Down the rabbit hole of Brexit: The odds of a no-deal divorce

ÖZGE BULUR @ozgebulurr
Published 23.12.2018 20:53
Updated 24.12.2018 15:33
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May at a news conference at the European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 18.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May at a news conference at the European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 18.

With less than a hundred days to go until Brexit, the possibility of a no-deal divorce with the EU and its repercussions to the idea of the ‘backstop' are on the doors of the U.K. government

"Let us make 'Brexit' a success," said British Prime Minister Theresa May on the night of the last Wednesday of April 2017. May's remarks came at a dinner she hosted for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at 10 Downing Street for the first face-to-face talks since she triggered the two-year process of withdrawing from the European Union.

Juncker, in response to the host, reportedly warned that Brexit cannot be a success, and he left "Downing Street 10 times as skeptical as I [he] was before." Juncker, later on, made a phone call to Germany and the voice on the end of the line was that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The next day Merkel told her own members of Parliament at the Bundestag that "some in Britain still have delusions" as Juncker thought May was living "in another galaxy" with her demands for the Brexit deal.

Brexit, from day one, is as clear as mud. For almost two and a half years since the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU, May has had to play the grandstander with her mantra that "no deal is better than a bad deal." Only 20 days after the "leave" vote on June 23, 2016, the Conservative Party member May became prime minister and bequeathed a crisis that has no end in sight, at least until December 2020. There is much to be said about the ongoing Brexit crisis, and a lot has already been put into words. But still, question marks are looming over the trajectory of the Brexit debate, and the lack of answers is only making things worse.

In one of the most recent episodes of the Brexit drama, a parliamentary vote on the draft withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU was delayed until the week of Jan. 14, amid predictions that May would fail to get enough votes from the Commons for the Brexit deal. By offering the Commons such a last possible minute vote, the 62-year-old prime minister, wants to leave no alternative to her Brexit plan, as the deadline of March 29, 2019, the day that the U.K. is due to leave the EU, nears fast.

In the event that May's current withdrawal agreement cannot get enough parliamentary votes, no agreement can be reached with the EU and no extension is agreed on, the U.K. will automatically leave the bloc with no deal. And for many, a no-deal Brexit is the worst thing that could ever happen, a long way off of making Brexit "a success."

If there were a God of Brexit, May would be the most devoted servant begging for help. There are less than 100 days until March 29 and deep divisions in Parliament have raised the chances of leaving the EU without a deal, increasing calls for a second referendum to break the deadlock. For sure, a no-deal Brexit will cost the U.K. an arm and a leg, or perhaps two. More specifically, a no-deal scenario will push the future of Northern Ireland, a part of the island nation of the U.K., toward an intricate maze. Unlike other components of the U.K., the resonance of Brexit will be deeper for Northern Ireland, which shares a border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU country.

I learned about the problematic situation of Northern Ireland's Brexit case in detail from a book, "Preparing for Brexit: Actors, Negotiations and Consequences," by Lee McGowan, a professor of comparative European politics, and Jean Monnet chair of European Integration in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. The book was on the reading list of a book club I am a part of, and we discussed the book with some colleagues of mine a few months ago.

Having already been acquainted with the way he looks at the U.K.'s preparation period of the looming Brexit, I thought McGowan himself could be a proper source for answers to my questions on Northern Ireland's inextricable Brexit doom. So, I held an interview with him.

The big question of Northern Ireland

"The U.K. is potentially facing a real crisis. We are in a mess," Lee McGowan said in the very beginning of the interview. Dissimilar to England and Wales' vote for "leave," Northern Ireland and Scotland preferred to "remain" in the EU.

In his book, McGowan said that according to the U.K.'s devolved administrations, "May's stance on Brexit is very much perceived as an "English" response with an English agenda at heart and is also regarded as a misjudged assessment that is overriding prevailing views in other parts of the U.K."

Similar to his argument in the book, he told me that, "So often, the entire process has felt much like an English issue and less of a U.K. one with events focused in London and little interest given to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."

Some may know that "the hard border" issue between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is a sore that can bleed anytime if it receives a blow. In 1998, Britain and Ireland made the Good Friday agreement to end 30 years of violence, known as "The Troubles," between the north's pro-British unionists and nationalists who favor a united Ireland. The sides reached a consensus on no physical border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. However, now, 20 years later, a hard border could jeopardize peace if the EU and U.K. fail to come to an agreement on the shape of their future relationship during the Brexit transitional period.

The European Commission and the U.K.'s negotiators reached an agreement on a withdrawal agreement on the Irish border on Nov. 14. Both May and EU leaders guaranteed the avoidance of the return of a "hard border" between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, what is called a "backstop." Nevertheless, there are main disagreements between the two sides regarding the scope of the backstop. "A no deal is potentially more problematic as it would introduce a hard border on the island of Ireland, and this would be problematic on political grounds in Northern Ireland," the professor said in regard to the "hard border" issue.

Only two days after the backstop agreement, Ireland's Prime Minister, or Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar said his government would find it very difficult to avoid imposing a hard border on Northern Ireland if Britain crashes out of the EU without an exit deal. What's more, it was only last Wednesday that Dublin published a 133-page contingency plan that said. "Brexit has the potential to impact every element of economic functionality: Trade flows, supply chains, economic and business operations, the labor market and consumer confidence and spending."

Bitter disagreements on 'backstop'

What kind of differences are there in the two sides' backstop agreement then? The EU proposed at first in draft legal agreement on Feb. 28 that if any checks are needed, they will not happen along the line between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland but between the U.K. and Northern Ireland, which means the region will stay under most of the EU's single market and customs rules. But for May and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that backs her in Parliament, any new border within the U.K. would be out of the question. May rejected the plan arguing that "no U.K. prime minister could agree to it" since it would threaten "the constitutional integrity of the U.K." The desperate, yet solution-seeking prime minister suggested a backstop that would see the U.K., as a whole, remain aligned with the EU customs union for a limited time post-2020. But then, the EU found her proposal lacking the qualification of being a backstop as single market regulatory issues were not addressed.

Following some tough months of negotiations, U.K. and EU negotiators finally reached a draft Brexit withdrawal agreement on Nov. 14. According to the agreement, the U.K. would remain in a single customs territory with the EU, while Northern Ireland specifically would continue to align with some EU rules, such as legislation relating to goods, on the condition that another solution cannot be found by the end of the transition period in December 2020.

The agreement deal produced backlash among members of Parliament, and some of May's own ministers resigned in protest of the agreement on the backstop. Even before the day when May will have her plan voted in the week of Jan. 14 comes, things have already gotten even worse for Theresa May. The European Commission shut the door in her face last Tuesday, noting that it is not planning any more meetings on May's demands to clarify the Northern Ireland backstop.

Despite May's defense that the backstop was a necessary "last resort" to protect commitments made to Northern Ireland in the Good Friday Agreement, the prime minister is still not sure if she will be able to get the deal agreed on by Parliament next month. The professor reckons May "will leave the U.K. weaker but is the best that Prime Minister May can get for the moment." Speaking of the plan, May told lawmakers in the House of Commons last Monday that, "I know this is not everyone's perfect deal," and she continued maybe giving the benefit of the doubt to herself, "It is a compromise. But if we let the perfect be the enemy of the good then we risk leaving the EU with no deal." Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good? What an expression!

"If her deal is not accepted now, Parliament will consider the options and could suggest a way forward. For some, this is the people's vote," the professor said, putting the possibility of a second referendum on the table, before he enlarged on the process. "Any new referendum would presumably have three questions: accept the May's proposal, reject the deal or remain. Legislation is needed for a new referendum, and this would take at least 22 weeks to put in place and arguably little longer. It could only occur after Brexit day."

This, then, precludes the possibility of a second referendum.

Under the terms of a no-deal Brexit, the U.K. would leave the EU, the single market, and the customs union without a transition period in March 2019. If the transition period is successfully reached, however, the U.K., during the 21-month period until December 2020, will continue to pay into the EU budget and remain in a customs union with the EU. In professor Lee McGowan's opinion, "For Northern Ireland, the best option for a majority of the public and many businesses would be the U.K. staying in the EU or remaining in the single market," but he reminds us that, "Unless there is a referendum or the U.K. government revokes Article 50, this is not likely."

"So Theresa May's plan allows Northern Ireland to be as close to this as possible. The business community, the voluntary sector and most trade unions are supportive of May's deal and are arguing for the DUP to back her."

The U.K., over the same period of three and a half years until the end of 2020, will also be subject to all EU laws, rules and directives given that a transition period is reached. And after the end of the transition period, the U.K. and Ireland could be in different customs and regulatory regimes as well as the laws, rules and directives.

McGowan underlined that the DUP is opposing May's deal as "different arrangements will apply in northern than to Great Britain – as for example in relation to environmental policy." The DUP, whose 10 votes May relies on for a majority in Parliament, is key for May to have on her side for the upcoming parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal.

"The DUP so far has argued that Northern Ireland's constitutional integrity is more important. May is hoping the party might change its mind if she can get more clear legal clarifications on the backstop." In the event, nonetheless, that she wins backing from the other parties, and the professor is sure that "she is trying to speak to members of the Labour Party behind the scenes," and even if she gets some to abstain, she might not need the DUP.

Whether or not May gets the support of members from the DUP or others, it is crystal-clear that a no-deal Brexit would be the worst for the U.K., so much so that its economy will be over 9 percent smaller over the course of 15 years under a no-deal scenario than it would otherwise be if the U.K. remains in the EU, an official government analysis predicted.

Surely, these answers are not, and won't be, enough when the questions are still accumulating on how the U.K. and the EU will be able to manage customs, trade, travel or citizens' rights in any possible scenario. The case of Northern Ireland, no matter how complicated by itself, is only the tip of the iceberg in the Brexit divorce.

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