The Withdrawal Agreement and the Meaningful Vote

December 9, 2018

in Opinion

Two years of arguing and negotiating but mainly blustering in the papers later, the meaningful vote in Parliament to approve the Withdrawal Agreement is on Tuesday. No-one thinks that Government is going to win. What happens next, is a complete unknown.

Do I regret my vote? Some Bregret in there somewhere? Just a little bit?

Not yet.

Yeah, our Government is incompetent, and yes, their fannying about has diminished us politically, but I didn’t vote for this government. I voted to leave. Theresa May is committed to taking us out the EU, Jeremy Corbyn is committed to taking us out the EU, the main threat is a second referendum and it’s currently legally impossible to hold one before we leave the EU. And we’re three months away from leaving. Winning here.

I don’t believe we’re going to crash out with no deal. It’s definitely getting scarier but it’s still not actually a certain outcome. If we actually believe that corporate interests dominate this country, and the left generally do, business doesn’t want that to happen, so it won’t. I don’t want to underestimate Theresa May because I’ve predicted her resignation at least four times already and she’s still there despite losing a general election, half her Cabinet and near constant humiliation for the last two years, but we’re three months away from the end now and Parliament are getting serious about asserting themselves.

The easiest thing to do in the event of the deal being voted down and no one group having the votes to win their side is to retain membership of the EEA, which I’ve talked about for a while and which is now being promoted by Conservative backbench MP Nick Boles as a way out of the mess. There are enough votes in the House for this and always have been. Norway have always been resentful of the “Norway option” because at the moment they are the single largest member of EFTA and their influence would be immediately diluted by the entry of the UK. They could potentially veto our joining. I think they’d ultimately get leaned on, but in the event they didn’t, the people on the lower tiers who are doing the grunt work of negotiating do appear to be pretty inventive but hamstrung by May’s brittle ideology. If she goes, I imagine we’ll come up with something pretty fast that will give us more time that the Tories wasted.

If I were an MP, I think I’d vote for the deal. It’s not my preference. Some customised trade deal that we could have negotiated if we have wasted all of our political capital on non-issues like the divorce bill and reciprocal residency rights would have been better but we’re out of time for that. The Labour decision to vote down the deal because they want to force a general election is a decision driven by party politics and nothing to do with any evaluation of what is in the text.

But at the end of the day, I’m not too sure what everyone’s losing their kittens over. Theresa May has accomplished the absolutely extraordinary feat of spending two years agreeing a withdrawal agreement that basically doesn’t commit to anything. We’ve talked a lot about the backstop for Northern Ireland because the EU finally put its foot down and Theresa May blinked, but the whole reason we’re committing to the backstop is because they never managed to resolve the Irish border. We’ve literally agreed to disagree for another 21 months while we get our domestic house in order. We’re quitting all the agencies and databases that we were members of “unless otherwise agreed on a case-by-case basis” but otherwise just not touching our borders and trade issues until December 2020. We’ve agreed to pay our debts off and mutually recognise UK/EU migrants (vague on numbers so they can’t be brandished in headlines) and just kicked everything else into the long grass to deal with later. And when we get to 2020, if we haven’t agreed a comprehensive trade deal that took Canada seven years to negotiate, we can just ask to extend the implementation period, continuously, until we don’t want to do that anymore. And if we fail to do even that, we will automatically be regarded as members of a Single Customs Territory i.e. in the single market and customs union, which we can’t get out of unless both sides agree.

We have, in essence, agree to go into stasis while our body politic fights it out to elect a Government that can actually pass legislation. As a deal, this is a bad deal. We’re essentially agreeing to concertina out our withdrawal from the EU for what could be decades. There is no certainty of any kind for what is going to happen in the future. That’s fundamentally absurd to pitch as “a good deal”.

But as a solution to all British flights being ground from the 30th March because we never got round to sorting out mutual recognition of aviation licences? As a way of not having to clean up the Tories’ mess for them in just over three months? As a means of getting people to quit bleating about how the only alternative to a hard Brexit is just to not leave? Seems fine. If one simply refuses to consider the agreement “a deal” so much as a stasis pod, it starts to make more sense.

The full Withdrawal Agreement is 599 pages long. You might like to read the summaries instead. I particularly recommend this killer report from the House of Commons Brexit Select Committee in which Hilary Benn, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and all their accompanying wizards patiently explaining all of the problems they raised at the beginning of negotiations and how none of them have been resolved by this agreement. They are not happy, and they are not happy in 55 pages of pointedly polite detail that you will find a lot easier to digest than 599 pages of blahblahblah. But note, incidentally, the final line of the final paragraph:

Regardless of the procedures set out in Section 13 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act, a range of options will remain open the the Government as to how to proceed in the event of the Withdrawal Agreement being rejected. These include bringing a motion to approve the deal, with or without further negotiation, back to the house. Only the Government is able to make this decision; it cannot be compelled by a resolution of the House to bring the approval motion back for further consideration. If the House of Commons does not approve a deal and if no agreement were made to extend the Article 50 process, the UK would leave the EU without a deal on 29th March, 2019. However, there is probably no majority in Parliament for leaving with no deal and as parliament has given itself the opportunity to consider and vote on other options, these may include the extension of Article 50.

Game’s not over yet.

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My regular bugbears about why we should leave the EU, updated for December 2018:

* The implicit assumption of political discourse in the UK is that if you’re against EU membership, then you don’t care about migrants. Wanting Britain to be about British etc. That’s absolutely true for a lot of people. But I don’t think the EU treats migrants well either. 34,000 people have died since 1993 trying to reach European shores to seek asylum and the EU’s response has been to build fences along the border of Hungary, build concentration camps in Lesbos and to deny NGO rescue ships docking rights.

All we’re doing advocating for membership of the EU is discriminating against anyone whose a non-EU citizen as if they don’t matter. Racism is endemic regardless. The whole debate over Windrush has been about whether the Windrush generation are legitimate citizens or not, with the implication that shipping out people from the place they live and work if they don’t have the right paperwork is fine. I’ve not read anyone saying “I don’t care when they got here or whether they had a British passport at some point or not, let them all stay”. This is exactly what is happening in the EU but on a grander scale, and I don’t regard European attitudes towards immigration as being any more enlightened than the UK’s. I have a Brexit-supporting Chinese friend who tells everyone banging on about EU as a net positive for immigration that his Chinese family can’t get a visa to Britain and why do Remainers want Romanians here and not Chinese people, why should he support a customs union that prioritises European solar panels and not Chinese ones? Generally he gets silence back.

* There is another side to the EU that Remainers in the UK didn’t want to hear about when they were promising me they’d support institutional reform and a side that they are ignoring now as Macron and Merkel are calling for a “real, true” European Army in addition to the troops they have stationed in five African countries right now. I just think it’s mad to advocate for military involvement in an EU Army on the basis that we can control it better. We’re one of the most powerful military nations in the world but because of our focus on cool tech and soft power instead of troops, our navy is incapable of independent military operations. Removing us from EU military cooperation as much as possible hamstrings them because they don’t have easy access to our stuff and hamstrings our ability to go to war with anyone else. This is great.

* It’s easier to change a public policy when the Parliament who implemented it is down the road and isn’t deliberately constructed by dozens of overlapping institutions that are largely unaccountable to anyone. Even if you like larger and larger transnational bodies and your answer is just to make them more democratic, multiple countries have bans on foreign funding of political parties – this is an attempt to prevent interference by other member states or actors to corrupt national politics, but it also means that if you actually wanted to start a European Party, with a single manifesto and candidates standing in elections across national borders, you basically can’t.

So we’re reliant on voting for a UK political party with a political ideology going to Europe and having to form alliances with people who have similar but different ideologies in the midst of tens of thousands of lobbyists whose clients have the financial power to sustain huge lobbying operations, and the outcomes are rarely what anyone intends when they vote Labour, or Tory, or Lib Dem. It’s just not a functional system.

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What will happen when the vote fails on Tuesday? I don’t know. I strongly suspect that nothing is possible in the hands of the DUP. I do not understand their position on Brexit. They campaigned to leave the single market and the customs union. They campaigned to maintain the invisible border with Ireland. These positions cannot be reconciled and yet they seem prepared to bring down a government for their failure to square these demands.

Likewise, Labour regard all Brexit discussion as a means to getting into power. I honestly do not know what will occur in the event that they do, as their entire strategy right now is focussing on triangulating their voters and anything they have to say right now tells us very little about what will happen when Jeremy Corbyn sits down with his Cabinet Secretary and is asked, “Prime Minister, what do you want to do?” I suspect Labour voters are going to be disillusioned very rapidly. In fact, I wouldn’t be too surprised in the event that Jeremy Corbyn became Prime Minister, that he might not end up presenting the very same deal to Parliament…

But in addition to the fun and games of will-they-wont-they on the main bill, there’s actually 13 amendments which cover everything from offering a second referendum, to subjecting the withdrawal agreement to the approval of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, to just slicing off the back-stop and sailing onwards. Who knows how these will interact with each other? We’ll just have to see.

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