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Divided Kingdom: Can Britain Fix Brexit?

Most of us remember Winston Churchill’s iconic Iron Curtain Speech, “From Stettin in the Baltic Sea to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” What Churchill did not realise was that the curtain is now being drawn between London and the European Union, headquartered in Brussels.

British Prime Minister, Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union was defeated in parliament on the 16th of January 2019. The result witnessed the largest parliamentary defeat in modern British history with 68.14% of MP’s against the agreement and 31.86% in favour.

The consequence of this defeat is that the curtain will be drawn on the 29th of March, in which Britain have little under one month to find an agreement with Brussels. The underlying issues that have caused such a fracture within British politics has been the disenfranchisement between the British people, the Westminster government and the EU. So the question that continues to be infused into the discourse of society is – Can Britain fix Brexit?

United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May switches on No10 Downing Street Lights for visits Brussels, Belgium to meet with Jean-Claude Juncker the President of the European Commission. Photo: Number 10/Flickr.

Britain has been seen as a relatively stable and unbroken democracy for nearly 300 years. The reason for this is the Westminster structure of representative democracy, by which the population elects MP’s to represent them on their behalf. However, the Brexit referendum has instilled a form of direct democracy, which entails giving direct instructions on what the government should do. It is this collision that has posed a challenge to both types of democracy. On the one hand, the people have voted to leave and on the other, the government cannot decide on how to leave.

Upon her historic defeat, May was given 3 days to come up with a new Brexit strategy and on the 21st of January, she addressed parliament to propose a new way forward. The first agreement, saw May draft the legislation amongst her own cabinet. Her new strategy however, sees negotiations including smaller parties to reach a broader consensus. The Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party have all taken part in these negotiations. The Labour Party, however has indicated their unwillingness to negotiate with the government until May takes the option of a no-deal (Hard Brexit) off the table.

The most pressing issue that had to be tackled within the new strategy was the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. May proposed three solutions to avoid this outcome. The first was logical; in order to avoid the inevitability of a no-deal, the government needs to pass a deal. The second was for the government to revoke Article 50, thereby allowing the UK to remain in the EU. The third was to extend Article 50, in order to give the government more time to negotiate a deal.

The second issue that is worth merit is the proposal for a second referendum. All minor parties as well as Labour have backed the idea of a second referendum; but Theresa May however, has ruled out this possibility, given its repercussions of future democratic engagement. The most pressing issue that has broad consensus on all fronts is the Ireland and Northern Ireland backstop. The government has refused to re-open the Belfast Agreement, the cease-fire agreements between the UK and Republic of Ireland.

The British government, the opposition and the EU have resisted the idea of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. As such, the Prime Minister has engaged in focused discussions with Jean Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission and Michel Barnier, the European chief negotiator for Britain’s withdrawal. The discussions have revolved around the legal changes that are required to guarantee that the Northern Ireland backstop cannot endure indefinitely.

The first deal proposed by May was judged by many within her own party as an unequal relationship between the EU and UK, through which the EU would have large degrees of control over British trade policies with EU member states. Only 7 pages out of the 585-page first deal was dedicated to what a future relationship between the EU and UK might look like. The new deal has been more direct in its implementation of committing to joint ventures with the EU in categories such as environmental standards, workers rights and security policy.

These changes have been put in place to secure the House of Common’s support in the ‘meaningful vote’, the next opportunity MP’s have to vote on May’s deal. Should her new deal gain the support of the house, the transition period through which new negotiations would take place on the future relationship between the UK and EU would commence.

The 26th of February, 2019 saw the government publish an assessment of their readiness for a no-deal brexit. This paper provides an independent assessment of the challenges posed to the UK over both the short and long term. The paper demonstrated the economic output of the UK to decrease by 6.3-9% over the next 15 years. It is also noted that British nationals may be subject to full Schengen check upon arrival to an EU member state, thereby introducing both border controls for British citizens and customs checks for goods and services between the UK and EU.

Brexit ballot. Photo: Mick Baker/flickr.

So where does Britain go from here? May has proposed that by the 12th of March, the House of Commons will hold the meaningful vote on her second proposed deal.​Should this bill pass, the UK will leave the EU with the deal she has negotiated. If the government loses the meaningful vote, the motion will be put forward on the 13th of March on whether the parliament supports Britain leaving the EU without a deal.

If this bill passes, then the UK will withdraw from the EU on the 29th of March without a deal explicitly consent by the House of Commons. If the House of Commons rejects the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, then a motion for a short extension to Article 50 will be held on the 14th of March.

The deadline likely to be the 30th of June, thus allowing the government to decide whether the UK should take part in the 2019 European elections. Should the UK refuse to participate in the elections, then Juncker has indicated the one-off possibility ended, making the 30th of June the metaphorical ‘cliff edge’ for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Churchill in this case was right; an iron curtain has descended across the European continent. However, I don’t think Churchill would have ever thought it would have been his own beloved country that drew it.

Conor McLaughlin

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