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Brexit Endgame

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Written by Michael Antony; Originally appeared on off-guardian.org

This week, appropriately beginning 1st April, Brexit descended into farce after merely being a two-year comedy of errors. In fact it went beyond farce and became more like one of those Shakespearian tragedies like King Lear where doomed tragic heroes begin behaving like clowns and demented court jesters. The doomed tragic hero in this case is the United Kingdom itself and its venerable (some would say senile) parliamentary system.

Brexit had two toxic characteristics built into it. The people voted to leave the EU by a clear majority, but they elected a parliament that was 75% in favour of Remain. This is because of the class bias of the Brexit vote (the Remain chattering classes versus the Brexit deplorables.) This required a superhuman abnegation on the part of MPs to implement the will of the people when they thought the people had gone mad. Some MPs were capable of this spirit of intellectual self-sacrifice for democracy’s sake. Most were not and fought tooth and nail to stop Brexit or water it down to the point of it losing all purpose. They kept up a dishonest mantra that what was voted for was not deliverable. It was only not deliverable because of them.

Brexit Endgame

(Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

The second toxic element was EU manoeuvring. The EU bosses had two goals: stop the UK leaving, or, if they couldn’t, make leaving such a disaster for the UK it would deter anyone else. (Their political goals of power and unity trumped the economic interests of their citizens.) They took advantage of the fact that after May’s reckless snap election she was dependent on the Northern Irish DUP for a majority, and needed every single Conservative MP on side.

May went for the full Brexit: outside the customs union and the single market, which meant she was relying totally on Conservative and DUP votes to get her deal through. The EU then slipped into the Withdrawal Agreement a poison pill: the Irish Backstop, a temporary membership of the Customs Union until a free trade deal was negotiated, so as to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This arrangement could only be ended by mutual agreement — that is, with EU permission. What is more it required alignment of Northern Ireland with single market rules. This poison pill could not be swallowed by the DUP, because it divided NI from GB, or by the hardline Brexiteers because it could be used by the EU to keep the UK in the Customs Union forever.

Theresa May should have pounded the table to demand a time limit on the Backstop or a UK right to leave it unilaterally, or else she would walk away. A dragon in the Commons but a mouse in Brussels, she funked it. The EU were adamant the Backstop must be unlimited in time, and then insisted that the whole deal was now signed and couldn’t be re-opened. (At most they would give a few toothless verbal reassurances that were not part of it.) This intransigence guaranteed that the Withdrawal Agreement would never pass through parliament. The votes against it by the DUP and hardline Brexiteers, when added to the Remainer and partisan votes of the Labour Party (which falsely labelled the deal a “Tory Brexit”) ensured crushing defeats every time May presented it.

The only logical solution would have been to threaten the Labour Party with a no deal Brexit to make them come on board, since the Withdrawal Agreement itself had nothing in it that the Labour Party could not support. It did not go into the details of the future trade relationship of the UK and EU to be negotiated afterwards (i.e. it did not exclude a customs union or single market) and the Political Declaration which sketched this future out could easily have been fudged to keep everyone happy. Instead, May has now decided to compromise with Labour and explicitly accept staying in the Customs Union in order to get their support. Her own hardline Brexiteers are now in open revolt. The dance is becoming frantic as the deadline approaches of 12th April, the new date at which the UK must exit or else ask the EU for a long extension of article 50.

It remains to be seen at this moment whether the compromise over a Customs Union (which makes it impossible for the UK to make its own trade deals, one of the key goals of Brexit) goes ahead. Since it can only be written into the non-binding Political Declaration (as an intention), not the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement, it is hard to see Labour having any faith in the promises of a PM already on the way out.

Most important will be the attitude of the EU when May asks for an extension next week. Will they grant a long extension in the hope that Brexit fires will burn out and a second referendum will cancel it? (Resigning themselves to more of Farage’s harangues in the EU parliament, cheered on by hordes of French and Italian populists.) Or will they call time and force the UK to choose between renouncing Brexit and leaving at once with no deal? (In other words, surrender or suffer — the endgame of the more Machiavellian plotters among them, but perhaps now also of the merely exasperated and despairing.)

If the EU chooses the second course, this may be a salutary kick in the pants for the most selfish, blinkered, factious political elite on the planet. It is always enlightening to learn how unloved and dispensable one is. If it happens, the ultimate revelation will be whether the UK parliament will still have enough tattered rags of pride left to walk away, or whether they will cringe and crawl one more time (this time forever) to the cracking of the whip of their masters in Brussels. This really will determine what sort of nation Britain is and will be.

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  • You can call me Al

    Yes, I think that sums it up rather well.

  • Barba_Papa

    Yet another ‘Let’s blame the EU for Britain’s Brexit woes’ article. As far as the EU is concerned, and so says basically everyone I speak, just fuck off and be done with it. This whole sorry mess has been brought about by one agent and one agent only, the UK Conservative party, and its inability to deal with its Brexit rebels. Because the Torys can no longer win elections decisively (as in gaining a huge 100+ majority, the ghost of Europe Past, the one that ruined John Major’s government and which helped usher in 3 landslide Labour victories, has returned as Brexit Today. Cameron tried to silence them with the referendum, but he lost. May tried to silence them with another election, hoping to increase her majority so she wouldn’t have to deal with the rebels, and she lost. And now both the EU and the UK are suffering from the inability of successive Conservative governments to deal with their Euro sceptic rebels.

    So again, as a proud EU European, just fuck off and let us all be done with it.

  • Amanda Adlem

    When you say ‘chattering classes’ I think you mean a large section of the metropolitan elite. The big money was on both sides of the campaign and the discussion a very much demarcated one within a narrow focus in the MSM. Online the discussions seem to revolve around immigration and brown-skinned Easterners, or Slavs, coming into the country. There is an innate conservatism within the political structures of this country and so radical change is abhorred. This is why Corbyn inspires so much fear and invective. Brexit is held in the same suspicion. It is those outside that inherent conservatism at the heart of the liberal elite that works against leaving the EU. Leaving manifested itself as the outflow from socialist critique and libertarian think-tanks. As a libertarian socialist I think it is the smart thing to leave the EU, but leaving with speed is not a bed of roses, quite the reverse. I think the days of UK greatness are behind them, despite people who want to leave mostly think. While Trump is undermining the position of the US in global opinion, and long-term economic harm, an extreme Brexit will do too to UK interests globally. It is a necessary transition.

    • Amanda Adlem

      There is however no way to get around the impasse because the structures of the political election process and candidate selections, supported by media will produce a not too dissimilar Parliamentary result. Outside of a Yellow Vest moment in a UK dolly-steps Brexit is all that we will get.

  • Sinbad2

    There will be no Brexit as long as May is PM.
    She has done a pretty good job of pretending she is trying to get Brexit done, whilst making sure it never happens.
    There will not be a second referendum, because the result would be the same as the first referendum, and it would show the whole world, that Britain is a democracy in name only.
    There will not be an election, because May would be swept from office.
    So May will keep pretending she is trying to get a deal done, whilst making sure no deal is done.

    Remember May signed off on the alleged nerve not gas poisoning, and the murder of a British subject, she is as evil as they come.

  • Pertsa

    The EU is not a democracy and has never been one, riots, economic disasters, you can not leave if your citizens vote the wrong way..yes.just so. Or maybe another referendum to top it off? I sincerely hope we will see some independent nation states instead of violent yellow vest dramas. I mean, come on!