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Parliament has to start directing the Brexit negotiations


The moment it became clear that the EU would give full backing to Ireland’s wish for no hard border, and on the assumption that the UK side would not allow a sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, it was clear what the range of possible deals between the UK and EU would be. The maximum possible change that would prevent the need for a hard border is that the UK stay in the Customs Union (CU) and Single Market (SM) for goods, while not accepting Freedom of Movement (FoM): the Jersey option. The minimum possible change is that the ‘transition’ became the final deal, with the UK staying in the CU and complete SM including FoM: the BINO (Brexit in name only) option. The final deal between the EU and UK has to lie somewhere between this minimum and maximum.

It is also where any final deal should have been anyway, given how close the referendum was. All the evidencewe have suggests that those who voted Leave do not want a deal that will make them significantly poorer, which means that the final deal should be one that does the UK little economic harm. The negotiations should have focused from the start on what limits to FoM were possible at what cost in terms of (partial) membership of the SM. These negotiations should have taken place informally before Article 50 was invoked to give the UK some bargaining power.

Instead Theresa May allowedthe whole process to be hijacked by the Brexiters, who treated the referendum like an election win with no manifesto. They believed they owned the referendum victory, and so acted as if they had the right to decide what Brexit means. As a result, we have wasted time talking about impossible deals, rather than negotiate within the space that a deal can be done. It is in fact worse than that. May and the Brexiters, by refusing to let go of their fantasies (about a technological solution to the border problem or about the EU caving into their wishes to be part of the club without signing up to the rules) have split the negotiations into two parts: the preferred deal and the backstop.

As has now becomeclear, the idea of a backstop is predicated on there being a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The EU should never had allowed this device because they should have understood that such a border would be politically impossible. Instead they took far too seriously May’s red lines, which they interpreted as the UK wanting a FTA which would in turn require a border in the Irish Sea to avoid a hard land border. They made the mistake of thinking that because this was obvious to any objective observer the UK side acknowledged this fact. May encouraged this belief by appearing to agree in December to a sea border, only to be pulled up at the last minute by the DUP. In short, the EU made the mistake of thinking it was negotiating with a rational counterpart, rather than one that was at war with itself.

This is the context of the parliamentary votes on the Lord’s amendmentson 12/13th June. Parliament is, in effect, trying to manage the negotiating process because those conducting the negotiations so far are getting nowhere. Some of these amendments attempt to direct the government towards negotiating in the relevant range (the CU amendment proposed by Lord Kerr), and to give them the space in which to do so (by removing the date of exit which was inserted into the bill by May as a way of appeasing her Brexiter colleagues or Paul Dacre). I suspect May would privately welcome both amendments if she has any understanding of what is going on.

The EEA amendment appears to suggest a specific point in the range of possible deals, which is why the Labour leadership and some of their MPs dislike it. I think their attitude is a mistake. The way to think about the EEA amendment, which is only expressed as a negotiating aim, is to steer the government towards the possible range of final deals, which has to include staying in the Single Market for goods. If this is not passed we will just waste more time as May fiddles around trying to inch closer to the possible range without the Brexiters throwing their toys out of the pram. [1]

There is also a purely short term political reason for the opposition supporting the EEA amendment. As I noted above, May will probably find it a relief to be directed to stay in the CU. She is already at the stage of realising that the UK staying in the CU is essential for a deal. The Brexiters will huff and puff, and Fox may even resign, but their anger will be directed at parliament more than May. The EEA amendment in contrast is likely to cause far greater discomfort in government: it is difficult to see how any Brexiter cabinet ministers will suffer this. So in terms of damage to the government, EEA inflicts much more than the CU.

May will also not welcome what is perhaps the most important amendment, proposed by Hailsham, which gives parliament the ability to direct the Prime Minister if the negotiations fail or the deal is voted down by parliament. However she has only herself to blame if this is passed, in particular for threatening no deal if parliament rejected her deal. By allowing the Brexiters to hijack the negotiations process, it is not surprising that parliament should decide that they need to start calling the shots. As Labour seem quite likely to reject a deal if she manages to achieve one, this amendment is crucial to minimise the subsequent chaos. The amendment is not quite parliament taking back control of the negotiation, but it does mean that May will have to start taking directions from parliament rather than the Brexiters. That has to be good for democracy in the UK.


[1] Nor should the EEA be seen as something that is inflexible. It already contains a brake on immigration, where countries can take"appropriate measures" if serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectoral or regional nature arise and are liable to persist. There are lots of other issuesthat would have to be addressed if the UK signed up to the EEA outside the EU, which means there will be the opportunity to negotiate around issues to do with immigration or state aid.

Postscript (13/06/18) The government did not lose a single vote yesterday, and it will be surprising if they do today. Rebel Conservative MPs did get some concessions which will hopefully allow them to have some influence over a situation where MPs vote against the final deal or there is no deal, and the rebel numbers were increased by the resignation of Justice minister Phillip Lee. But they completely failed to start directing how May conducts the negotiating process, which leaves the Brexiters as a constant drag on May's efforts to start negotiating something that the EU might accept.


At the end of the day, Conservative MPs have put party before country. Brexiters have hijacked the negotiation process, and Conservative MPs are content to let that continue, even though time for a deal is running out. The bill they voted on yesterday and today involves a substantial transfer of powers from parliament to the executive, and Conservative MPs do nothing about it. A rabid right wing press encourages far right nutters to murder one MP, attempt to murder another, with one Conservative rebel requiring armed guards because of threats, and the same Conservative MPs do nothing about it because that press helps their party. Just as in the United States, nowadays a pluralistic democracy is unsafe when the main right wing party is in power. Based on this record, I cannot see Conservative MPs voting against any final Brexit deal, which in turn means the chances of a second referendum - always slim - have all but vanished.  












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