Fewer than 24 days till Brexit, and no one knows what will happen. And even more peculiar is that this remarkable degree of uncertainty seems to have become normalized.
Nevertheless, some of the latest developments:
It’s now official that the latest UK efforts to reopen the backstop are going nowhere. It was so clear that this effort was doomed to fail that the only plausible justification for sending in Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and acting as if something might happen was to give a thin veneer of legitimacy to May pushing the Meaningful Vote back to March 12. Bear in mind that the Ultras had nevertheless manned up, assembling a group of high-powered lawyers to review whatever Cox brought back to see if it met three tests they had set up.
The face-saver that Cox is now trying to secure is getting an enhanced “arbitration mechanism”. Nevertheless, the Government is still insisting that it’s trying to obtain “legally binding changes” despite the EU repeatedly saying “no” and Barnier reiterating that stance.
May’s deal is expected to go down in defeat again next week. 230 votes is a big hurdle to overcome. And there’s now no strong reason for anyone who doesn’t like the agreement to vote for it, since May has made clear she needs an extension even if the bill passes, so that March 29 drop dead isn’t seen as an event horizon. Yet is hasn’t been removed as one either.
As a reminder, Reuters recaps the order of battle:
On March 12, May is expected to try once more to get her deal approved, though much will rest on whether she can secure extra assurances from Brussels about the thorny issue of Northern Ireland’s border.
If that vote fails, May will ask parliament a day later whether it wants to leave the European Union without any kind of exit deal – a potentially disruptive divorce with damaging consequences for the world’s fifth largest economy.
If parliament rejects that outcome as well, lawmakers will then decide on March 14 if they want to try to delay Brexit, potentially opening the door to a wholesale renegotiation with the EU – or even a second referendum at home.
But the UK and EU don’t seem to see eye to eye on an extension. May has said she wants only a short extension, which translates into maybe a few weeks but more likely a few months. That timeframe happens to line up with the results of recent polls, which show that support for an extension drops off sharply if it were to be longer than three months. In addition, that would probably fall within the limits needed to keep the UK from having to participate in upcoming European Parliament elections. A report to the German parliament confirmed a widely-held view that if the UK’s extension extended to the seating of the new European Parliament on July 2, UK citizens could sue over having their rights violated and would have a near-certain win. Leave Means Leave has already announced it will sue to have the UK participate in European Parliament elections on May 23 in the event of a Brexit extension.
Many EU leaders have said they aren’t keen about a short extension, since they don’t see how it could solve anything on the UK side. That does not necessarily translate into “no” votes, but this position seems to be widely shared.
In keeping, the EU has been floating trial balloons since at least January about a nine month (and some have even said 12 month) extension. The proponents claim they have legal advice supporting their view that the UK MEPs could continue to sit.
But nine months, or even twelve, as some are calling for, doesn’t solve anything either. What might change things is a second referendum, and then only if the result is “remain”. Even though that seems like a given now, recall it also did on the eve of the vote. My finance mavens in the US were predicting Remain would win by 6 to 7 points. Twelve months is barely enough time for a referendum. What happens if the Leave camp succeed again in mounting effective emotional appeals? It’s inconceivable that the EU would offer the, say, two year extension plus extension needed to allow for the possibility that Leave might be reaffirmed and the UK and EU would be back at the negotiating table.
What is most troubling about this difference of views is that it does not appear that the UK and the EU are discussing what length of extension the UK might want and what it intends to do with it during their talks this week. To the extent they are negotiating, they appear to be doing so via the press.
In practical terms, that means that May won’t approach the EU till after getting instructions from the Parliament (which will presumably be the ones the Government supports) on March 14. The next EU Council meeting starts March 21, but the sherpas normally get their briefing materials at least two days before the session. So May is yet again at a minimum annoy the EU with her presumptuousness and lack of organization, and also risk bad outcomes due to not allowing for all key players to study the issues.
Even though investment manager Gina Miller (whose legal challenge led to Parliament being required to approve the Article 50 notice) is pushing the idea that the EU27 could give an extension without the UK’s consent, it’s hard to see why the EU would step on that landmine. It would undermine the critical role of treaties in making the EU function, plus would risk alienating moderates and recent Remain converts in the UK.
Even with an extension, it’s not clear that crash out risk has been eliminated but only deferred. One thing the EU leaders do appear to agree on is that the UK will get only one extension. They do not want to become hostage to its brinksmanship.
Reports that the Ultra are coming into the fold appear to be exaggerated. From the Telegraph, Theresa May warned she must whip MPs to stop them taking no-deal Brexit off the table:
Theresa May has been warned she must whip her MPs to keep a no-deal Brexit on the table in a vote next week as Geoffrey Cox travels to Brussels for make-or-break talks with EU negotiators. Senior Eurosceptics are convinced Mrs May will lose a vote on a revised Brexit deal on March 12 because they do not expect the Attorney General to win meaningful concessions on the Irish backstop.
Labour even more fractured. Corbyn has finally backed a second referendum, and has apparently also been cornered into whipping for it. But it appears that 60 to 70 Labour MPs from constituencies that voted Leave will defy the party.
Ireland is hotting up in a bad way. Three small bombs were sent from the Republic of Ireland to Heathrow Airport, City Airport and Waterloo railway station. Police are investigating whether Irish dissidents might be the perps. From the BBC:
Scotland Yard said: “The packages – all A4-sized white postal bags containing yellow Jiffy bags – have been assessed by specialist officers to be small improvised explosive devices.
“These devices, at this early stage of the investigation, appear capable of igniting an initially small fire when opened.”…
The motive is unclear. It could be anything from Irish republicanism to a grievance against transport companies. Other possibilities include someone with strong opinions about Brexit or someone with mental health problems.
The devices do not seem to be capable of causing serious injury, so they were probably intended to have a nuisance effect and to generate publicity, which they have successfully done.
Why there is no good answer to the “Irish border” problem save a sea border. Hoisting a section of an important article by Patrick Cockburn in Counterpunch that we’ve also included in Links. This story explains why the UK magic sparkle pony of a high tech solution will never work:
Focus is often placed on the sheer difficulty of policing the 310-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because there are at least 300 major and minor crossing points. But the real problem is not geographic or military but political and demographic because almost all the border runs through country where Catholics greatly outnumber Protestants. The Catholics will not accept, and are in a position to prevent, a hard border unless it is defended permanently by several thousand British troops in fortified positions.
The threat to peace is often seen as coming from dissident Republicans, a small and fragmented band with little support, who might shoot a policeman or a customs’ official. But this is not the greatest danger, or at least not yet, because it is much more likely that spontaneous but sustained protests would prevent any attempt to recreate an international frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic that wasn’t backed by overwhelming armed force.
It is unrealistic to the point of absurdity to imagine that technical means on the border could substitute for customs personnel because cameras and other devices would be immediately destroyed by local people. A new border would have to be manned by customs officials, but these would not go there unless they were protected by police and the police could not operate without British Army protection. Protesters would be killed or injured and we would spiral back into violence.
We are not looking at a worst-case scenario but an inevitability if a hard border returns as it will, if there is a full Brexit. The EU could never agree to a deal – and would be signing its own death warrant if it did – in which the customs union and the single market have a large unguarded hole in their tariff and regulatory walls.
I have no idea what happens if there were to be a crash out and the UK were to refuse to enforce the border or did a deliberately inadequate job. Readers?