Even though there are unlikely to be any significant Brexit developments prior to Parliament’s “meaningful vote” on May’s Brexit deal the week of January 14 (and even what happens then will probably be a lot of noise as opposed to signal), we thought we’d do some catch-up, in part to let our plugged-in UK and Ireland readers supply their usual informative and sometimes amusing intelligence.
The high level overview is that the UK leadership classes and the press continue to be disengaged from reality even as the Brexit clock keeps ticking. Can I get some of whatever they are smoking?
Theresa May keeps up her Groundhog Day routine. If you follow the Brexit beat, you would have caught that Jean-Claude Juncker chewed the UK, meaning Theresa May, out over “not having its act together” late last week. Recall that at the December EU summit, Theresa May made yet another personal appeal to EU leaders, this time for legally binding assurances regarding the Irish border backstop. The problem is that what May wanted amounted to a renegotiation of terms, such as saying the backstop would only be temporary. For that to be valid, there would need to be a sunset date, which would create the possibility that the backstop would end before a new EU-UK deal was in place, leading to the hard border that the EU (and supposedly the UK) have deemed to be non-starters.
EU leaders had said when they approved the draft Withdrawal Agreement in November that there would be no more negotiations. Donald Tusk reaffirmed that on December 10:
I have decided to call #EUCO on #Brexit (Art. 50) on Thursday. We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification. As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a no-deal scenario.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) December 10, 2018
Yet when Theresa May came to the EU summit in December, she succeeded at the only thing she seems good at, which is alienating EU leaders. The EU had made clear it was willing to give not-legally-binding side statements that it was willing to spin in the manner that would be most helpful to Theresa May, such as saying they wanted the backstop only to be temporary and were as eager as the UK to conclude a trade agreement (which would put an end to the backstop). But to the frustration of EU state heads, May didn’t ask for what was on offer, nor did she make a clear request for anything else.
What May appeared to have communicated was that the UK was still not engaging with the reality that Brexit was looming. Their response was to send the Withdrawal Agreement out for approval by national parliaments (yet more confirmation, as if it were needed, that negotiations were over) and stepping up their Brexit planning.
That is a long-winded way of demonstrating that Juncker’s remark was simply a blunt summary of the state of play, as well as a reminder that May was still not taking the EU up on its willingness to try to improve the optics. Instead, has kept asking for what she should understand that she won’t get, as one can infer from the Sun’s account over the weekend:
His broadside came as it also emerged last night that two weeks of talks to try to improve Theresa May’s Brexit deal have failed to produce a breakthrough.
The PM has just nine days to go to win enough concessions on the hated Irish backstop to persuade Tory MPs to back her when the Commons debates it again.
Help me. Juncker is no Barnier, and one can wonder whether his slap at May was another demonstration of his propensity to go off the rails (this time after considerable provocation), or a deliberate display of venom:
In an interview with German newspaper Die Welt, he said: “It is not us who are leaving the United Kingdom – it is the United Kingdom that is leaving the European Union.
“I find it entirely unreasonable for parts of the British public to believe that it is for the EU alone to propose a solution for all future British problems.
“My appeal is this: get your act together and then tell us what it is you want. Our proposed solutions have been on the table for months.”
The former Luxembourg PM added: “I have the impression that the majority of British MPs deeply distrust both the EU and Mrs May.”
So what do we see today? May is yet again forcing EU leaders to listen to another appeal for them to do what they have said they won’t do, which is reopen the Withdrawal Agreement deal. As we’ve said from early on, the UK seems not to understand the meaning of the word “no,” at least with respect to Brexit. From the Financial Times, May to press EU leaders for Brexit concessions:
Prime minister Theresa May will on Thursday launch a round of EU diplomacy as she seeks “clarifications” to sell her Brexit deal to sceptical MPs, who return to Westminster next week ahead of a vote on the package.
She is expected to speak this week to EU leaders including German chancellor Angela Merkel, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and European Council president Donald Tusk in an attempt to break the Brexit logjam.
Mrs May is seeking legally binding assurances that a so-called backstop plan — intended to avoid a hard Irish border, based on proposals for a temporary UK-EU customs union — will be time-limited. Brussels has so far refused to offer such assurances.
If I were an EU head of state, at this point, I’d be questioning May’s intelligence, sanity, or both.
More evidence of shambolic UK Brexit preparations. The latest episode is the hiring of a ferry charter service from a recently-formed ferry company with no ferries and no experience. UK companies aren’t so lackadasical; they’ve been stockpiling.
But the lack of engagement with reality seems endemic. Richard North gives yet another sighting on what has come to be called “ferrygate”:
Right up front were the throw-away lines from Grayling when he responded to the subject by claiming that he was “expecting the Channel ports to operate normally in all Brexit circumstances”. He’d had “detailed discussions” with his French counterparts and they wanted to keep the Channel ports moving freely. Thus, said Grayling, “I’m confident that will happen”.
Had any sentient interviewer been confronted with such claims from the Transport Secretary, less than 100 days before Brexit day, one might have expected them to clear the decks and devote the rest of the programme to taking them apart. But this is the BBC we’re talking about. The claims were allowed to pass unchallenged.
The point at issue though is that, under all Brexit circumstances, bar one – where the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified and we get a transition period – there will be very significant changes to port operations, with the absolute certainty that there will be serious delays arising from the UK’s newly acquired status as a third country.
That the French want to keep the Channel ports moving freely should almost go without saying, but wishing something doesn’t make it so.
Like May, it seems that virtually every pol in the UK is serving up reheated non-starters. The press today is full of stories about Labour members being at odds with Corbyn over his “no second referendum” stance when there will be no second referendum. Or at least one that makes a difference (we’ve said it is entirely possible that the UK, channeling Greece in 2015, will schedule a second referendum to take place after the Brexit drop dead date, on the misguided belief that the EU would roll over). Consider:
A Second Referendum would take a minimum of 21 weeks (147 days) & requires Government support to happen say, LSE, UCL, IoG & Guardian.
— Tory Fibs (@ToryFibs) December 28, 2018
Add to that:
1. May is not on board
2. In the unlikely event that May were booted in a no-confidence vote, there would be only a caretaker government until a new government was formed, which means no starting a referendum or asking the EU for a delay
3. Add to the timetable above a minimum of a month to pass primary legislation (revocation of the sections of the Withdrawal Act bill that hard-coded the Brexit date as March 29 as well as the referendum bill) and the time to set the wording of the referendum question.
The polls continue to deliver mixed messages. Despite the press giving the impression of a lot of support for a second referendum, the enthusiasm is likely to be greater among MPs eager to find air cover for Remain than among the public at large. It does appear clear that voters are not keen about May’s deal or at least would not be if they understood it:
"Anything less than a clean break from #EU will be a betrayal of the Referendum vote"
YouGov Dec 15 (DK Excl)
— Matthew Goodwin (@GoodwinMJ) January 2, 2019
But no one is telling UK citizens that they have only three choices: crash out, May’s deal, or a withdrawal of Article 50 with no referendum validating that action.
Corbyn continues to disappoint. This section of a Guardian story is cringe-making:
Corbyn said May should return to Brussels once her deal is voted down to find an agreement that Labour could support, including a full customs union.
“What we will do is vote against having no deal, we’ll vote against Theresa May’s deal; at that point she should go back to Brussels and say, ‘This is not acceptable to Britain’ and renegotiate a customs union, form a customs union with the European Union to secure trade,” he said.
Turning the mike over to vlade:
Except, of course:
– the “deal” really is a withdrawal agreement. There’s no EU deal. Yet. Doh?
– there’s no time to renegotiate anything, but hey, we just had Xmas, so sure some pressies are due?
– “Full custom union” (which you can talk about once you quit the EU and start talking “future relationship”, i.e. current political declaration) will solve precisely nothing to “secure trade”. CF Turkey. But I guess it you live in 19th century (as seems pretty mandatory for a UK politicians, unless you elect to go even further back), “customs” are the trade barriers you worry about.
I have no idea what will happen when it finally becomes undeniable that the UK has very few Brexit options. But it won’t be pretty.