The UK media are reporting the news of yesterday’s Brexit “breakthrough” as if progress is being made, when the story of this week should be that we couldn’t trust May and her government to organise a piss-up in a Members’ Lounge, let alone negotiate all of our futures. They’ve just papered over the inherent contradictions of the border issue so that progress can be seen to be made, not actually made. You can’t have no checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic and no checks between Northern Ireland and mainland UK while maintaining that a hard border exists between the UK and the EU. This accepts freedom of movement by default; in which case, what on earth is the point of maintaining that the UK needs to leave the single market and customs union?
Unless... the plan is to restrict freedom of movement by requiring identity checks within the UK of anyone “foreign” whenever suspicion arises that they aren’t in the UK legitimately. That would certainly be in keeping with May’s track record as Home Secretary and PM. So, if you look or sound “different”: papers, please. So much for EU27 citizens (or any other immigrants, or children of immigrants) now being able to feel secure here. Whether or not companies feel that this “breakthrough” gives them enough reason to pause their Brexit contingency plans, I doubt it will cause most affected individuals to do so.
Meanwhile, this development seems to have let David Davis off the hook as far as the media are concerned, when the question should be how he can possibly be fit to lead the UK into phase two of negotiations after his recent Exiting the EU Committee appearance. Let us never forget the bitter irony of a British minister dismissing the need for Brexit impact assessments:
The culture of the EU institutions is quite unlike its popular spendthrift image, and that is due in no small part to generations of British politicians and civil servants who have helped to shape Brussels in their own image. Or rather, what they project as their own image. How accurate that image is must be questioned when a senior government minister from the country synonymous with impact assessments tells his parliament that he is “not a fan”.
Many leavers are interpreting May’s concessions as the government caving in to the EU and robbing them of their beloved swan-dive over the cliff, so they aren’t happy either (see the comments below Boris Johnson’s recent tweet). Arron Banks and Nigel Farage have been foaming at the mouth on Twitter because they know the score: the direction of travel is now towards a Brexit in name only, but with collateral damage, like constraining resident EU27 citizens’ rights, and the loss of any UK say in the rules we will have to abide by. Hard Brexit is slipping from their grasp, and all that’s left is Rubbish Brexit—and once the wider UK population realises that we’ll be paying the same as if we were still in the EU, and having to abide by a swathe of EU rules, except without any say in what we’re paying for, they might well swing to remaining altogether.
If I had to choose between Rubbish Brexit and the cliff, obviously I’d choose Rubbish Brexit. But another, far superior choice is still on the table, if only the UK could swallow its pride and take it. There’s still the potential to revoke May’s Article 50 notification. The UK has notified the European Council of its intention to withdraw, and withdrawal is set for 29 March 2019, but if it revokes its intention before then, withdrawal will never have taken place, and none of the conditions about readmission will apply. Key EU figures and leaders of other EU countries have said that we can change our minds, and legal opinion appears to support them. The government (though probably not this government) could simply notify the European Council that it is no longer the intention of the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union.
Obviously, our continued presence in the room afterwards would be akin to George Costanza’s, at least for a while, but if the countries of Europe could move on from World War II and then the Cold War and work with their former enemies, they can cope with a failed Brexit. A bunch of rhetoric and timewasting from a divided Britain is small beer compared with carpet bombing and nuclear brinkmanship.
Before yesterday I might have said the odds of avoiding Brexit altogether were 25%; maybe now it’s more like 35%. There’s room for those odds to improve. The biggest obstacles will be entrenched ideological positions and wounded pride. If the last two years have taught us anything, though, it’s that people’s positions can change. A large number of Britons who were previously pro-Remain but relatively indifferent to the EU and its benefits are now passionately committed to the EU and its benefits. Meanwhile, a bunch of fence-sitters who might have voted soft Leave in 2016 will now be aware that they didn’t think it through properly. If the UK remained in the EU after all, the most intransigent Brexiteers would be extremely pissed off at being thwarted, but they don’t have the floor to themselves any more. I would expect that elections of MEPs would no longer be some sort of afterthought with 34% turnout, returning a bunch of useless Kippers. A chastened, failed-Brexit UK would be an entirely different animal from pre-referendum UK.
If we do withdraw on 29 March 2019, then the campaign to rejoin the EU begins. If we end up leaving with no deal and suffering all of the pain that entails, I suspect we’ll be spending euros on Oxford Street by 2035. And on Princes Street a lot sooner than that.
Adapted from some of my comments at Metafilter.