Protestors with banners, London, UK, July 1, 2016. Ik Aldama/Press Association. All rights reserved.One year ago, the government of Theresa May notified the European Council of its intention to leave the European Union. As a European citizen living in this country it was a sad time. As a person who believes in democracy, triggering article 50 had to be the necessary consequence of the outcome of the referendum.Since then, the clock has been ticking. Article 50 requires that in one year’s time, that is before March 29, 2019, the UK government must sign a deal with the EU about their future relationship, or roll out of it without.
Despite May’s reassurances that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, it is clear that the inability to reach a deal would be a catastrophe for most of us. From one day to the next, almost 3 million EU citizens in the UK and more than 1 million UK citizens in the EU will effectively become ‘outlaws’. About £554 billion in trade between the UK and the EU would suddenly be subject to customs and levies under WTO rules. All EU grants supporting UK institutions and other EU-funded activities would be suspended. Most worryingly, a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would come into force, endangering the Good Friday agreement which put an end to 40 years of Troubles.
In her Lancaster speech in January 2017, May considered such a scenario, suggesting that she would feel “free to change the basis of Britain’s economic model” in what Jeremy Corbyn has rightly described as a “bargain basement tax haven on the shores of Europe”. Everyone needs to face up to the outcome of a Tory-led no-deal Brexit: a bonfire of rights, where working conditions and living standards would be traded for tax exemptions to "attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors”, as May put it.
In the same Lancaster speech, Theresa May outlined a plan where Britain is set to quit both the single market and the custom union, pulling the UK out of any form of common jurisdiction with the other 27 EU nations. What will come then is not clear. In her Florence speech, May called for a “creative solution” for a “comprehensive and ambitious” economic partnership. But the time for such a “creative solution” is running out. It took the government six months to agree on the divorce settlements, and another three months to agree the terms of the transition period (in short: most things stay as they are until December 2020). All of which would be useless without some agreement on the terms of the future relationship according to the EU negotiating principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
When and if such an agreement is signed, it would require proper scrutiny by the EU Parliament and importantly, also by the UK one. This is because Labour first traded a parliamentary vote on the deal before deciding to vote in favour of triggering article 50 and then defeated the Government with an amendment to secure this “meaningful” vote. This parliamentary process requires time, and in order to be completed before the deadline of 29 March 2019, it implies starting it by latest October.
While May tried to detail some aspects of this comprehensive deal in her Mansion House speech earlier this month, there are no signs the EU is willing to commit to a sector by sector agreement, whose inherent complexity makes it impossible to strike in less than a few years. Moreover, no solution for Northern Ireland has been provided by the government, which has effectively agreed with the EU to allow custom checks across the Irish sea as a last resort given the lack of alternatives. Should they fail to materialise in these 6 months, the vote on the Brexit deal would become a choice between breaking apart the common market of the Irish island or that of the United Kingdom, with enormous political implications in both cases.
Brexit shadow secretary Keir Starmer has intelligently put forward six key tests to decide Labour’s vote on the deal. In the absence of a significant policy shift of the Government, those tests are bound to fail, and Labour would hopefully be joined by enough Tory rebels to bring down the deal. What would happen then is impossible to predict, but surely negotiations with the EU should resume to avoid a cliff-edge before the deadline.
Labour’s ingenious proposal to negotiate a new custom union with the EU could be a sensible solution, both for Northern Ireland and to limit friction on trade. However, there is simply no way it can be negotiated in the six months that would follow a vote against whatever Brexit deal May might strike. Disentangling the custom union from the single market is an extremely complex task which requires careful reflection on both sides, and patience doesn’t run high in Brussels, after what appears to be a never-ending indecisiveness from the British side. Besides, Labour could only come to negotiate a deal after getting into government through a general election, which would steal a few more months from the total. There simply isn’t enough time to change May’s Brexit course.
One year on, we need to refresh our minds. Why is the most ancient democracy on earth deploying an enormous amount of resources running round the clock to deliver a seemingly impossible task? Why March 29, 2019? Theresa May is the only person equipped to answer this question, but there is one puzzling explanation which is worth considering. On May 2019 all European citizens will vote to elect the new European Parliament, and if Brexit isn’t “accomplished” before that date, UK citizens should also be allowed to vote in that election. What they would vote for is a matter of opinion but one could easily imagine that a EU election in Britain might trigger a national discussion about the complex implications of the referendum result.
It’s easy then to see one reason why May chose that particular date. May’s decision to trigger article 50 on March 2017 didn’t reflect the clarity of her Brexit strategy (which isn’t clear to anyone one year later). But It might well reflect her determination to prevent any EU election happening in Britain. It is easy to imagine her motive. The referendum campaign was a time of bitter divisions across the country, divisions which have hardly begun to heal two years on. The country was effectively split in two along generational, geographical, economic and national lines.
Could the EU elections be any different, and what would be the use of electing MEPs from a state which has chosen to leave the EU? While it’s difficult to answer these questions, there are at least three good reasons for believing that an EU election could heal some of the divisions that the referendum has created.
First, it would be a discussion involving clear proposals and not vague ideological alternatives such as Remain or Leave, one in which nothing was to change and the other in which nobody knew what exactly was to change. Lists of candidates put forward for such an election would need to be explicit about which specific aspect of the relationship with the EU should be retained or abandoned.
Second, there is no upper limit to the number of lists of candidates that could be put forward in a EU election. Contrary to a referendum which has just two options, people could express their voting preference for those who advocate for a no-deal Brexit, or choose between those who prefer a hard or a soft Brexit (for instance retaining a custom union with the EU or not), or no Brexit at all, for that matter.
Interestingly, it’s not just political parties that could have lists of candidates standing: independent citizens could organise themselves to collect signatures to offer their own vision for Brexit. In fact, political parties could take the chance to skip a turn and let the people self-organise to determine their future relationship with Europe. Whichever government is in charge would get a much clearer picture of the much debated 'will of the people' regarding Brexit, effectively democratizing the whole process.
Third, an EU election would also allow UK citizens to participate in a continental campaign about the future of the European Union, where, together with the other 500 million people, they could choose the Parliament which would vote for the next European Commission. Even if Britain is set to leave the EU, it makes sense that it should be allowed to participate in choices that will shape its future during the time it takes to understand how to leave it.
What to do then? The most sensible Brexit strategy anyone can put forward at this point is asking the European Council to extend the article 50 negotiation window and allow EU elections to happen in Britain too. If the European Council were to agree, as is allowed under the treaty, this would not only grant more time to come up with a sensible solution for the complex decisions linked to the Brexit process, it would also be a refreshing opportunity to democratise Brexit and collectively take back control of our future.
There is only one person in Britain with the sense and the power to make such a call. Brexit is what we make of it, Jezza, but we gotta ask for enough time to figure it out!