Jan 3rd 2019

Hard Brexit Truths 

 

DUBLIN – The March 29, 2019, deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union is fast approaching, yet it remains far from clear how the departure is actually going to play out. Decision time will soon be unavoidable. This means that after two and a half years of drift and fulmination, it is time for those on all sides of the Brexit debate in the UK to start being honest.

Though UK Prime Minister Theresa May has struck a deal with the EU, the chances that it will gain parliamentary approval by January 14 – the deadline she has set – seem vanishingly slim, despite the extra month May gave herself to try to improve the odds. Instead, the UK increasingly seems to be opting for a choice between two extremes, each of which would likely involve another referendum.

The first alternative – favored by a growing number of MPs from the ruling Conservative Party, though not yet officially by the Labour opposition – is to hold a second referendum on Brexit. The idea is that, having witnessed the political shambles and shenanigans since the June 2016 referendum produced a narrow victory (51.9% to 48.1%) for the “Leave” side, UK voters may decide that they do not want to go through with Brexit at all. But be that as it may, the wider idea is that if Parliament is deadlocked, the people must be asked again.

The second, even more extreme option – favored by some Conservative Party fundamentalists, including former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – is a “no deal” Brexit, in which the UK would leave the EU with only minimal legal arrangements in place to manage future relations. This, they argue, would give the UK space to adopt the kind of free-market, deregulatory agenda they favor, and to negotiate new trade deals with the likes of the United States, Japan, and China.

Some sort of time extension may still emerge to give the UK – or, rather, British politicians – more room to make its choice. But whether or not the clock is stopped (in the EU’s time-honored way), it seems likely that one of these extremes will ultimately be selected.

For those (including me) who advocate a new referendum in the hope of reversing Brexit, honesty means recognizing that – just like the first time around – a vote to “Remain” is far from a sure thing. Recent opinion polls suggest that, if asked to choose between staying in the EU and leaving under the sort of halfway-house deal May has negotiated, a clear majority of voters would favor staying.

But those polls reflect the current political chaos, with the “Leave” side bitterly divided. That could change, especially if May’s deal is definitively rejected, and the Brexiteers manage to unite around an alternative plan.

The need for honesty is even stronger on the pro-Brexit side, and it, too, involves a referendum that could be lost. Brexit hardliners are going to have to acknowledge that their preferred actions could result in the breakup of the UK, with Northern Ireland choosing in a referendum to join the Republic of Ireland.

The Brexiteers’ biggest objection to May’s deal is that it includes a guarantee, known as the “backstop,” that the UK will essentially do whatever it takes to ensure that physical border checks are not reintroduced on the 300-mile-long land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. For this to work in practice, post-Brexit Britain would have to keep its regulations for goods and agricultural products, not to mention its trade tariffs, closely aligned with those of the EU. And yet for hardline Brexiteers, the real prize of Brexit is the restoration of the UK’s authority to set its own rules.

Since the 2016 referendum, the debate about the Irish border has been deterred, delayed, and distorted by a series of fantasies, such as finding a technological solution that keeps the border relatively frictionless, or having the EU and the UK somehow act as each other’s customs agents. But minimizing border checks is not enough. Northern Ireland escaped a three-decade-long civil war in 1998, after more than 3,000 deaths. To uphold a still-fragile peace, there must be no border at all. It is a stiff test, which none of the supposed solutions has passed.

If hardline Brexiteers aren’t willing to do what it takes to maintain a frictionless border with the EU in Ireland, they need to acknowledge the likely consequences. Northern Ireland will then want to choose, in a referendum, whether to remain in the UK or to unify with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.

Such a step would be allowed under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the civil war and included a promise from the UK, Ireland, and the EU to keep regulations aligned across Ireland. Indeed, that deal leaves open the possibility of a reunified Ireland, if majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland decide, by referendum, that that is what they want.

In 2016, Northern Ireland voted by a clear margin of 56%-44% to remain in the EU. Though the minority Conservative government is being propped up by the ten MPs representing Northern Ireland’s pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party, an even larger majority of Northern Irish voters would probably choose the EU today.

An honest Brexiteer should therefore admit that leaving the EU on their terms may well lead to the dissolution of the UK. Irish reunification would almost certainly make another independence referendum in Scotland irresistible, though it is impossible to know which way it would go.

Last June, when asked about business leaders’ fears over Brexit, Johnson infamously declared, “Fuck business.” If he were honest, he would apply the same crude dismissiveness to Northern Ireland and Scotland. At least then it would be clear where the Brexiteers actually stand.


Bill Emmott, a former editor in chief of The Economist, is the author of The Fate of the West. 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 7th 2018

NEW YORK – Defending the right of United States citizens to buy semi-automatic rifles or carry concealed weapons is akin to denying any human responsibility for climate change. Rational arguments are not the point.

Mar 6th 2018

PRINCETON – The election result in Italy, where populists and far-right parties topped the polls, following the twin disasters of Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s election in the United States, seems certain to harden a common liberal belief: the people brought these calamities on

Mar 5th 2018

President Donald Trump finally appears poised to make good on his promised threats to slam the door on free trade and erect walls around the country’s economy.

Mar 2nd 2018

CAMBRIDGE – Most economic forecasters have largely shrugged off recent advances in artificial intelligence (for example, the quantum leap

Feb 27th 2018

NEW HAVEN – The spin is all too predictable. With the US stock market clawing its way back from the sharp correction of early February, the mindless mantra of the great bull market has returned.

Feb 23rd 2018

NEW YORK – When Donald Trump took office early last year, many pundits believed that he would settle into his presidency and pivot to normality. But a large number of America’s mental health experts didn’t see it that way.

Feb 23rd 2018

LONDON – Almost exactly 20 years ago, after months of delicate and difficult negotiation, leaders of Northern Ireland’s two main political camps – Catholic nationalists and republicans on one side; Protestant unionists on the other – signed the Good Friday Agreement, ending more than 30 years of

Feb 19th 2018

Could “fake news” have helped determine the outcome of the 2016 presidential election?

Feb 19th 2018

MADRID – When, on a visit to Warsaw in 1970, German Chancellor Willy Brandt suddenly dropped to his knees before the Monument to the Ghetto Uprising, Władysław Gomułka, Poland’s communist leader, whispered, “wrong monument.” Gomułka would have preferred a tribute to Poland’s fallen soldiers in Wo

Feb 19th 2018

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

Feb 16th 2018

At last year’s opening ceremony of the Chinese Communist Party’s Nineteenth Congress, President Xi Jinping proclaimed his belief that China was on the precipice of becoming a great global power. He declared that China was no longer a poor country.

Feb 14th 2018

CAMBRIDGE – The crisis of liberal democracy is roundly decried today.

Feb 13th 2018

WASHINGTON, DC – It’s gotten to the point where one might almost feel sorry for Donald Trump. While that “almost” reflects a gap too wide for Trump’s opponents to bridge, it can be said that February has, thus far, been cruel to the US president, though he clearly is no innocent victim.

Feb 8th 2018

PRINCETON – Consider the disaster of American foreign policy under President Donald Trump.

Feb 7th 2018

We have been talking about this for the last 12 months: when will financial markets realise that the amazing performance of 2017 was not sustainable? When will stock markets adjust? Are we approaching the next big market crash? When will the bubble burst?

Feb 1st 2018

CHICAGO – In the early days of 2018, the Russian economy is stagnating. This is no statistical blip: the average annual growth rate in 2008-2017 for Russia was just 1.2%.

Jan 31st 2018

SYDNEY – Imagine that you, like me, are a typical product of Western liberal democracy, and are invited to give a lecture to a group of Chinese students in Beijing or Shanghai on its benefits.

Jan 30th 2018

LONDON – China’s recently released GDP data for 2017 confirm it: the country’s dramatic rise, with the concomitant increase in its global economic relevance, is not slowing down.

Jan 30th 2018

MADRID – It has been a confusing couple of years for “Davos man” – the members of the global hyper-elite who gather each year for the World Economic Forum’s flagship conference to mull over the challenges the world faces.

Jan 28th 2018

NEW HAVEN – Protectionist from the start, US President Donald Trump’s administration has now moved from rhetoric to action in its avowed campaign to defend US workers from what Trump calls the “carnage” of “terrible trade deals.” Unfortunately, this approach is backward-looking at best.