The UK will make Brexit on 29th March if the government is to avoid a huge humiliation and unforgivable damage to its economy, not to mention the nation’s future diplomatic standing and credibility.
This appears to have got through to Theresa May, the UK PM, as the civil service is working day and night to prepare hundreds of statutory instruments and other measures to prevent a legislative vacuum on withdrawal. Preparations to prevent chaos for trade and transport systems are not as well advanced which gives a further clue to future intentions.
To extend the negotiating period for any time under Article 50 of the EU Treaty is not an option. The public is sick and tired of the whole business. Agitation in the streets is growing, and the credibility of the political class is crumbling.
There are still massive hurdles to meet, the first being on 27th February when the government will have to put a Withdrawal Agreement to Parliament and have it accepted if the process is to be kept on the rails. This means of course reversing the 258 vote defeat on 15th February, an unlikely event at first glance. But without that a no-deal Brexit will be unavoidable as legislation already in place will trigger an exit on 29th March. While the agreement itself cannot be amended without EU approval (which would require the consent of all 27 of the remaining members) the accompanying Political Declaration is not set in concrete and could be amended now to include undertakings with respect to the contentious ‘backstop’ that exists to prevent a hard barrier on the Irish border – a very red line in the context of the Irish political settlement (the so-called Good Friday Agreement). The EU has had to insist on its retention to maintain the integrity of its customs union and single market.
The future of the backstop could be settled definitively in the transitional period as part and parcel of the negotiations on future trading arrangements between the two areas. As these arrangements will very likely contain many core features of a customs union and single market there may be very little left over to harmonise. Meanwhile there will be no need for an active backstop. Under a future Free Trade Agreement the UK will enjoy existing and future trading benefits that the EU has with third countries, like the recent UK/Japan bilateral agreement, benefits as good or better than anything the UK could achieve on its own.
Political realities dictate the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement itself. Once the backstop issue is disposed of on the lines above, remaining objections are largely ideological and should fall away as reality dawns. The far right faction in the Tory party (the so-called European Research Group – ERG) – a party of regressives which has so far been allowed by Mrs May to hold the majority of her party to ransom – will have to face that reality (or otherwise risk political irrelevance).
This is not just a matter for the Tories. Some part of the Labour Party will need to provide cross-party support for the Agreement, as much because of the divisions within its ranks made evident this week by the eight or nine defections (so far) forming an independent group in the Parliament. This need for cross-party support will provide cover for a number of other Labour MPs being challenged in their local branches over future pre-selections – some branches are for Brexit, some against. Public pressure is building, as noted, for a sensible resolution of the Brexit issue and will not tolerate further delays. Many Labour supporters will be losing jobs following recent decisions by major manufacturers to close or downsize plant, or move offshore altogether – as announced by Airbus, Honda, Nissan, Ford and Range Rover. How much more devastation can the workforce suffer because of Brexit or Brexit-like factors?
There isn’t much time left to pull all this together. But facing the cliff over the next week or two will concentrate minds. The matter has got well beyond nice debating points within the Parliament itself. The focus from the shires is directly on individual parliamentarians who if they don’t secure the national interest will be required to explain how they became parties to a catastrophe. If the political situation is allowed to become so unstable that a General Election becomes unavoidable there will be many outcomes that might have been a surprise just a few weeks ago but no longer. The party system itself will be up for grabs. There will be no knowing for many when they go in how they will come out. The public is fed up and angry. What greater incentive could there be to reach a sensible, pragmatic, non-ideological outcome to the remaining issues in the negotiations and leave the important longer-term matters concerning the future relationship with the EU to be settled in the two year transitional period, which will only exist if the UK leaves the EU with a deal.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and trade policy adviser, writing at this time from London.