The unstated plan of the hardline Brexiteers is to use the threat of a no-deal Brexit as leverage in a hoped for negotiation with the EU in which, they hope, the UK will end up with a tariff-free free trade deal with the EU, access to the Single Market and the unfettered right to conclude free trade deals with third countries outside the EU’s Common External Tariff barrier.
This hope is an act of ludicrous self-delusion. The EU cannot, under any circumstance agree to such a relationship with the UK. To do so would signal the end of the EU. It would confer all of the advantages of the EU on a state that wished to be relieved of all the obligations.
The Irish angle is clear. If the UK can use threatening damage to Ireland’s economy as a bargaining chip in the process of negotiating a new long-term relationship with the EU, it will do so.
How do we know that? Jacob Rees Mogg and Priti Patel have already done so in the context of the withdrawal agreement. By insisting that a no-deal outcome should remain of the table, they and their coterie of friends believe that they can force the EU 27 to blink and to abandon the backstop as part of the withdrawal agreement.
Their purpose has nothing to do with the territorial and constitutional integrity of the UK; it has everything to do with their desire to bring the threat of no deal and the consequent damage to Ireland forward as leverage into the next phase of negotiations with the EU and to use it at that point for maximum leverage in attempting to bully the EU into conceding freedom of tariff-free movement of goods and access to the Single Market.
It was to ensure that the EU did not end up giving Ireland and the Irish “all island” economy and the Good Friday Agreement as hostages to be ransomed or bartered in those negotiations that the backstop was devised. And as a precondition to negotiating a long term trading relationship with the EU, Theresa May and her divided cabinet agreed to give that guarantee. By doing so, they preserved Mrs May’s pretension to deliver on her Lancaster House red lines including the exclusion of the possibility of the UK having the substance of a long-term customs union type relationship with the EU.
By calling on her party’s MPs to vote down her own deal, by whipping them into line on the issue, and by joining them in the voting lobby to renege on a deal to which she had repeatedly said there was no alternative, Theresa May made one thing very clear – her word was not to be trusted by the EU or by Ireland.
Worse still, Ireland cannot possibly rely on British good faith in relation to the next phase of negotiations. If Britain has to choose between the illusory global free-trade ambitions of the European Research Group (the ERG) or the immediate under-mining of the Good Friday Agreement, and if the ERG’s support is vital to Tory party unity, she and they will happily abandon their solemn obligations under the Good Friday Agreement.
So it is essential that the issue of the backstop be dealt with now. It is essential that the EU makes it clear that the backstop must remain a precondition for entering talks on the long-term economic relationship between the EU and the UK. The Good Friday Agreement and the all-island Irish economy cannot be turned into bargaining chips in future negotiations where Britain has already demonstrated that its word cannot be trusted on the issue.
Putting a time limit on the backstop is equivalent to putting a sell-by date label on the Good Friday Agreement. A guarantee of no hard border in Ireland for two, five, seven or ten years is a sunset clause for the Good Friday Agreement.
Sir Graham Brady’s amendment, which Mrs May chose to back, is a masterpiece of dishonest fudge. It does not define “alternative arrangements” to the backstop. It does not strictly oblige those who voted for it to vote for any amended deal or for any deal recommended deal in the context of any such alternative arrangements. It does not clarify the position of those who voted for it as to what exactly they wish the EU to agree or concede.
It was simply devised to create a vestige of Tory party unity and to peddle the dangerous illusion that Mrs May could now go back to Brussels with a clear mandate or with plenipotentiary powers from her parliament to negotiate or seal a “deal coupled with alternative arrangements” to the EU 27.
Is all this justifiable by the rubric of “constructive ambiguity”? Or is it merely another turn of the screw of Tory party duplicity towards Ireland?
It is strange indeed that a majority of Westminster MPs voted down amendments to take parliamentary control of the Brexit arrangements and thereby left their executive, the cabinet, in control, while at the same time voting to undo the deal which the same cabinet had negotiated.
Strange too that the mob who viciously attacked the judiciary for ruling that pulling the Article 50 Brexit trigger required the assent of parliament for any government decision is more or less conterminous with the mob now baying for a Commons veto on any deal negotiated by that government .
Who is Michel Barnier, Donald Tusk or Jean Claude Juncker now negotiating with? The Prime Minister? Her cabinet? A transient majority in Westminster? A coalition including the ERG and the DUP? Who speaks for the UK? And on what authority?
Is the EU negotiating with a British interlocutor which is threatening no deal?
The EU must stand by the majority of MPs who have made it clear that they will not countenance the use of a no-deal Brexit to blackmail the EU 27 into qualifying the backstop or removing it.
It has to be made clear to the majority of MPs and to the majority of the British public that a no-deal crash out will be very unpleasant for the UK. If that much is clear, no deal will come off the table before the 29th March – one way or another.
It is very unedifying for the Tories to send Mrs May back to attempt to undo the deal that she made. It is childish for them to assume that the EU will blink. It is utterly naïve to think that because multilateral, complex annual fisheries negotiations frequently end in the bleary-eyed early hours of the Brussels morning, that somehow demonstrates that the EU as a whole always blinks in the end.
Mrs May pranced or tottered onto her party conference stage to the air of Abba’s Dancing Queen. Embarrassing enough.
In Brussels she may find out, to her mortification, that it takes two to tango.
Picture credit: DonkeyHotey - Theresa May - Caricature, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70774372