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MPs voted this week for an extension to Article 50 to June 30th. Prime Minister Theresa May is in Brussels today to argue her case; the EU27 looks likely to grant the UK a long extension dependent on British cooperation.
This spectacle amounts – as Walter Ellis described it on Reaction today -to “Europe taking back control.”
Is there any way out of the mess?
There is still one legal mechanism available to the UK – we can unilaterally revoke Article 50. As long as nothing productive is set to emerge from Parliament in its current make-up, or from the Government and a discredited PM, the argument for a complete reset is compelling. There are other forms of Brexit available, including those, for example, built on our existing legal rights as members of the European Economic Area (EEA).
May-ism, constituted as it is by opaque concessions, repetitious assertions of the importance of the “national interest”, and automaton speech making, dulls the spirit and makes it hard to imagine that Brexit could still take place in a quite different atmosphere, with new leadership or a different parliament with an easier arithmetic for the government to win backing for its policies.
The bare bones of Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement, a document guaranteeing an orderly transition away from the EU, still leaves all manner of Brexit options “on the table”, such as Norway, Norway +, Common Market 2.0, Canada +, you name it. Even though the failed May deal leaves all that on the table, due to the vague nature of the political declaration component of the agreement, it still could not win the confidence of Commons. This illustrates that any Brexit designed through the Article 50 process was always likely to founder: the legal straitjacket is just too constrictive; and the timescales militate against creative policy-making.
It is the Irish backstop that continues to be the sticking point in any kind of deal reached through that process, and it is only by changing that (or if the Attorney General revises his legal advice) that May (or indeed anyone) will be able to get something resembling the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament. The EU is – quite sensibly given the muddle it has left the Brits in – reluctant or even unable to give any more concessions in that direction.
Just a few years ago, leading Eurosceptics seemed to be quite content with withdrawal from the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy and limits on freedom of movement – but the current crop of the ERG, who have voted down a deal that would have secured all three, three times, are now so absolutist in thinking that it’s difficult to know what form of Brexit would satisfy them.
It’s still true that although polling seems to have polarized around no deal and Remain outcomes in the country, but it should still be possible to proceed in a spirit of compromise in Parliament because the stakes of a failure to deliver Brexit in some form are high for both of the legacy parties.
The Article 50 process is strengthening the dynamics that are taking Britain away from Brexit – revoke it, find new leadership and things may well improve.