by Frank Schnittger
Wed Feb 27th, 2019 at 05:25:39 PM EST
Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage: The joke is on them
Part of the Brexiteer mythology is that the EU is made up of incompetent and unprincipled bureaucrats who can be counted on to come grovelling for a compromise even if only at the last minute. To their discomfort and horror there is still no sign of the EU27 caving in, and all of Theresa May's best efforts at divide and conquer tactics have been in vain. If there is one takeaway from this almost wholly sad Brexit saga it is that, remarkably, the EU27 have stood united behind one of their smallest members and maintained a coherent negotiating position throughout.
And so it is that the UK is staring into the abyss of a no deal Brexit unless they can come up with a better idea pretty sharpish... If there is one majority in the House of Commons for anything, besides the government's sense of self preservation, it is that a majority want the no deal "option" taken off the table. It was all very well as a negotiating tactic to scare the EU27 into an agreement, but it has become increasingly obvious that it is nothing more than a wilful act of self-harm.
It wasn't meant to be like this. "Having your cake and eating it" was meant to be a cake walk. Negotiating a future relationship with the EU was meant to be "the easiest deal in history". But somehow, unaccountably, the EU27 individually and collectively decided that preserving the integrity of the Single Market and Customs Union was more important than short term economic pain. The German car industry didn't come running to Merkel to tell her to tell the Commission to cut a deal at all costs. Even more annoyingly, some upstart former colony was allowed to dictate the EU terms of engagement...
So as zero hour and B-day approaches it has been the UK which has blinked first. The hard line approaches by both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have been undermined by their own back-benchers and both have had to modify their previous stances. First Corbyn announced he was finally prepared to support a second referendum having failed to defeat May's deal or precipitate a general election.
Now Theresa May has announced that if her deal is defeated a second time, she will allow a vote on the "no deal" option, and if that, too, fails (as expected) she will support a proposal to request an extension to the A.50 deadline. Everyone knows that that, in itself, will solve nothing, except perhaps serve to further puncture or at least deflate the Brexiteer balloon. But essentially they are throwing themselves on the mercy of the EU Council, which must support any such a request with unanimous approval.
The EU Council, for its part, might well impose some preconditions - such as a requirement that the extension is used either to approve and implement May's deal or to organise a second referendum and/or a general election. What seems certain is that any further extension - beyond, perhaps, an initial three months, will only be approved if a second referendum or a general election is in prospect. The Withdrawal Agreement (May's deal) will not be re-negotiated. It is up to the UK to come up with an alternative option if they don't like that deal.
In the meantime the UK would have to take part in the EU Parliamentary elections in May, providing a platform for Remainers and undermining the "EU is Undemocratic" narrative so beloved of Brexiteers. Farage will have to decide whether to stand for a Parliament he affects to despise. Then there is a whole summer for UK tourists to "Europe" to contemplate the joys of applying for visas, green cards and international driving licences, standing in line in the "non -EU" queue alongside various third world "foreigners", and getting less Euros for their Pound.
Any second referendum, if it is held, will involve a straight choice between May's deal, the only Brexit on offer, or Remain. The only thing achieved by Parliament over the past three years will have been to take "no deal" off the table. Some Brexiteers might well be tempted to advocate for abstention in the referendum on the grounds that either option is unacceptable. Then they could at least claim credit for the c. 30% to 60% of the electorate who don't turn out to vote in referenda in any case. Either way the Brexiteer vote could be split between support for May's deal and not voting in the second referendum at all - in disgust at the whole process.
In those circumstances I could see the Remain option supported by a 2:1 majority of those who do vote - reminiscent of the 1975 referendum vote which too, supported continued EU membership be a 2:1 majority: A vote which seems to have been consigned into the black memory hole of history. May's deal is almost universally reviled even though it contains a huge concession by the EU - effectively continued membership of the Single Market and Customs Union without the requirement to allow free movement of workers or pay Norway style contributions to the EU budget. There will be many in the EU who will breath a sigh of relief if it is ultimately rejected.
From an Irish perspective, at least we will no longer be jeered at by Brexiteers for voting twice on the Treaties of Nice and Lisbon. The people are allowed to change their minds, especially in the light of new information and the creation of a more informed electorate motivated to turn out in greater numbers. I don't hear too many complaining that we finally changed our minds on abortion and voted to reverse the 1983 referendum result banning it in all circumstances.
But from a British perspective the political repercussions could be more traumatic. May will inevitably have to resign if "her" deal is ultimately rejected by the electorate, especially by such a margin. Much irreversible economic damage will have been done to the UK economy. But above all, such a volte face will result in the loss of much face in the diplomatic world. It will be some time before the UK is taken seriously on the world stage again, if ever.
But of course it won't stop the British Brexiteers whinging about the EU, any more than the decisive 2:1 referendum vote in favour of continued membership did in 1975. Some people will always have to have something to whinge about - anything really - as long as it doesn't point to their own responsibility. But will anyone else ever take them seriously again? BoJo may have his £300K p.a. once a week column in the Daily Telegraph. But who else beyond the Tory pensioners who read the Telegraph will care?
The repercussions for the DUP in Northern Ireland will also be serious, if not terminal. Depending on whether the DUP end up supporting May's deal or not - in itself a humiliating volte face - Brexit could well be defeated by a 90:10 margin in Northern Ireland the second time around. Even pro-Brexit Unionist voters will not lightly forgive the DUP for throwing in their lot with a cabal of Brexiteer chancers in London - to the detriment of community relations and economic prosperity in N. Ireland - and bringing the whole question of a United Ireland into play again. Sinn Fein will likely become the leading party in any subsequent election, with the Unionist vote split between the DUP, UUP and splinter groups.
However it will not benefit Sinn Fein much in the rest of Ireland. Here Leo Varadker will claim the lions share of the credit. Even some of his staunches critics have had to concede that he has played Ireland's cards masterfully, building an EU consensus and holding the line when the going got tough. It may not save him at the polls when his other short comings are evaluated - a failure to address Ireland's housing and health care crises - and a failure to achieve some measure of inter-generational justice: The young are being held hostage by the rentier class.
But then Brexit, as a whole, has served as a monumental distraction from the real issues facing both the UK and the EU: The issues of globalisation and growing inequality between the owners of capital and workers, between different regions within the EU, between urban and rural, young and old - between public austerity and squalor and private wealth and conspicuous consumption. Hopefully soon we will be able to start prioritising those issues again. Brexit has already dragged on for far too long.