Is there a way out of the national humiliation of the Brexit, the UK’s attempt to leave the European Union? The British parliament again failed to agree on alternatives to Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal to do so this week, which has already been defeated three times during this parliament.
The consequences could be grave, as Britain now has fewer than 10 days left before crashing out from the EU without a deal.
One recent document about the consequence of a no-deal scenario was a leaked letter from UK Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill to cabinet ministers. In a 14-page letter leaked to the UK newspaper the Daily Mail, Sedwill warned that no-deal could even lead to the break-up of the UK, saying that “the stability of the union would be dislocated.”
He warned that Northern Ireland would face “more severe” consequences, particularly as the lack of devolved government would require direct rule from London.
“The running of Northern Ireland under no deal is a sensitive issue. The current powers granted to the Northern Irish secretary would not be adequate for the pace, breadth or controversy of the decisions needed to be taken through a no-deal exit. Therefore, we would have to introduce direct rule,” he said.
He also warned that a no-deal Brexit would affect the UK security services. “Our national security would be disrupted. The UK would forfeit access to criminal justice levers.
None of our mitigation measures would give the UK the same security capabilities as our current ones.A no-deal exit would enormously increase pressure on our law and security authorities and on our judicial system.”
The grave outcomes of a no-deal Brexit scenario could also include a 10 per cent spike in food prices and the collapse of businesses that trade with the EU.
Sedwill warned that the government would come under pressure to bail out companies and that there could be a depreciation in the value of the pound more harmful than in 2008.
When the UK House of Commons voted down all the alternatives to May’s deal, it was too much to take for many, with questions being raised about where to go with just days left before the Brexit deadline and how consensus could replace the paralysis of the government and parliament.
These are questions in the minds of millions of British citizens and also of many European politicians. The four alternatives that were voted down this week had increased support, raising the question of why giving parliament a say on Brexit options was not introduced two years ago.
The alternative motion on a customs union with the EU put forward by Tory MP Kenneth Clarke lost by 273 votes in favour to 276 against. A cross-party motion for a “common market 2.0” fell by 21 votes (261 to 282), and a call for any final deal to be put to a popular referendum lost by 280 to 292.
Many reasons have been given to explain the impasse in parliament and its failure to agree on a path. But the most obvious are the power of party politics as the majority of MPs voted according to their party preferences.
Another reason is the inability of any Brexit option to unite the nation. If you are a remainer, your best option is staying in the EU, whereas if you are a Brexiteer your best option is leaving without a deal, explaining why it has been so difficult to find middle ground.
With the UK parliament still grappling with Brexit, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for EU member states to remain united.
“You saw that the British parliament was unable to make a decision yesterday that would move towards a solution agreed by all,” he said after a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in Rome on Tuesday.
“The UK government is in session this morning... We await the outcome of this meeting,” he added.
Discussions have been taking place between EU leaders on whether to embrace a no-deal Brexit to protect the EU from the nightmare. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said on Tuesday that if the Commons did not vote for May’s withdrawal agreement within the next few days, only “leaving without an agreement or requesting a longer extension of the Article 50 period” would remain as options.
A long extension to the UK’s current 12 April exit date carried “significant risks for the EU” and a “strong justification would be needed” before the EU could agree to it, he said.
His fears crystallised at a meeting with Nigel Farage, the former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader. Barnier said he had asked Farage how he saw the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Farage said that after Brexit the EU would “no longer exist. So these people want to destroy the European Union from the inside, and others from the outside,” Barnier said.
Barnier also told the European Parliament’s committee on foreign affairs that the crisis in the UK went beyond Brexit. “I don’t think I need to go on at great length about the nature of what is going on in the UK and the impasse or political crisis they might be experiencing. More deeply, it is not just about the question of Brexit… and the agreement that’s on the table and the backstop for Ireland.”
“Somewhere along the line, it is a crisis that equally could have sprung up in another country. In my country [France] as well, there are questions about what our relationship is to the world, what is our place in the EU, what is our economic model. These are all things coming out as a result of the British debate.”
A five-hour cabinet meeting chaired by May to discuss what could be done to avert a looming no-deal Brexit seems unlikely to solve anything. Former Brexit secretary David Davis said up to 20 Tory MPs could vote against May in a confidence motion, and he warned in an interview with the BBC that if May sought a long extension to Article 50 that could “tear apart” the Tories.
His warning came after Tory MPs Steve Baker and Crispin Blunt suggested that they would be willing to vote against the government in a confidence motion if May backed the UK’s staying in the customs union or asked for a long delay.
With the country divided and the crisis deepening, Britain’s options all look bad with no good outcome. A general election would not obviously help to solve the dilemma, and a long delay could harm the economy even more.
A cliff-edge Brexit would be a bad scenario for the UK and EU, and a second referendum could lead to civil unrest with emotions running high and alarming signs that far-right groups in the UK are feeding on the mayhem.
Juncker in his press conference referred to comments made last week comparing the British parliament to the Sphinx. “If we compare the Sphinx and Great Britain, the Sphinx would look like an open book,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The Brexit and the Sphinx