The United Kingdom will have another prime minister by the end of July, when members of the Conservative party choose between Jeremy Hunt (who?) and Boris Johnson (yes, really).
Aside from the morbid fascination of watching this from afar, this leadership contest matters because it will determine who will (presumably) lead the UK out of the European Union, with or without a deal.
One way or another, this will affect Australia’s future trade relationship with the UK.
Selecting a new Tory leader
Selecting a leader of the Conservative party (or Tories) used to be easy. As late as 2003, a series of potential candidates would be “sounded out” behind-the-scenes by grandees, including lords and senior MPs, to see if they wanted the honour of leading the party (and, as a happy by-product, the country).
As with all leadership positions, not everyone wanted the job. When the men in suits offered Sir Alec Douglas-Home the honour of being prime minister in 1963, he famously replied: “Please, please not me!”
They ignored him and he went on to become one of the least successful prime ministers in British history.
But the sounding-out process was democratised in 1998 so that the party base could have a say. The process for electing a new leader of the Conservative party is that any or all members of parliament (MPs) can put their hat in the ring. If they gain enough support from fellow parliamentarians, they compete against each other in a series of votes among MPs, until there are only two contenders left standing.
At this point, the party members in the towns and shires (the so-called grassroots members) get to vote on who next becomes leader.
This innovation came at a moment in time when the Conservative membership was becoming highly unrepresentative of the country as a whole. And since the late 1990s, the number of members in the Conservative party is declining, the average age is increasing, and the membership is overwhelmingly white. This has led some people to describe the conservatives as “pale and stale”.
Johnson vs Hunt
This time round there were 10 runners. The field became “pale, male and stale” when the two female contenders, Esther McVey and Andrea Leadsom, did not gain the required number of votes to progress to the next round.
Eventually we got down to Hunt and Johnson.
Johnson, the former London mayor and foreign secretary, needs no introduction. Yet, despite a campaign mired in controversy about his personal qualities and his avoidance of most TV debates, Johnson was still in front among party members as of late June.
He may scandalise opinion outside the Conservative party, but the grassroots members still rate him. This is partly because he stands for leaving the EU without a deal on Oct. 31, 2019 – an article of faith among Brexit-supporting Conservatives.
In contrast, Hunt, the current foreign secretary, is more measured and presents himself as the more likely of the two candidates to secure a deal with the EU, as Johnson is not taken seriously in Brussels.
Of course, Johnson and Hunt’s respective positions on Brexit matter only so much because no change of leader affects the numbers in parliament. The real question then becomes, will the new leader call – or be forced into – a general election to break the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit?
What this means for Brexit
Brexit has radicalised the Tory base, which is broadly in favour of leaving with a no deal (unlike the rest of the country). A no-deal, or hard, Brexit means the UK would leave the EU without any agreements in place to soften the economic shock of leaving its largest trading partner, the EU. This is now Johnson’s stated position.
The success of the Brexit Party and a threat from the resurgent centrist and pro-Remain Liberal Democrats makes these challenging times for party strategists. In fact, the Conservatives are only united in their dislike of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Significantly, neither leadership contender really understands the multinational United Kingdom or seemingly cares about the strain Brexit is putting on the union.
Neither candidate has an answer to the Northern Ireland “backstop” issue, for instance, which seeks to avoid the reestablishment of a political border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland in Ulster (the source of past conflict). And a hard Brexit will see increased support for independence in Scotland.
What’s more, the results of a recent YouGov survey of Conservative party members and their attitudes toward Brexit added more weight to the idea that Brexit is, essentially, an English nationalism movement.
So, in keeping with the permanent state of political misery induced by Brexit, any outcome of the leadership contest and the subsequent UK-EU politics will make almost everyone unhappy.
Both sides feel like they are losing. This is a result of the referendum format; in an election cycle, you at least think your side might have a chance next time.
But deep divisions over Brexit mean that the future of the Conservative party is at stake. Like turkeys voting for Christmas, if Johnson is elected leader, there may not be a next time for either the Conservative party or the United Kingdom.
Like Avengers: Endgame we all knew it was coming but weren’t quite sure exactly how it would play out. Theresa May, the Remainer who promised to deliver Brexit, has finally relinquished her impossible job.
Many in the UK, the EU and above all the Conservative Party will be toasting her departure, but it is hard not to feel sorry for her. She was certainly dealt a bad hand.
But the added problem was she played it badly, too. By interpreting the vote to leave the EU as a mandate for a “hard Brexit”, she made the UK government hostage to the extreme Brexiteers in her own party.
Above all, her decision to call a snap election in 2017 was the greatest miscalculation in British politics since 2016, when then-Prime Minister David Cameron lost the EU Referendum. (The bar is set quite high at the moment.)
In the end, her much-vaunted resilience and fortitude became part of the problem rather than the solution. The Brexit conundrum requires a deft political touch, sublime party management skills, subtle negotiation techniques, interpersonal nous and a sense of the gravity of the situation that the United Kingdom faces.
Cue… Boris Johnson.
BoJo’s hard Brexit credentials
Johnson – or BoJo to his mates – is one of the leading candidates to succeed May as prime minster. He has none of the required qualities to make a success of Brexit. If Johnson becomes PM, the most likely outcome is a no-deal Brexit leavened with the rhetoric of past and future glories.
Johnson is the gadfly of British politics. There has always been a strong suspicion that Brexit is merely part of a grand strategy to make himself prime minister – like Winston Churchill, only not as good.
A latecomer to the Brexit cause, his influential role in the Leave campaign saw him elevated to the position of foreign secretary. In ways that can happen only to the privileged, this was a position he acquired as a punishment for getting Britain into this mess in the first place.
Slumming it as foreign secretary was never going to be enough for Johnson – he’s always had his eyes on 10 Downing Street. But he has not chosen the usual path to the top: entering Cabinet, working diligently, cultivating a broad appeal that can transcend party politics when one tilts at the top job.
Instead, he has chosen a more chaotic, even flippant, approach. It’s all quite a laugh, really. Offending foreigners is a particular forte of his: he’s made dismissive comments about US President Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan” ancestry, compared the aims of the European Union to Hitler’s motivations and warned EU leaders not to give the UK “punishment beatings” after the referendum. This built on a long history of EU-baiting while he was editor of The Spectator.
This kind of “British humour” is one of the reasons he is so universally disliked within the EU. It is also one of the reasons he is so favoured amongst the Conservative rank and file.
Having taken a drubbing at local and EU elections, the Conservatives have the sense to see the crisis facing their party, even if they continue to believe that Britain can be economically better off out of the EU. And the way Johnson has flexed his hard-Brexit muscles has won him support amongst a base that has become increasingly radicalised as the Brexit negotiations under May hit a dead end at Westminster.
Johnson’s hard Brexit credentials were established back in July 2018 when he resigned from Cabinet over the so-called Chequers proposal – the first of many iterations of the plan to extricate the UK from the EU.
But Brexit is not just about UK-EU relations. Despite the British rhetoric, Johnson, like most Brexiteers, does not understand the United Kingdom particularly well. The whole impasse over the Irish border backstop came about because no one in the Leave camp thought through the implications that leaving the EU would have on Northern Ireland.
Johnson is also not seeing the risk that a no-deal Brexit will very likely trigger another referendum – on Scottish independence.
What all this means for Australia
There is a morbid fascination with watching this from Australia, but we are closer to the whole mess than we might think.
Johnson is a huge fan of Australia. While in Melbourne in 2013, he suggested having a zone of labour mobility between the UK and Australia, similar to the rights enjoyed by EU citizens. In 2014, he went further by proposing such a labour mobility zone in a report to parliament.
This plan, however, was not well thought through. It is yet another example of Johnson’s greatest flaw.
Johnson had fans here, too, although those people are mostly now departed from federal parliament. Before he made Prince Philip a knight of Australia, Tony Abbott made Johnson honorary Australian of the Year in 2014, for his services to Australians in “Kangaroo Valley” (Earls Court, not New South Wales) when mayor of London.
There are plenty of other candidates for leader of the Conservative Party (and hence prime minister), who would approach the job more seriously. But Johnson is popular and is recognised across the UK and the world over – and that will likely be enough to make him the next UK prime minister.
Julian Assange, the Australian cofounder of Wikileaks, was arrested on April 11 by British police at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had been claiming political asylum for almost seven years.
He has faced a range of criminal charges and extradition orders, and several crucial aspects of his situation remain to be resolved.
What are the British charges against Assange, and what sentence could be imposed?
Assange moved into the Ecuadorian embassy in London in June 2012 after losing the final appeal against his transfer to Sweden on a European Arrest Warrant (EAW). He was then charged with failing to surrender to the court.
While in the embassy, Assange could not be arrested because of the international legal protection of diplomatic premises, which meant police could not enter without Ecuador’s consent. On April 11, British police were invited into the embassy and made the arrest. On the same day, Assange was found guilty, and awaits sentencing. The charge of failing to surrender to the court carries a jail term of up to 12 months.
What are the US charges against Assange?
Also on April 11, the United States government unsealed an indictment made in March 2018, charging Assange with a conspiracy to help whistleblower Chelsea Manning crack a password which enabled her to pass on classified documents that were then published by WikiLeaks. The US has requested that the UK extradite Assange to face these charges before a US court.
What were the Swedish charges, and could they be revived?
In 2010, a Swedish prosecutor issued the EAW requesting Assange’s transfer to Sweden to face sexual assault allegations, which he denies. In 2016, Assange was questioned by Swedish authorities by video link while he remained in the Ecuadorian embassy. In 2017, they closed their investigation.
After Assange was arrested and removed from the embassy, the lawyer for one of the complainants indicated she would ask the prosecutor to reopen the case, as the statute of limitations on the alleged offence does not expire until 2020. As of April 12, Sweden’s Prosecution Authority is formally reviewing the case and could renew its request for extradition.
What are Britain’s legal obligations to extradite to Sweden or the US?
The UK, as a member of the European Union (for now!), is obliged to execute an EAW. The law on EAWs is similar to extradition treaties. However, the law also says it is up to the UK to decide whether to act first on the EAW from Sweden or the US extradition request.
Bilateral extradition treaties are usually based on identical reciprocal obligations. But the current UK-US extradition treaty, agreed in 2003, has been criticised for allowing the UK to extradite a person to the US solely on the basis of an allegation and an arrest warrant, without any evidence being produced, despite the fact that “probable cause” is required for extradition the other way.
The relative ease of extradition from the UK to the US has long been one of the concerns of Assange’s legal team. The treaty does not include a list of extraditable offences but allows for extradition for any non-political offence for which both states have criminalised the behaviour, which carries a sentence of at least one year in prison.
Espionage and treason are considered core “political offences”, which is why the US request is limited to the charge of computer fraud. Conspiracy to commit an extraditable offence is covered in the US-UK treaty, as it is in the EAW (and in the US-Australia extradition treaty).
Assange may legally challenge his extradition either to the US or to Sweden (as he previously did). Such challenges could take months or even years, particularly if Assange applies to the European Court of Human Rights arguing that an extradition request involved a human rights violation.
Given Assange’s previous conduct, and the likelihood that he will be sentenced to prison for failure to surrender to court, he will probably remain in a UK prison until all legal avenues are exhausted.
What are Australia’s obligations to Assange?
As an Australian citizen, Assange is entitled to consular protection by the Australian government, which means staff from the Australian High Commission in London will provide support for him in the legal process. The extent of that support is not set in stone, however, and both Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Prime Minister Scott Morrison have declined to provide detail on the basis that the matter is before the courts.
One possibility is that Assange will serve his sentence for failing to surrender to the court, after which the UK will deport him to Australia. At that point, it is possible the US could request extradition from Australia, and the US-Australian extradition treaty would apply. The US charges would most likely be covered although not specifically mentioned in the treaty.
As with the UK-US treaty, political offences are excluded, and an extradited person can only be tried for the offence in the extradition request or a related offence, and in any event not for an offence not covered by the treaty. In addition, the treaty specifies that neither Australia nor the US is obliged to extradite its own nationals, but may do so. The fact that Australia has the option to refuse extradition purely on the ground of Assange’s nationality could lead to intense pressure on the government to do just that.
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?
The UK could still leave without an agreement
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.
Proroguing the parliament is an option
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.
Now, a request to extend 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.
The Brexit saga continues
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.
Panicked into a referendum
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”.
A win for populism – a loss for Britons
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”.
A second vote the only option
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.
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?
But first, a bit about the EU
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.
May’s hard Brexit strategy
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:
- not be seeking membership of the EU’s single market
- pursue a new strategic partnership with the EU
- pursue a new customs arrangement with the EU to secure new trade agreements with other countries bilaterally and in wider groupings.
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.
Hard or soft, deal or no deal?
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?
The Brexit deal
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 Northern Ireland backstop
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.
Behind the scenes at Westminster and the teetering fate of the British government lies an even more profound change in British politics: the very real possibility of the break-up of the United Kingdom.
In this situation Australia needs to tread carefully and maintain its good relations with what has emerged as its more stable European partner, the European Union, while offering silent support for whatever governments or countries could emerge from Brexit.
Is the UK headed for dissolution?
The United Kingdom is made up of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The publication of the Brexit draft withdrawal agreement – a hefty 585-page tome – has revealed what has been implicit in the “British” vote to leave the EU all along: that Brexit is an expression of English nationalism that will unwittingly lead to the break-up of the UK.
Behind the government’s rhetoric of “global Britain”, there is no such thing as the “British people” in a political sense any more. The referendum revealed significant divisions between attitudes to EU membership in Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. While Prime Minister Theresa May tried to reposition “global Britain” in relation to Europe and the rest of the world, Britain itself dissolved from within.
Prime Minister Theresa May refers to the UK as a “precious union”. If only more people felt the same. An LBC-YouGov poll in March found that a majority of (mostly English) voters wanted to leave the EU rather than keep Northern Ireland in the UK.
In October, research published by the Centre on Constitutional Change showed that a clear majority of English leave voters would be happy to see Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the UK as the price of Brexit.
The irony is that it is the resistance of 10 MPs from the Ulster loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and about 60 hard-line English Conservative Brexiteersis most likely to plunge the UK into an existential crisis. Their intransigence will destroy the thing they profess to defend.
The text of the Brexit draft withdrawal agreement was at pains to appease concerns among the Ulster unionist community about maintaining the integrity of the UK (unsuccessfully as it turned out).
The prospect of the agreed backstop – a single customs territory that the UK could not leave without EU consent and which would ultimately keep Northern Ireland in a special relationship with the EU after Brexit – was not something Brexiteers and the DUP could stomach.
Across the Irish Sea, Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, asked: if Northern Ireland got special treatment, why not Scotland too?
In fact, the withdrawal agreement made no mention of Scotland at all. This disregard for the overwhelming Scottish vote to remain in the EU has pushed Scotland closer to another referendum on independence.
Brexit has created a new and deep cleavage in British politics that cuts across old political divisions. Far fewer people identify as Labour or Conservative than identify as “leave” or “remain”.
Add the national dimension to this politics and some new options emerge. Some hard Brexiteers must be considering ditching Scotland and Northern Ireland as an acceptable cost for “British” (read “English”) independence from the EU.
The ghost of empire has haunted the Brexit imaginary from before the 2016 referendum. Its critics derided “global Britain” as “Empire 2.0”. But the memory of empire cuts two ways. Brexiteers see the EU as a threatening imperium. The withdrawal agreement would leave the UK as a vassal state – a state that is subordinate to another – and therefore must be rejected.
Would a second referendum help?
Brexit has also left unresolved questions about who is actually in charge in Britain. Calls for a second referendum have grown, suggesting “the people” rather than government or parliament is the ultimate source of authority on this matter.
A second referendum has the advantage of presenting the electorate with a concrete proposal for leaving. It would temper the unrealistic and downright false claims of the leave campaign in 2016. It might end the talk of “respecting the wishes of the British people” to leave the EU.
In truth we don’t really know what exactly people voted for: only 6% of leave voters said they thought Britain would be better off economically by leaving.
But a general election would be a better bet. It would effectively be a referendum on the deal. It might also return a government with a majority – something Britain has lacked since May’s miscalculation last year.
What does this mean for Australia? Australia was name-checked in Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday as a country offering the prospect of a quick free trade agreement. Britain needs Australia in a way that it hasn’t since world war two. It would be best at this delicate moment to stop recklessly encouraging the British government from the sidelines: no more talk of one-page free trade agreements.
Australia must continue with its (slow) progress on the Australia-EU free trade agreement negotiations begun in June. The EU has remained remarkably unified during the Brexit negotiations despite tensions of its own. The EU is coming out of its own crises of the past decade. Now it’s Britain’s turn to teeter on the brink of disintegration.