ANDREW FARRAN. Brexit: Reenter the Grand Old Duke of York.

Dec 13, 2018

The Grand Old Duke of York was said to have marched his troops right up the hill and then marched them down again. At least he is supposed to have had some (loyal) supporters.

Mrs May is in a somewhat a similar position with an unknown number of supporters. having decided at the last minute to put off the Commons ‘meaningful vote’ after categorically denying all along that she would do so.

A vote on the Withdrawal Agreement in the present circumstances would bring down the pillars of the legislature upon everyone’s heads with no clear path to a solution. It is clear that the many views about Brexit cannot be reconciled and fashioned into a coherent whole as they reflect deep seated and varying prejudices, racial attitudes, nostalgia for dear old 19th century England, a general resentment about the outside world, and so on – so very far from keen, statesman-like eyes being fixed on the national interest.

Indicative of how mad the extreme regions have become was exhibited by the UK Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee, reporting that John Redwood, a former cabinet minister and a known intellectual of formidable academic achievements, had stated on TV that a no deal outcome was not to be worried about as it would save a £39 billion divorce fee. “We won’t be crashing out, we will be cashing in”. In other words, Toynbee commented, suicidal idiocy.

A milder criticism of Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement came from the former governor of the Bank of England, Lord King, when he observed: “ There are arguments for remaining in the EU and there are arguments for leaving the EU. But there is no case whatever for giving up the benefits of remaining without obtaining the benefits of leaving”.

As profound as that might seem it overlooks the one and only issue that has entrapped the negotiations through and through and which remain: how do you retain an open border between two territories (on the isle of Ireland) with different and separate trading and economic systems? As of now there is no way known to man or women for that solution. Nor Is there a clear line to be drawn in that regard.

Without a solution on that, all arguments for and against Brexit gain free reign and the longer they go on the more intense they become. While the European Court of Justice has given a way out of the impasse in one respect, namely that the UK’s invocation of Article 50 of the EU treaty can be revoked, thereby allowing a way for the UK to remain in the EU, that course taken unilaterally by the government would almost certainly provoke a massive adverse reaction by a large segment of the UK population, risking uprisings all around the country.

There is one rider attached to this by the ECJ, and that is that revocation should be preceded by a demonstrable democratic act, for instance a strong vote in favour in the Parliament or an expression of opinion by the people, in this case by a further referendum.

For now, the fact is that the UK will crash out of the EU on 29th March unless it has some agreement with the EU meanwhile, which could be the existing unpopular Withdrawal Agreement or a memorandum of understanding with the EU that the option of testing a revocation of Article 50 is to be put to the people at an early referendum and that existing arrangements and protocols should remain in force in the interim.

At the same time the UK should be giving thought to how WTO rules might apply to it if the vote goes the other way. As already noted in these pages, in that event the UK would have to apply to the WTO for membership in its own right as a separate state, and negotiate trade and customs schedules with the other WTO states in that regard – quite a time consuming process for which, after all this time in the EU, the UK is not well equipped to handle.

Perhaps in that negotiation it could reach an appropriate modus operandi with the EU over the Irish border, as unless their respective trade regimes were to essentially merge there would have to be a hard border in Ireland with all the negative consequences that implies.

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and trade policy adviser.

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