With almost unprecedented lack of notice and a huge backlash which followed, on Monday Theresa May cancelled the “Meaningful Vote” which would have allowed MPs to vote on the Withdrawal Agreement currently drawn up for the UK’s exit from the EU. As the Withdrawal Agreement was almost absolutely certain to be rejected in the vote, it has been interpreted as a poorly timed attempt to save face.
Why was the Agreement going to be rejected?
MPs and the public were unhappy for a range of reasons:
- It contained the controversial “Northern Ireland backstop” which, if triggered, would see all of the UK in a customs union with the EU, and Northern Ireland in a deeper customs union than the UK with greater alignment with Europe. While in this agreement, the UK would not be able to make other trade deals
- Brexiters are upset that there is no clean break with the EU and we would still be in a customs arrangement with them in the event of the backstop, and with no guarantee that we could leave the backstop easily. May and the EU have promised it wouldn’t be permanent but this isn’t enough for a lot of MPs. The DUP, essential to maintaining a Conservative majority, are particularly unhappy…
- Remainers are upset that we would essentially have similar (but reduced) benefits, but no say whatsoever in them. Remainers are also upset that this whole fiasco came about from a campaign of lies deemed to have been over-funded illegally, and that people voting weren’t aware of what a Brexit scenario might look like.
- In the event of a disagreement between the two parties, there was a strange overpowering presence of the European Court of Justice instead of a truly independent judge.
Now what will happen? Why is Theresa May in Europe?
As the EU has firmly asserted, on multiple occasions, that no more negotiating will be done, it looks like May’s trip to Brussels will be to ask for greater reassurances on the non-permanence of the backstop plan, rather than to ask for its suppression – as has been demanded by DUP members – or to get better terms – as other MPs across multiple parties have demanded.
Since the Agreement was going to be rejected for multiple reasons and not just the backstop, any reassurances from the EU are unlikely to make any different. Theresa May’s mission puzzles most of us, and it feels a lot like simply playing for time.
Some MPs are calling for a Norway+ arrangement (lots more of the benefits of the EU, still without having a say), despite the fact that Norway has publicly rejected the idea of the UK joining their economic area, while others are calling for a second referendum (particularly the Lib Dems and the SNP). Jeremy Corbyn is very focused on a general election and a Labour government to replace the Conservative’s fractured benches, but won’t take a firm stance on Labour’s opinion of a second referendum. A smaller minority of politicians want a no deal – but that would be a disaster for businesses, trade, travel, and other things we take for granted (including Netflix).
What does this mean for politics? Or the country in general?
Theresa May’s decision to postpone the vote has seriously damaged any semblance of authority she still held, with criticism raining down from opposition parties as well her own Conservative members. Even staunch pro-Brexit MPs did not show any support for the move when Theresa May spoke in Parliament on Tuesday afternoon: a distinct lack of “hear, hear”s and a solemn silence betrayed an awareness from all MPs of the seriousness of the situation.
Vince Cable said the Lib Dems would support Jeremy Corbyn’s vote of no confidence, as did Nicola Sturgeon, who suggested giving “people the chance to stop Brexit in another vote” because “this shambles can’t go on”. She called it “pathetic cowardice” in a biting tweet. John Bercow, the speaker, called for the PM to let MPs have a say on the vote. Jeremy Corbyn claimed Labour could negotiate a better deal (highly debatable as to the accuracy of such a claim given the EU’s position on any more negotiations) and said “we don’t have a functioning government” (much less debatable and much more accurate).
Next steps are still very confused. The House of Commons tweeted that the MPs could vote on the Brexit deal as late as the 28th of March next year. MPs called on May to withhold the divorce payment, to delay the date of article 50 to allow more time, to allow them to vote tomorrow anyway, to step down, to give the people a second vote, to stop the European Court of Justice playing such a huge role in the withdrawal agreement… May’s answer is the same as ever: Brexit will happen on the 29th March 2019. We will pay the divorce bill. The backstop arrangement won’t be used. Her deal is the “best deal” that can be arranged. She won’t support a second referendum.
What about outside the UK?
Meanwhile, international media watched on with crossed fingers instead of popcorn as the British politicians took bites out of each other, seeing this as proof that “a question as complex as the relationship between the UK and the EU cannot be reduced to a binary choice in a referendum” (Le Monde). EU sources sighed about the fact that the upcoming EU summit on the 13th December was going to become yet another “Brexit special”.
Instead of triggering other Brexit-style campaigns across Europe, experts (e.g Nicole Gnesotto, researcher, Le Figaro) are beginning to hypothesise that the whole thing will instead put other countries off such a complicated issue, and euro-sceptic campaigns in other countries are beginning to shift towards a transformative approach. Instead of wanting to tear the Union apart, they want to reform it, making it more authoritarian, more closed to the rest of the world, more xenophobic, more social. Other experts consider a no-deal to be a possibility – with one economist estimating the chances to be at 10% (Peter Westaway) – but think that the crisis would be mostly localised, affecting the UK but not triggering a worldwide recession.
In terms of immediate economic impact after the last couple of days, media reported on the staggering 1% drop in the pound against the euro – falling to its lowest level in 20 months.
MINI POLITICS is a new series on my blog. Every week, I will be writing a short and simple explanation of a current political issue or event in Europe, designed to be accessible for people who don’t think they’re interested in politics as well as those who are interested in European politics but don’t want to trawl through pages of analysis, or who don’t speak the language of the country where the event is taking place. Mini summaries of big questions, made simple.