by Frank Schnittger
Wed Nov 14th, 2018 at 02:10:14 PM EST
The EU and UK negotiating teams have finally come to a deal just in time for a November EU Summit and a pre-Christmas rush to have "a meaningful vote" on the deal in the House of Commons. There is no telling what mood conservative law makers will be in after they have been exposed to the Tory faithful back in their constituencies over the Christmas period. So the UK government strategy seems to be to get this over with as quickly as possible.
Initial reaction in the UK has been almost universally hostile even before the precise text of the deal has become known. This is where various Brexiteer delusions meet the harsh winds of reality: Boris Johnson is not altogether wrong when he claims that the deal is "vassal state stuff" with the UK continuing to be subject to some of the rules of the Single Market without having a direct say in their development over the years.
Ostensibly that has all come about because of a shared EU UK commitment to avoid a "hard" customs border within Ireland. Had it not been for Ireland's continued membership of the EU, the fate of the Irish border would not have merited a moments thought on the part of Brexiteers, and indeed it it did not occupy any media or mind space during the referendum campaign, despite the Irish government's frantic efforts to raise the alarm.
So Theresa May's solution is for all of the UK to remain within the Customs Union and Single Market (CUSM) for a limited period, to be ended only when all sides are agreed an alternative mechanism for avoiding a hard border in Ireland has been found and implemented. For Brexiteers, this may mean never, and even Remainers are aghast: The deal is so obviously inferior to remaining a full member of the EU with a say in how the rules of the CUSM are developed in the future.
Most people in the UK are probably puzzled as to how such a seemingly peripheral issue as the border within Ireland could have become such a central driver of the progress of the negotiations and the shape of the final deal. But this would be to misunderstand Theresa May's negotiating strategy: In reality, Northern Ireland, and the risk of a return of "the Troubles" there, was merely the lever Mrs. May used to prise open continued access to the CUSM and maintain "frictionless trade" for British business for the foreseeable future.
For the EU, this solution was only acceptable if British business continued to be subject to the rules of the CUSM so as to maintain a "level playing field" with everyone else. The Brexiteer dream of striking out onto the world stage and negotiating their own trade deals with countries all over the world will have to wait until membership of the CUSM has been replaced by a Canada style free trade deal and an agreed mechanism for keeping the Irish border open.
Basically all the more difficult decisions have been postponed. British business can continue to trade with the EU (and the rest of the world) on current terms and thus avoid the disruption and chaos that no deal would have wrought. In fact very little will change on 29th. March except that the UK will no longer have a direct say on the future development of the EU.
Trade deals can take a very long time to negotiate and may never be ratified, as the aborted EU US trade deal has shown. Trump has shown more interest in tearing up existing trade deals rather than negotiating new ones, and even within the EU, new trade deals are no longer the preserve of the technocratic elite: they are coming under increasing scrutiny in national parliaments (all of which must ratify any new deal) as the benefits of globalization are no longer unquestioned dogma.
So what are the chances of Theresa May getting this deal through the House of Commons? Almost none, has been my view for the past two years, such is the gulf in expectations within the UK between what the Brexiteers promised, and what can be delivered in reality. Brexiteers must shout "BETRAYAL" as otherwise their little ruse to "take back control" (for themselves) will be uncovered. Somebody else has to take the blame for the obvious disparity between their promises and reality, and Theresa May is the designated fall girl.
The Labour opposition must do what oppositions must do: Oppose, even though what Theresa May has delivered looks very similar to what they themselves have been proposing. The important difference, of course, is that they want to be the ones to take back control, and it is more than convenient that it is the Tories who will take the fall for the obvious, and inevitable short comings of the deal. The consequences of Brexit must always be someone else's responsibility.
For Remainers, the deal probably represents the least worst option if they can't get their expressed wish for a second referendum to reverse the Brexit process. It avoids the chaos of the no deal option and raises the hope that the economic status quo can be maintained almost indefinitely, until a second opportunity to have a re-think on Brexit presents itself. But do they really want to be associated with such an unpopular deal? At best, they will hold their noses and claim they are only doing this to save the UK from the disaster of no deal. Some may vote against in the hope of precipitating a crisis that will lead to a second referendum. It's a high risk strategy.
The DUP will be hypersensitive to any clauses which indicate that N. Ireland is being treated any differently to the rest of the UK. They too, want to take back control - of N. Ireland - something which has been denied to them by the Good Friday Agreement's insistence on cross-community governance and "parity of esteem" between the Unionist and Nationalist communities. They claim to speak for N. Ireland even though they only received 28% of the vote in the 2017 Assembly elections.
And so they are happy to enforce differences between N. Ireland and Great Britain on marriage equality, abortion services, transparency of political funding, recognition of non-English languages, and the regulation of animal health and food products on an all-Ireland rather than on an all UK basis. But they have to be in control. Ceding control to the EU, Ireland, or even a future UK government is not an option.
So the choice for all in the House of Commons is to accept the current deal, or hold out for something better. For Labour, that something better is obviously a general election and the prospect of power. For Brexiteers and the DUP it is the prospect of toppling May and putting one of their own in charge with a mandate to conduct a more robust negotiation with the EU. They crucially need to convince the waverers that a better deal is still possible. May loyalists need to convince any waverers this is the best deal possible and the only alternative is the prospect of a no deal Brexit.
The EU can bask in a glow of satisfaction that they have discharged their primary obligation under A. 50 of negotiating an exit deal with a departing member. They have done so without throwing a continuing member (Ireland) under a bus or creating any damaging precedents for any other member who might seek to leave. If the UK now chooses to reject the deal and leave without any deal, then so be it: the choice and responsibility for the consequences is theirs.
The EU can afford to wait until expectations in the UK have moderated sufficiently in the aftermath of no-deal chaos to impose almost any deal they like. Certainly they are unlikely to revisit and substantially revise the existing deal on offer under any circumstances, including in the event of a change of government in the UK. Why would they?
For Ireland, the deal represents a triumph of diplomacy to be shouted about as little as possible in order to avoid making political life for Theresa May even more difficult. Ultimately, the Irish government is agnostic as to whether Theresa May survives or not - the Tories are no friends of Ireland - but it is in Irish interests to see this deal succeed. Seeing the DUP squirm may add some vicarious pleasure, but is not the point of the exercise. The hard won benefits of the Good Friday Agreement must be safeguarded, and this trumps all other considerations.
The consequences of this deal being rejected by the House of Commons are for another day. In the meantime we can watch as the British political establishment tries and perhaps fails to come to terms with the reality of Brexit. This is no time for schadenfreude.