by ANAND MENON
BUCKLE up, the Brexit process is reaching its first crescendo.
What we’ve witnessed to date is merely the prologue. Between now and the end of March, crucial decisions that will shape the future of the country for decades will be made. And yet, with fewer than 80 days to go before we are due to leave the European Union, we still do not know what is going to happen. Indeed, all that can be said with any certainty at the moment is that we confront a series of apparently implausible alternatives.
First, parliament might approve prime minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal. The problem is that the deal seems to have done what nothing else to date has – uniting a variety of different pro- and anti-Brexit factions, albeit in their loathing of it.
Alternatively, the UK might simply fall out of the EU with no deal. This would, in many ways, be the easiest outcome. Under both UK and EU law, British membership of the EU ceases on March 29, 2019. Yet there is absolutely no parliamentary majority for such an outcome; one that, be under no illusions, would have profoundly damaging consequences for the country.
Third, parliament might throw the government out. Should this happen, we might have a general election. Or a new prime minister might take over, and would doubtless head to Brussels to start their own negotiations with the EU. Yet for this to happen, a majority of MPs – including by necessity some Conservative parliamentarians – would need to support a vote of no confidence in the government. There are few signs that a majority for this exists.
And finally, we might end up having another referendum. Here again, it is not obvious how we would arrive at this point. Not only would parliament have to agree to a new poll, but MPs would have to decide on the question that had to be asked. And the EU would also need to agree to extend the Article 50 period – at this point, it is hard to see how a referendum could be held before July.
And so there you have it. The options on the table. Deal. No deal. A new prime minister. Another referendum. What marks this moment in our history out from virtually any other is that we confront nothing but implausible alternatives. However, one of them will come to pass.
I don’t claim any particular insight as to which will transpire. Frankly, it is impossible to predict. However, a few observations might be in order.
First, even if, by some miracle – and conceivably at a second, or even third or more attempt – the prime minister gets the Commons to approve her deal, it may still be necessary to delay ‘Brexit day’. The legislation needed to translate the withdrawal agreement into domestic law – the Withdrawal Agreement Bill – still has to be passed by parliament, and this could take months.
Second, even if we change the prime minister, it is hard to see what other withdrawal agreement could be agreed with the EU. Even in the event of a general election, it seems likely that both big parties will campaign on a platform of respecting the outcome of the referendum.
So, under either of these scenarios, we would end up roughly back where we are now, with a prime minister trying to sell a deal not dissimilar to this one to parliament.
Finally, were we to have another referendum, the polls are so tight as to make it impossible to predict what would happen. Let’s face it, it’s not even clear what the question would be. Would the choice be remain versus no deal? Remain versus Theresa May’s deal? Multiple choice?
Whatever the wording on the ballot sheet, what is clear is that the campaign would be ugly, with the leave side accusing “the elite” of betrayal, and campaigning with a slogan along the lines of “tell them, again”. Hardly a prospect likely to heal the divisions in our country.
And even if we leave on the date specified, do not for a moment think that this would mark the end of the Brexit saga. Think of it more as the end of the first chapter. For what lies ahead are years of trade negotiations, years of figuring out what policies we need in areas such as agriculture, fisheries or regional aid, where the EU, to date, has done much of the work for us.
So 2019 is a staging post on the Brexit journey. In the short term, parliament has one job – fo find a majority for something. Then the fun can really start. Happy new year.
Anand Menon is director of the UK in a Changing Europe (www.ukandeu.ac.uk) and professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at Kings College London.