The Brexit impasse continues

Muhammad Mahmood | Published: January 19, 2019 20:47:24

A general view of Parliament after the vote on May's Brexit deal, in London on January 15, 2019 in this screengrab taken from video. — Reuters

British Prime Minister Theresa May's proposed Brexit deal was voted down in British Parliament on Tuesday (January 15) by a majority of 230 votes - with 432 Members of Parliament (MPs) against and 202 for it, making the defeat the largest in British political history. But the following day her government survived a no confidence vote brought by the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. This will now enable the Prime Minister to try and work out a revamped Brexit deal. She said that she would seek meetings with  "the widest possible range of views from across parliament''. But the Guardian has suggested that Mrs May's record does not indicate that she has the diplomatic skills required to make such a consultation fruitful.

She will have to present her Plan B to parliament this Monday, a timeline imposed by parliament and she has assured she would do so. Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn asked for a categorical assurance by the prime minister removing any possibility of a no-deal Brexit to join in for talks with her but she refused to accept Mr Corbyn's demand.

To avoid a no-deal Brexit will open up the possibility of a menu with  two rather very different  options - a second referendum or  membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) which includes Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland to have free trade arrangement with the European Union (EU). But none of these options are very appealing to Mrs May, at least at this point in time. She is definitely and resolutely opposed to another referendum. She has also problem with EFTA membership which will mean abandoning her two commitments -  ending unrestricted movement of EU citizens in the UK and right to negotiate trade deals independently with other countries.

IRISH BORDER QUANDARY: Prime Minister May's one of the major stumbling blocks is the Northern Irish "backstop'' which enables to keep the border open between  Norther Ireland and the Irish Republic which remains a member of the EU. Many of her critics and also the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, a supporter of the government, consider this arrangement is an attempt to keep Northern Ireland permanently tied to the EU, a kind of vassalage. The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland traded goods worth US$3.6 billion in 2017. A hard border will damage that trade flow. Also, this will give rise to new grievances, even violence. Northern Ireland has a long history of political violence. One also must remember that Northern Ireland is the oldest British colony since the 12th century. This has given rise to many unresolved political and nationality issues. No wonder many on both sides of the border consider a hard border a backward step and back to the dark ages.

The Brexit issue represents Britain's biggest shift in foreign and trade policy in more than four decades. For the Brexiteers, freedom to do trade deals with other countries is one of key reasons to leave the  EU. They voted down the deal simply because it could trap Britain permanently into a customs union with the EU depriving them of their right to negotiate their own independent deal with other countries. In effect Brexiteers are canvassing to pursue bilateralism in international trade relations like President Trump. But the UK is not the US and that will create formidable challenge for the UK to successfully negotiate bilateral trade deals with countries like the US, China, Japan and South Korea. Furthermore, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, trade would be governed by the rules of World Trade Union WTO)  and that will be a different ball game than what the Brexiteers want.

DIVIDED CONSERVATIVE PARTY: The Conservative party is dangerously divided so much so that the Brexiteers and the Remainers are quite ready to undermine the government if they do not get their way. The party is so bitterly divided that one of Mrs May's Whips whose job is to get Tory MPs to vote for her on the deal, resigned on last Monday to enable him to vote against his Prime Minister's Brexit deal the following day. Most Tory MPs are deeply entrenched in their own views and there is very little sign that they would get together to get down to formulate a compromise formula. It looks like the Tories are almost on the brink of imploding over the issue of Brexit and their dislike of their leader verges on almost the pathological.

THUCYDIDES TRAP: Many political history pundits are now suggesting to read the great Greek historian Thucydides (c.460 BC- c.400 BC) to make some sense of the situation Mrs May is now facing - a veritable Thucydides Trap. Of particular interest is Thucydides' narrative of the Sicilian expedition of 415 BC. Nicias (read Theresa May), an Athenian politician and general, was the victim of an overly aggressive and expansive assembly (read 2016 referendum). Alcibiades (read Boris Johnson), also an Athenian politician and general, the nephew of Pericles, was the leading proponent of the Sicilian expedition. He gave a rousing speech which persuaded the Athenians to send a major military expedition to Sicily against the city of Syracuse. Nicias' tragedy was he dutifully took part in a war (the Sicilian expedition) he always suspected would end in disaster. The expedition went horribly wrong, Nicias was killed, Athens was defeated but Alcibiades defected to the enemy. History is always a good reading to enlighten us to understand the present.

BLAIRITE FACTOR IN LABOUR PARTY: The debate over Brexit in the Labour party is also very divisive as in the Conservative party. Mr Corbyn does not command loyalty of Blairite MPs in his own party. So far Mr Corbyn, who voted against Mrs May's Brexit deal, refuses to spell out what his Brexit preference is except that he does not want a hard Brexit which he considers would be catastrophic for the country. It  has now become clear that he wants to use the current stand-off as an opportunity to force an election which he thinks he will win rather than help broker a compromise Brexit deal. But to win the election  when that happens, he must have to put his foot down to assert his leadership. The Blairites hardly conceal their hostility to their leader which enabled the Tories to frame the debate on the no confidence vote against the Prime Minister as a vote of no confidence on Mr Corbyn himself. The Blairites are out to pressurise Mr Corbyn to support their demand of a  second referendum to reverse Brexit.

If Mr Corbyn wants his party to return to power and to reverse excesses of Tony Blair and the Tories of the last two decades, he needs to have a strong united party behind him.

HOBSON'S CHOICE: Having survived the no-confidence motion in parliament, Mrs May now has some breathing time with enhanced authority to seek a deal. But scale of her Brexit deal defeat clearly signals that  she now  would have to go back to Brussels and demand a deal more amenable to the Brexiteers including abandoning the "backstop'' arrangement to keep Northern Ireland in a Customs Union. This means she will now have to come up with "Plan B''. While so far the EU has maintained a hard line against the UK to forestall the possibility of any other member country wishing to leave the union, that position seems have softened as the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said "there could be further talks''.The EU is reportedly also considering to give an extension to the Brexit departure  date from 29 March 29 to the end of  July this year. The EU made it amply clear that it is willing to go either way - cancelling the Brexit process or renegotiate much closer post-Brexit relationship.

But Michael Barnier, the EU's Chief Brexit negotiator, told the European Parliament that "the risk of no deal has never been  so high''. The Bank of England recently warned that a no-deal Brexit could plunge Britain into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The British parliament is faced with a Hobson's choice. Parliament   can reject a no-deal Brexit but that does not remove the possibility of no-deal Brexit actually happening. The vote on the deal last Tuesday night does confirm Parliament's overall support for a soft Brexit. But Mrs May will now have to work out how soft that deal would be to make it palatable to the majority of MPs in Parliament to support her deal or else she can pull out a rabbit out of her hat if there is still any rabbit  left in there. If everything fails, then crashing out of the EU with no deal will be the only outcome. The EU Commission President Donald Tusk tweeted "If a deal is impossible, no one wants no-deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?''  This is what Prime Minister May will have to respond to now.

Muhammad Mahmood is an independent economic and political analyst.

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