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Brexit: nothing is ever simple

2019-03-29 06:27:45

Well, today was supposed to be the day we left the EU, but our government couldn't even manage that, after being frustrated by an equally incompetent parliament playing to a gallery populated by inadequate hacks who, to this day, have no better idea of the issues than the politicians on whom they report.

I suppose it could be regarded as ironic that, instead of us leaving, parliament will be voting on the Withdrawal Agreement for the third time, but not the political declaration which has been left off the ticket for procedural reasons. Its absence allows Mrs May to circumvent the rule preventing the same motion being put in the same session, as this apparently is a distinct package which is substantially different from previous iterations.

Even if the vote goes for Mrs May, therefore, the whole of the Article 50 package will not have crossed the line. But, it seems, our prime minister is playing a different game, taking the European Council Decision literally and aiming for the longer extension period on offer, taking us to 22 May.

This works because the Decision only refers to the Withdrawal Agreement, without including the political declaration. Thus, if Mrs May can get the MP collective to support just the Agreement in today's vote, the letter of the law gives her the extension, and removes the shorter "sudden death" period which would end on 12 April.

Whether this ploy will succeed is anyone's guess, but it is yet again another complication. Whatever else there is about Brexit, nothing is ever simple.

And for all the ingenuity, the smart money seems to think that success is unlikely. The DUP, as yet, is not coming into line, only some of the ERG are backing the prime minister and the Labour Party continues to stand apart, with not enough rebels willing to take the Agreement over the line. The only thing that might save it is mass abstentions on the part of Labour, with or without the approval of Mr Corbyn.

Should the vote go against Mrs May, that drops us into the alternative scenario where we are set up to leave on 12 April unless the UK can "indicate a way forward" before that date, "for consideration by the European Council". As long as the UK also commits to the European elections, that opens the way for a longer extension - in theory, at least.

What are not specified in the European Council Decision are the grounds on which the Council will decide to grant an extension, or even the length of the period. But, if offering "a way forward" is a necessary requirement, it may be that that horse has already bolted. After all, since parliament has rejected all eight options put to it, Mrs May will be unable to assure the Council that any option has the support of MPs and thus stands a chance of being implemented.

Much may then depend on the Monday vote, when MPs vote again, this time for the leading contenders in the option stakes, with the possibility that they come up with a positive vote for one or more options. However, this could prove distinctly problematical as the top two slots are taken respectively by Kenneth Clarke's customs union and by a referendum on any plan agreed by MPs.

Just to confuse the situation still further, there is talk of splicing the absurd customs union option with the equally absurd Kinnock/Boles Common Market 2.0 plan, to produce a hybrid option, the like of which no mortal person has ever seen before.

What induced so many MPs to opt for a customs union in the first place is explained by the fact that Labour whipped the vote, an odd situation where Labour, led by Corbyn on the extreme left of the party, was backing a motion tabled by an ex-cabinet minister in the Thatcher government.

But there is no possible way that a customs union in any shape or form could satisfy the UK's trading needs or form the basis of a relationship with the EU. Anyone with the remotest idea of the history of the EU, and the progression from the customs union to the Single Market, will understand this to be the case. Even with the EU's customs union fully in place, by the early 1980s there were still delays averaging 80 minutes for lorries at the EEC's internal borders.

In any event, the current outline written into the political declaration allows for a tariff and quota-free agreements, while adoption of the EU's WTO tariff schedules gives us the effect of a common external tariff without the need to commit to a customs union.

Further, tariffs have very little impact on border management as they are largely paid electronically, and even the much-hyped rules of origin are managed beyond the border. Delays at borders are more likely to arise through non-tariff barriers, requiring the adoption of Single Market systems and other measures to ensure frictionless trade.

Nevertheless, there is still much prattle about the utility of customs unions, with attempts being made to resurrect a weak proposition offered by the IoD last year, demonstrating how hard it is to kill off even half-baked ideas.

Given then that a customs union is an irrelevance, the focus needs to be on the Single Market already rejected by MPs in the two forms offered. But, as we already know, the Single Market is not enough. Tying in CM 2.0 to the Clarke proposition would not provide a solution to our needs. Even if it was fully adopted, it would not give us frictionless trade and nor would it remove the need for controls on the Irish border.

Thus, come Monday if there is a vote then - we will still have MPs chasing after chimeras, unable to craft an option which would give the UK anything close to the trading arrangement it currently enjoys with the EU. The very best on offer would still represent a serious downgrade in our relationship.

Even a sub-optimal plan, though, would still require the adoption of the Withdrawal Agreement so, when it comes to offering the EU a "way forward", that must include plans for ratifying it something which would involve putting it to the MP collective for the fourth time, but with no guarantee of success.

When you look at this rationally, it seems extremely unlikely that the UK could "indicate a way forward" before the 12 April, with sufficient credibility and authority for the European Council to concede extra time. Therefore, the most likely outcome of MPs rejecting the deal today seems to be a no-deal Brexit a fortnight later. Essentially, a time extension will be off the table, leaving only no-deal or no Brexit.

With more and more signs that the EU is expecting a no-deal outcome, we are being told that the institutions are moving into "full crisis mode", to enhance plans to avoid economic meltdown.

Unavoidably, the UK will be looking for concessions from the EU and Member States and all the indications are that the EU-27 will be looking to drive hard bargains, including the payment of the 39 billion "Brexit bill" as the price for a seat at the table. Perversely, another demand will be the immediate implementation of the Irish backstop.

Such detail provides strong evidence of a hardening of sentiment in Brussels, from where we get the impression that the "colleagues" will be glad to see the back of us.

Personal remarks from Donald Tusk to the European Parliament, in the wake of the recent European Council, certainly gave the game away. Reminding MEPs that he had been in favour of a long extension if the UK wished to rethink its Brexit strategy, he noted that this would require the UK's participation in the European Parliament elections.

Some in the European Parliament would undoubtedly oppose that, not wanting to see Farage or his likes again, but Tusk told them that they could not "betray the six million people who signed the petition to revoke Article 50" or "the one million people who marched for a People's Vote", or "the increasing majority of people who want to remain in the European Union".

These people, he said, may feel that they are not sufficiently represented by the UK Parliament (even if Westminster has a strong "remainer" tinge), "but they must feel that they are represented by you in this chamber. Because they are Europeans".

It is relatively rare for senior officials of the EU institutions to make such crass missteps, but this does suggest that there is no longer any great concern about upsetting the UK government. Perhaps if Westminster MPs can stop snivelling long enough, they might realise how much the game has changed.