Dispel the myth a no-deal Brexit is a realistic option

IN the crazy times we’re enduring it is sometimes difficult to come up with a useful contribution to make to the debate each week, so much is so unclear. But this week I want to try to take a kick at one of the most damaging myths which seems to be emerging: that a no-deal Brexit is somehow a realistic or desirable option. Sadly, we need to go back and examine what “no deal”, “deal” and “Brexit” actually mean, because a lot of folk seem awfy confused.

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First published in The National, 25 July 2018

But first of all, let us remember there is no good Brexit. Even the UK Government’s own analysis, when we were finally allowed to see it, shows that we’re talking shades of bad. Worse, poorer, diminished. The advantages remain entirely hypothetical, and are still unexplained, even by those who pretend to argue for them. Scotland voted to remain across every counting area.

In our independence referendum in 2014, we produced the White Paper and several other documents, with as much detail as could be managed in advance, telling people what future relationship we wanted. The Leave campaigns deliberately did not, so they could promise all things to all people, wilfully leaving the tough stuff till later. How in the name of the wee man can you decide to leave an organisation without any idea what you want to replace it with? And yet, here we are.

Article 50 sets out the process to all of this. Like most EU stuff, it is available for all to see and read. The member state triggers the process, starting a two-year countdown, and if a deal is not struck then, unless something else happens, EU treaties cease to apply to the former member state. Tick tock, tick tock. Triggering Article 50 when May did with so little preparation will go down as the biggest mistake of any UK Prime Minister since Suez, and quite possibly worse given this is entirely self-inflicted.

But that aside, there’s two sets of talks that some people are conflating. The first on the “exit issues” and the second on the “future relationship”. Clearly there’s a blurred edge between the two, how can you, for example, decide on Northern Ireland until you know the future relationship you want? So for an orderly process the EU negotiating guidelines make clear, and the UK Government agreed to every dot and comma, that the exit issues need to be dealt with first before we can go on to the future relationship. This is because right from the get-go there has been in Brussels a lack of trust in the good faith and ability to deliver of UK ministers.

The exit issues are in three main heads: Citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and Northern Ireland. The European Parliament backed that approach, and we voted back in the halcyon days of December last year that sufficient progress had been made to move to talks about the future.

Since that point, in fact almost immediately, the UK Government took the foot off the pedal, and David Davis trashed the solemn agreement on Northern Ireland as “merely a political declaration”.

The well was poisoned from then on, and we have seen little progress since. So the plan, such as it is, in Brussels now is that there will be a Withdrawal Agreement on the exit provisions and the transition period whereby all the EU law will roll over and continue while the second stage talks agree the future. Annexed to this will be a Political Declaration which will set out what all the parties want to achieve from the second stage talks. The Withdrawal Agreement will be signed off, or not, by the European Parliament before the European elections next year. If there’s no Withdrawal Agreement, then there’s no transition and the “cliff edge” outlined in Article 50 happens in March next year.

I’ve written in this column a great deal about what that would mean. A catastrophe. The laws that ensure planes can legally fly through our airspace and food, people, and everything else can move in and out of the external UK borders cease to apply. It is fall of Yugoslavia and USSR stuff. It is unconscionable. I don’t deny there’s some who are pushing for it, but I do not see it as a remotely likely scenario, and the fact that all sorts of the people I dislike most are talking about it suddenly makes me suspicious.

Besides, the danger is greater, and more complex. I think we can all be better engaged not in preparing for disaster but in stopping it happening at all.

My concern now is that there will indeed be a Withdrawal Agreement, but that it will kick all the important issues down the road to a point where it is too late. Once the UK leaves the EU, there’s no easy way back. The Brexiters will huff and puff but they will accept any humiliation to get the UK over the line in March next year, knowing that the political price of reapplying will be too high even if there was political will to do it. They’ll call that Brexit, call it a success, and then trash whatever is agreed. Any negative consequences will be everybody else’s fault but theirs. They’ll then exploit the upset to further their own agendas, and we will by that point have no goodwill from the EU to work with.
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So by all means, be afraid of a no-deal Brexit but remain focused on the fact there’s no good Brexit at all and we have a narrowing window to stop it. I still think this is possible, but we need support and for folk to maintain pressure on MPs and Lords, and indeed MEPs and MSPs, that there’s no good Brexit and it needs to be stopped.