It’s way too early to be writing off the risk of a no-deal Brexit
The UK must provide the EU with a reason to extend article 50 and delay the exit date as working out a way forward in 10 weeks looks impossible
We are entering a chaotic couple of weeks when all kinds of prospects will be floated, and all this as the clock ticks remorselessly on. We can only hope that these discussion are based on some kind of reality because both the Conservatives and Labour have so far done all they can to duck the real choices. Photograph: Getty Images
The maze has a long history, but is now, appropriately enough, most associated with the gardens of big English country houses like Hampton Court. British politics is lost in a Brexit maze. Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn, British government ministers and various backbench factions are wandering down various routes trying to find a way out.
Having avoided making a decision on which way to turn since the Brexit vote, there is now no clear route forward.
This means it is still too early – way too early – to rule out the risk of a disruptive no-deal Brexit even if this is the one outcome which the House of Commons clearly does not want.
To avoid a no-deal exit something has to happen. British politics has first of all to provide the EU with a reason to extend article 50 and delay the UK’s exit date. Because working out a way forward and negotiating it all in 10 weeks looks impossible.
So we are entering a chaotic couple of weeks when all kinds of prospects will be floated, and all this as the clock ticks remorselessly on. We can only hope that these discussion are based on some kind of reality because both the Conservatives and Labour have so far done all that they can to duck the real choices.
The initial signs are not encouraging – May sticking to her red lines, which mean no progress can be made, and Corbyn demanding that a no-deal exit be ruled out, which is impossible because it will simply happen if nothing else is agreed.
If there is any consensus to emerge from the Commons it looks likely to involve a softer form of Brexit. But let’s just look forensically at the challenges here because this is all about the detail.
Some say the UK should remain in a customs union with the EU in the long term – and this is Labour policy. This would allow goods to move without customs checks and avoid the imposition of tariffs, which are special taxes on imports levied on goods moving between different customs areas.
Membership of a customs union with the EU would limit some of the damage of Brexit to the UK – and Ireland. However, it would meant that the UK would not be able to negotiate its own trade deals with third countries like the US, South American countries and so on. This idea is a bit of a farce anyway – such deals will be hard to do and will not replace what it lost. But it is a central part of the Brexit storyline sold to the British public.
The other proposal you will have heard is that the UK, like Norway, would remain a member of the EU single market. The single market is one of the central constructs of the EU, with rules and regulations to guarantee the free movement of goods, people, capital and money.
As ending free movement of people is seen by the Conservatives as central to Brexit, we run into an immediate problem here. A deal to stay in the single market would mean signing up to free movement, albeit that European Economic Area members like Norway are technically allowed to apply an emergency brake for a limited time if immigration causes problems in an economic sector or region. The rules are tightly drawn, however and have only ever been invoked by tiny Liechtenstein.
So single market membership would mean abandoning the reddest of Tory Brexit red lines – “getting control of our borders”. It would also mean remaining subject to rules set in Brussels, and continuing contributions to the EU budget.
And then there is the Irish Border backstop, the guarantee that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland no matter what the outcome is of future trade deals.
To render it unnecessary the UK would need to be in a customs union with the EU and also follow many of the single market rules. A so-called Norway-plus option – UK membership of the single market and a customs union – would do it, but we have seen why it will be so difficult to agree. It raises the real question of why bother with Brexit at all. The only other way to avoid a hard Irish border is to have special measures which apply to the North, anathema to the DUP.
And there is a further twist. The sequence of the talks means that future trade arrangements will only be sorted out in phase two, after the UK leaves. So the Irish Government will presumably want the backstop to remain in the legally-binding withdrawal agreement in case these talks are not successful. How this might be combined with some indication of an intention not to use the backstop unless absolutely necessary remains to be seen. In the last frantic days, could Ireland yet come under some pressure in terms of how this is all expressed?
All sides could use the political declaration – the separate aspirational document about what might happen next – to outline their desire for a close new trading deal and no backstop. But can the UK live with the backstop remaining in the withdrawal agreement in case the future talks don’t work out? And the backstop could well be triggered given how long trade talks take to work out , never mind the uncertainty of the outcome.
There is no chance of this being sorted in a few weeks. There are other routes – a second referendum or a general election – but there is no guaranteed outcome to the first of these, and the second leaves the key questions unanswered unless one of the main parties can actually present a coherent plant to the electorate.
So an awful lot now hangs on the terms on which the EU will extend article 50, and whether British politics can provide it with a reason to do so.
We have at last reached the moment of truth.