ANDREW FARRAN. The fog of the Irish Sea still overhangs Brexit.

Jun 15, 2018

The House of Commons vote on 12th June has saved Prime Minister May for another day but has also left open the role Parliament might play in the outcome of the EU negotiations. A (definitive) White Paper on Britain’s negotiating terms can be expected after the European Economic Summit meets later this month.

The fog of the Irish Sea still overhangs Brexit. The narrow vote in the House of Commons on 12th June (324/298 with some from both sides crossing the floor) has saved Prime Minister May for another day – but how much longer? At this point, the only factor in her favour is the fear the ultra Conservatives have of a Labour Government. But for some Brexiters, the cry of “God for England, Harry and St George” is even stronger now if the yoke of the European Union is to be removed totally from its noble back!

The 12 amendments passed earlier by the House of Lords, relating in particular to a Parliamentary veto on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, were not sustained by the Commons but their purpose to ensure a meaningful opportunity for the Commons to vote up or down on an eventual Brexit settlement remains. It is all about how much of a common and internal market can or will be retained without doing violence to the Brexit objective.

Some argue that treaty making is a prerogative power of the Crown which can be exercised without approval by Parliament. Resorting to this ancient doctrine would be extreme and alienate a good proportion of Parliamentary and public opinion. Many consequential legislative measures could enter a grey area as a result.

From some passing observations on the broader politics of Brexit, there would seem to be a growing mood in Britain to drop the whole thing, now that the damage it is doing and will continue to do to the economy is more widely appreciated. But the two ends of the political spectrum on Brexit are sticking firmly to their positions.

Admittedly Mrs May is in an impossible situation, fighting wars with her backbenchers, with the Labour Party, with her 10 Irish Unionists backers, and with the EU itself. And the loyalty of key Cabinet members cannot be taken for granted either.

In an effort to resolve the Cabinet issues – at the centre of the government’s whole Brexit strategy – members will be summoned to Chequers for a weekend retreat. The objective will be to agree a White Paper defining once and for all the Brexit terms. But this meeting is not to be held before the European Economic Council summit at the end of the month. So the waiting goes on.

With regard to the all-consuming Irish Border question (as Boris Johnson puts it: “The tail wagging the dog”), the government has to placate both Irish governments, the extreme Brexiters, and the EU, and not be in breach of WTO rules. Some novel solutions have been proposed to overcome the land-border problem (i.e. avoiding physical checks as goods and people pass through) – one being a ‘backstop’ arrangement which would keep the two parts of Ireland existing in the EU common market for an indefinite time after Brexit (denounced as a betrayal of Brexit); and another ridiculous suggestion from Jacob Rees-Mogg and his European Research Group (essentially a back-bencher anti-Europe group) where goods would be cleared at the sea ports, rather than at the land border, with the differential tariffs being applied simultaneously – an arrangement that would breach WTO rules against discriminatory treatment (this anyway is one’s imperfect understanding of it, but no one else seems to understand it either, not even Rees-Mogg himself as he tried awkwardly to explain it to a UK radio audience recently).

The Brexit situation will remain as one with more heat than light, at least until the European Economic Council summit late this month and the issue of the government’s (at last) White Paper. It cannot be assumed that the positions of certain other EU members may not change the equation, at last at the margins, between now and then.

As it happens the writer will be in the UK at that time and hopes to be in a position to provide more and better insight into where Brexit may lead, both for the UK and its trading partners in the EU and beyond.

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

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