Well, we’ve passed the deadline set for Brexit with no deal in sight. So, what options are left on the table, and where do they go from here?
So Brexit day has come and gone. As a political journalist put it, “A thousand days on and we’re still not out.” March 29th was not the departure gate for the UK to leave the European Union but a “crossroads”, according to British attorney general Jeffrey Cox, which will do little to lighten the overwhelming national feeling of disgust at the current state of affairs.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal has failed twice to be carried by MPs, and even fell short again last week when she hived off the political declaration on “the future relationship”, despite her promise to step down if please, please, please could MP’s just say yes to her dog-eared but only-option deal.
This has put Labour’s self-righteous ambivalence into question, as fears jumped of a hard-nosed Conservative Brexiteer prime minister taking May’s place. So the Labour party once again reverted to its position of acting “in the country’s national interest” by calling for a general election.
Meanwhile the words that float around Britain’s Brexit purgatory in ever-concentric circles resemble a Tudor maze:
flexibility (non-existent for a deeply divided public and political class);
tie-ins (wishful thinking);
meaningful votes (nicknamed meaningless when they don’t involve motions on the future trade deal);
indicative votes (likely to be too complicated to put to the public given their compromises between customs unions, single market, EEA and EFTA rules);
no-deal scenarios (all voted down);
compromise (same as flexibility);
referendum re-run (are you kidding?);
revoke Article 50 (seriously?);
overturn (same as the last two);
and the final: betrayal (something everyone agrees on but not for the same reasons).
The British are stuck on a Brexit replay loop. This is not only because of a hung parliament with no Conservative majority, sustained by a side order of Brexit fanatics and ten hard-nosed Brexiteer Northern Irish MP’s representing a region that overwhelmingly voted to Remain.
More importantly, this is because the Sisyphean negotiating fiascoes of the past three years have turned traditional conservative or socialist voters and politicians into Leave or Remain ideologues who simmer with conviction inside both political parties. As a result, “the people” of this still standing representational democracy are unaccepting of their MPs’ executive decisions, and MP’s are unaccepting of their government’s executive decisions. And any cross-party chiming is a shared death knell for those mainstream politicians who believe compromise is the only way out of the Brexit tunnel.
According to a poll by NatCen Social Research, 80% of Leave voters declared that Britain has handled negotiations badly, up from about 50% since last year, and 85% of Remain voters agree.
In fact, the glimmer of a silver lining to Europe’s own inner turmoils is the steady consensus between the 27 EU members in the face of British attempts to disrupt and torment them, while neatly dismissing any easy template for future disgruntled EU members to leave the Union.
What has won out so far in the Brexit debacle is what former UK-EU representative Sir Ivan Rogers describes as “technical and technocratic” long-term thinking from Europe, in contrast to the British kennel of rabid barking from one week to the next.
The reality is that no UK political party can deliver Brexit. Instead, a cross-party Brexit committee—led by no-one who wants to be prime minister, nor by someone from one of today’s self-imploding, power grabbing factions—should use a long extension to the negotiations to deliver the withdrawal deal, as well as a revised political declaration.
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Otherwise those who today plead for the time to re-think and gather options will find themselves in the same place a year from now, but with freshly elected UK MEP’s, following the May 23 elections to the European parliament.
Only with a cross-party committee can the devilish Brexit catch-22’s be argued and overcome, notably the idea that the UK could become part of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and also part of a customs union with the EU, which is the only way to protect the “borderless” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Cross-party pragmatists may also have the political power to prevail over the opinion of 83% of Leave voters, who, according to a survey by “The Future of England”, think the “unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland” is a ”price worth paying” for a Brexit that allows them “to take back control”.
The alternative is a continuing fight over who deserves the government’s democratic trust; those demanding their referendum vote to be honoured, those deprived of a final say now that the political and economic unravelling is viscerally understood, or the business community, with small and medium-sized companies at serious risk of going under.
Last week a diverse crowd of close to a million people marched through London to ask for a second “People’s Vote” referendum, reminiscent of those who poured on to the same streets in 2003 protesting the planned invasion of Iraq and which arguably fed a generation of mistrust in the political system and distrust of political analysis during the Brexit referendum.
Westminster might be “crap”, according to one Brexit voter, but this perhaps serves as a unifying starting point around which a cross-party committee can oversee the next twelve months of a hard-slog Brexit.