified, by some future British government, no one can be sure what it will look like.
Nor did this negotiation touch on citizens’ rights, financial liabilities, the power of the EU’s courts to issue definitive rulings on matters of dispute (an important matter for hard Brexit supporters in the Conservative Party) or the institutional arrangements for managing all of this. Even as Number 10 goes into its selling mode, those continuities from last year’s text will be present in many people’s minds.
The plan still seems to be for the government to present this deal to the UK parliament in a special Saturday sitting on October 19. We already know that the DUP has issues with the revised text because it places Northern Ireland in a different legal position to the rest of the UK, so winning that vote looks even harder than it already did. The government will hope that it can present the deal to MPs as the last, best hope for a Brexit settlement – but, with wobbles from the DUP, Johnson will struggle to get close to a majority.
Even if he does, the potential to keep that majority together for the subsequent passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill looks even less likely. And remember that, as things stand today, this text isn’t even signed off by the 27 EU member states – there’s now not really enough time for them to digest and approve something that moves them off their previous position.
In short, this might still fall apart for Johnson, just as it did for May.
There is a song by the Melbourne band Little Heroes, called One Perfect Day, from back in 1982 (though it still attracts a cult following). In it, the lead singer asks his ex-girlfriend in England: tell me, is it still raining there in England, and did the government fall last night?
Well, it is still raining. And there is still talk of the government of Theresa May falling. We just observed a week of three parliamentary votes on Brexit, where the government was defeated in two of them.
In another extraordinary day yesterday, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, invoked the “Erskine May” parliamentary rules of procedure. That means that an amendment “which is the same, in substance” as an issue that has already been voted on cannot be proposed again in parliament. The speaker said that a new proposal must be “not different in terms of wording, but different in terms of substance”. Unless there are significant changes to the substance of the government’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement, it cannot be sent back to the House for a third “meaningful” vote.
So, what might happen now, with nine days to go until the UK is supposed to leave the EU?
If there is no parliamentary support for the Withdrawal Agreement, that does not mean the UK does not leave. The UK will leave on 29 March unless the UK government requests an extension to Article 50, which was activated by Theresa May two years ago on 29 March 2017. The Article says, among other things:
The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
If the UK leaves in a little over a week, it will no longer be in the EU and will no longer be party to hundreds of international treaties and thousands of pieces of legislation.
What are the options in order to avoid crashing out this way? Could the British government somehow get the Withdrawal Agreement through parliament on a third attempt?
One step that Theresa May might be contemplating is taking the extraordinary measure of “proroguing” the parliament. Proroguing effectively means terminating the current session, without actually dissolving it, and having parliament reconvene in a new session. The government would then have the option – if the temporary suspension of the parliament goes smoothly – to re-send the Withdrawal Agreement for a meaningful vote to a newly-convened parliament.
This may not occur in time for the looming exit deadline, and May is unlikely to attempt to present the deal for a third time, unless the Speaker changes his position. So, May could be obliged to yet again set out for Brussels and some EU national capitals to shore up support for an extension of Article 50.
The EU has just received a formal request for an extension of Article 50. The House of Commons voted last week for such an extension and May indicated she would request one.
Perhaps giving a sense of the frustration in some EU capitals about the negotiations, Loiseau revealed she has called her cat Brexit because it is indecisive, as it “meows loudly to be let out each morning, but then refuses to go outside when she opens the door”.
The EU would no doubt request that an extension be fully justified – and there is little European appetite to reopen negotiations with Britain. The EU has been preparing for Brexit for some time.
It is conceivable that the UK could need to justify a further request that Article 50 be extended well beyond the 30 June 2019 date that Theresa May has requested in her letter to European Council President Donald Tusk. But there are major problems with this, as the UK would need to take part in the European Parliament elections to take place in May this year. It could also be obliged to contribute to the new EU budget round, known as the Multiannual Financial Framework.
Of course, the idea of voting more than once on a Brexit deal in Parliament raises again the call for a second referendum on EU membership by the people – a people’s vote.
Alternatively, the UK could remain in the EU and revoke Article 50. A recent EU court ruling that this does not require the consent of the other 27 EU states has emboldened those who are campaigning for a new referendum – although it is far from clear what questions would appear on the ballot paper.
The possibility of Theresa May resigning is never far from the minds of her detractors – whether the European Research Group in her own party, or the Labour party leadership under Jeremy Corbyn.
Meanwhile, the UK Trade Secretary Liam Fox has announced a trade deal that has just been initialled with Iceland and Norway. He stated that this was in addition to the agreement signed with Liechtenstein. At least Norway and Iceland are larger than Liechtenstein, a country of fewer than 38,000 people – famous for being the world’s largest exporter of false teeth.
These new trading partners are considerably smaller than the EU Single Market of over 500 million that the UK currently belongs to. They will certainly not fill the huge void left by Brexit.
Yet again, Theresa May’s government is no doubt hoping for just One Perfect Day, but it is not looking likely at the moment.
In electing to disentangle from Europe without first understanding the full implications, ordinary Britons either leaped for the abyss, or more likely, expected their representatives to continue doing their jobs.
Such core responsibilities as scoping out the proposed divorce terms, then proceeding to minimise the costs through whatever arrangements were necessary to vouchsafe the national interest.
What they got instead was epic levels of political class posturing and, functionally speaking, a kind of institutional surrender.
While “leavers” implicitly sold the hope of concentrating and thus strengthening “Little Britain” against a culturally amorphous world, their project has done the opposite, materially weakening their nation, cleaving it politically, socially, economically.
Whole new fault lines have appeared. Ominously, they cut across the old party silos, divide the generations, split city from country, delineate the tertiary educated from the rest, and widen the gap between the people and their parliament.
It’s a story of how low-level grumbles about a peculiarly “English” identity ruptured by globalism – in London, you’re never more than three metres from a Polish plumber, and so on – were turned against the elites and used to fracture Britain from within.
The misleadingly titled United Kingdom Independence Party might well have stayed as a fringe operation nibbling away at the Tory pie-crust. But through cravenness, and sheer mendacity, UKIP’s niche project enlivened the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party. Bit by bit, the whole divisive project was allowed to go mainstream, eventually engulfing a hapless polity.
UKIP successes, mainly in European parliament elections (ironically), caused panic on the Conservative side, leading to David Cameron’s promise of a post-election referendum.
In the great unravelling since that June 2016 vote, British prestige abroad has been shredded and the country’s guileless political leaders reduced to laughing stock. All sides have proved incapable of moving forward, yet unwilling to go back.
A large part of the explanation is that Westminster imbued what was merely an advisory plebiscite with supreme democratic virtue. In doing so, it has bizarrely written itself out of what is arguably the biggest single danger to British prosperity and foreign influence since the second world war.
Anyone quibbling with the plebiscite’s verdict is unfashionably at odds with the people and perhaps, democracy itself.
No matter that a majority of eligible voters did not vote to “leave”, or that so little could be known in advance of the colossal costs of withdrawal. Even if one accepts that the plebiscite expressed a clear public preference to withdraw, it must surely be conceded that it fell short of informed consent.
New examples of industries adversely affected have emerged on an almost daily basis since. And because negotiations with the other 27 member-states had not occurred in earnest, it was impossible to know which rules would be retained and which advantages of EU membership would be completely lost.
Everything from mobile phone roaming and the validity of British driver’s licences is up for grabs, along with border regulation, labour rules, pharmaceuticals, and countless others.
Nonetheless, in the vote’s shambolic aftermath, politicians have merely compounded the damage, cowering behind the “peoples’ will”.
In this sense, Britain’s Brexit careen is a double win for galloping populism. The the country will pull out of Europe at its own considerable expense while putting the viability of representative parliamentary government under acute new strains.
For conservatives, this represents a clear-cut betrayal of their responsibility as guardians of society’s bedrock conventions, not the least of which is the maintenance of public confidence in the parliamentary system itself.
Almost three years on from the vote, a bitterly divided country drifts rudderless towards the jagged rocks of a “no-deal” Brexit, with Westminster paralysed by brinkmanship, score-settling, and plain old mediocrity.
A riven government lacks the authority needed in the parliament but also the courage to return to the people with the news that what they approved in the abstract in June 2016 has turned out to be considerably more complicated, and demands reconsideration.
As well as facing vast upfront costs, which were known, Britons must also gird for living standards much lower than would otherwise be the case. Its own public officials have said so in a February UK briefing paper outlining a no-deal Brexit on March 29. It said:
The government has already published long term analysis of the impact of a no deal scenario that implicitly assumes a smooth, orderly transition to WTO rules.
This estimates that the UK economy would be 6.3-9% smaller in the long term in a no deal scenario (after around 15 years) than it otherwise would have been when compared with today’s arrangements, assuming no action is taken. There would also be significant variation across the UK (Wales -8.1%, Scotland -8.0%, Northern Ireland -9.1% and the North East of England -10.5%).
It goes on to say:
This analysis does not account for any short term disruptions, which would be likely to have additional short and long run economic impacts in an immediate no deal scenario.
And, that no amount of modelling can predict all of the “complex ways in which the UK economy could be affected by exiting the EU, particularly given the unprecedented circumstances of the UK’s departure.”
This week the OECD warned that Britain’s pale growth would dip into recession with a no-deal Brexit. Even if a deal is secured, it would drop by around 1%.
Belatedly, Prime Minister Theresa May, who has been ineptly playing “chicken” with both remainers and “no-dealers” alike, has accepted that crashing out on March 29 is unacceptable. Thus she has now blinked herself.
Her mishandling of the crisis has been marked by a series of ultimatums and repudiations – an unedifying pantomime in which weakness masquerades unconvincingly as strength.
In a significant departure from that approach, the embattled PM has signalled that MPs will get the opportunity to vote to extend the Article 50 deadline – effectively shifting the cliff of a no-deal exit until later in the year.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn too has blinked, the long-term Eurosceptic is reluctantly backing the only honourable course: a second public vote.
Until now, his woeful equivocation, sometimes referred to as “constructive ambiguity” has gleefully added to the misery, even if its main aim has been to bridge a divide in his own ranks.
As The Economist has pointed out, the reason that both leaders have finally yielded is that each is “losing control of their own parties”.
May has promised a meaningful parliamentary vote by March 12 with whatever further concessions she can eke out of European negotiators.
But assuming her deal remains unacceptable (she lost the last one by a staggering 230 votes) and Labour’s amendments fail also, a second plebiscite appears the only legitimate option.
This would not dishonour the first plebiscite, as May and others fulminate, but rather recast the 2016 referendum as the first leg of a two-stage process. The first is approval to negotiate the best deal possible with Brussels. The second becomes voters’ approval or rejection in the full knowledge of what leaving the EU means in terms of costs, the differential impact on critical sectors and regions of the country – not least the Irish partition.
Having handed this unquantified question to the people in 2016 and then failed to make it work, Westminster should finally admit it is incapable of resolving the mess its leaders unleashed.
A second plebiscite would at least get closer to informed consent.
Imagine an internet where you couldn’t access any content unless it complied with every law of all the countries in the world.
In this scenario, you would be prevented from expressing views that were critical of many of the world’s dictatorships. You would not be able to question aspects of some religions due to blasphemy laws. And some of the photos you post of your children would be illegal.
A development like this is not as far fetched as it currently may seem.
Every country wants its laws respected online. The scenario above may be an unavoidable outcome if countries are successful in seeking to impose their laws globally. Even though they can’t prosecute the person who posted the content, they can try to force the internet platforms that host the content to remove or block it.
A legal opinion released last week in a case currently before the courts in the European Union argues content should generally only be blocked in countries where it breaches the law, not globally. This is a sensible approach, and a necessity if we wish to continue to enjoy the benefits currently offered by the internet.
There have been numerous examples of courts seeking to impose their content restrictions globally by ordering the major internet platforms to remove or block access to specific content.
The most recent high profile case is a 2017 decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, in which the court sought to compel Google to block certain search results globally. That dispute is still ongoing after a US court sided with Google.
Courts in Australia and the United States have also opted for global content restrictions, without regard for the impact on internet users in other countries. For example, in the Australian case, Justice Pembroke ordered Twitter to block all future postings globally – regardless of topic – by a particular Twitter user.
This is troubling. After all, what is illegal in one country may be perfectly legal in all other countries. Why should the harshest laws determine what can be posted online? Why should duties imposed by one country trump rights afforded to us by the laws in many other countries – particularly international human rights laws?
The latest case to address this question is an ongoing dispute in the EU. The French data protection authority (CNIL) sought to force search engines to remove search results (known as de-referencing) globally where those results violate the EU’s so-called “right to be forgotten” legislation.
The right to be forgotten is an aspect of the EU’s data privacy law that, in simplified terms, gives people the right to have online content blocked on search engines, where the content is no longer relevant.
Google disputed this and the matter has reached the EU’s highest court – the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). On 10 January 2019, an Advocate General of the court issued his opinion on the matter (so far only available in French). Such opinions are not binding on the court, but the judgment often follows the reasoning of the Advocate General. The judges are now beginning their deliberations in this case and their judgment will be given at a later date.
In his opinion, the Advocate General concluded that, in relation to the right to be forgotten, search engines:
…must take every measure available to it to ensure full and effective de-referencing within the EU.
He went on to say that de-referencing of the search results should only apply inside the EU.
But he didn’t rule out the possibility that:
…in certain situations, a search engine operator may be required to take de-referencing actions at the worldwide level.
If the EU court adopts the approach of the Canadian Supreme Court and seeks to impose EU law globally, many other countries – including repressive dictatorships – are likely to view this as a “green light” to impose their laws globally.
But if the EU court adopts the more measured approach proposed in the Advocate General’s opinion, we may see a reversal of the current dangerous trend of global content restriction orders.
It may be months until we see the final judgment. But the stakes are high and the future of the internet, as we know it, hangs in the balance.
On June 23, 2016 the United Kingdom held a referendum to decide whether it should leave or remain in the European Union. More than 30 million people took part in the vote with 51.9% choosing to leave and 48.1% to remain.
Six months later, the new Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a speech in which she said:
the British people voted for change… And it is the job of this government to deliver it.
Where it got messy is deciding how to leave the Union. Would it be a clean break, the so-called hard Brexit, or a softer version where some links to the EU remained?
The European Union is an economic and political partnership of 28 European countries across the whole continent, including France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, the UK and Ireland. It operates under a “single market” which means goods, services, capitals and people can move around as if the member states were one country.
Nineteen of the member countries, not including the UK, share a common currency, the Euro. The EU also has its own parliament which sets rules in areas including the environment, transport and consumer rights.
Theresa May’s vision for leaving the European Union came in a Brexit White Paper, which she delivered to Parliament on February 2, 2017. The paper explained that, in negotiating the exit with the EU, the UK would:
In substance, this white paper is a clear indication for the hard Brexit option. A soft Brexit would be where the UK would somehow remain in the European single market, or at the very least become an external member of the EU Customs Union. This is the case for Turkey and some micro-nations including Monaco, Andorra and San Marino.
A customs union is an arrangement between two or more countries which allows goods to circulate freely in the area of the union. This is done by removing tariffs between the countries inside the union and introducing a common external tariff for the countries outside the union.
A customs union does not cover trade in services and flows of capital and people. But the treaties that have established the EU enshrine the single market (of which the customs union is a component) in four inextricable pillars: the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. For the EU this is an all-or-nothing package, so that single market members cannot pick and choose only some of the four freedoms.
The issue of a hard or soft Brexit is different from that of the deal, or no-deal, Brexit. The first issue has already been set: it’s a hard Brexit, as Theresa May is not seeking membership of both the EU single market and Customs Union.
This allows the UK to independently negotiate international trade agreements either with individual countries or other customs unions after the UK’s official withdrawal date: March, 29 2019. After this date, the UK and EU may or may not strike a deal on what happens next.
So, the post-withdrawal arrangements with the EU comprise the deal or no-deal issue currently at stake: will the UK crash out of the EU with or without shared plans, and with or without a gradual implementation period?
Both the UK government and the EU governing bodies clearly prefer to split with a deal and a more gradual separation process. To this aim, the two sides have spent nearly two years in the painstaking negotiation of a withdrawal agreement.
This is the now infamous “Brexit deal” – a 585-page legally-binding text agreed to by the EU and UK government on November, 14 2018. The deal sets the terms of the UK’s divorce from the EU and can only enter into force once ratified by the UK parliament.
But, on January 15, 2019 Britain’s House of Commons rejected the Brexit deal by a stunning and unprecedented majority of 230. More than one third of Theresa May’s majority MPs joined the opposition parties against the Brexit deal despite confirming their confidence on the government the following day.
So what’s the problem with the deal?
Like in an actual divorce, the rejected agreement sets the terms for splitting the assets, liabilities and people shared across the two sides. Leaving aside the numerous legal resolutions especially affecting commerce, the deal in particular defines how much money the UK owes the EU and the terms under which the estimated £39bn will be paid.
The deal also preserves the existing residency and working rights of UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU and of the EU citizens living in the UK up until the end of the Brexit implementation period set for 31 December 2020.
But the thorniest issue of the Brexit deal, and the one that proved to be its major fault line, is the proposed method of avoiding the return of a physical border between the UK’s Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – an EU member state.
The island of Ireland is divided into two separate entities: the Republic of Ireland, which is an independent nation member of the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK and has 18 seats in the UK parliament.
The Northern Ireland backstop is a convoluted measure of last resort to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland until the UK and the EU can find a long-term solution for an indefinite period – even after the expiration of the Brexit implementation period (December, 31 2020).
The fact is – with or without the Brexit deal – the Brexit White Paper’s outline to stay outside the EU Single Market and Customs Union means that, eventually, a physical border will reappear on the island of Ireland.
This is an ominous prospect as memories of the “Troubles”, the bloody Northern Ireland conflict triggered by border clashes in the late 1960s – between the majority unionist or UK loyalist Protestant population and the minority Catholic or Irish nationalist one – are still fresh.
Over the years the UK and Ireland’s EU membership eliminated any hard borders in Ireland. This played a major part in spelling the end of the Troubles in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which is also based on keeping the whole of Ireland border-free.
A hard Brexit repudiates one of the cornerstones of the Good Friday Agreements and, short of a customs union with the EU, any deal would only kick the can down the road. Theresa May’s proposed solution is the Irish border Brexit backstop.
It’s called a backstop precisely because it pushes the UK border with the EU back away from Northern Ireland. This would mean Northern Ireland would all but remain subject to the EU legal framework and be kept virtually separate from the rest of the UK for an indefinite time.
And this is why the conservative Brexit hardliners, and the small but indispensable Northern Irish Democratic Union Party (DUP), voted against Theresa May’s deal. Despite the fact a majority of Northern Irish voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, the DUP fears the backstop would provide momentum to those who wish to reunify Ireland.
On the other hand, despite Theresa May’s insistence, the EU is not providing any legally binding guarantee of a definite expiry date for the Irish backstop. The EU’s strategic game is clear, as the continuing existence of the Irish backstop provides yet another strong negotiating chip in respect to any future dealings with the UK.
So what are the alternatives to Theresa May’s hard Brexit deal? Wild guesses include delaying or withdrawing the withdrawal, so to speak, while some even call for a second Brexit referendum. Considering the political uncertainties and legal realities, any guess is little more than wishful thinking.