An Endgame, of Sorts, Is Looming for the U.K. in the Brexit Debate
Posted June 11, 2018 3:02 p.m. EDT
LONDON — Each week Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain seems to face a new crisis over the country’s withdrawal from the European Union, only to escape, her authority diminished but her determination to carry on apparently undimmed.
But finally an endgame of sorts is looming in the debate over what is known as Brexit as lawmakers prepare for important votes, starting Tuesday, and May faces mounting pressure before a meeting of EU leaders at the end of the month.
May will try to overturn 14 of 15 amendments added by the House of Lords to her main Brexit bill, which transfers the entirety of EU law to British law. It would take only a small number of Conservative Party lawmakers to rebel, if combined with opposition votes, to defeat the government.
Among the more important issues is whether to give more control to Parliament in the withdrawal process, preventing May from presenting lawmakers with a take-it-or-leave-it choice between the Brexit plan she supports and no deal at all.
Another item, on membership in a European customs union, is so weakly worded that it would not actually require the government to sign up to one (though, if approved, it would be a significant defeat for May). Lawmakers have been promised a vote in July on another, more definitive, customs union amendment in separate legislation, and pro-European Conservatives might wait for that opportunity.
Also on the Brexit agenda for Parliament on Tuesday is the expected appearance of Arron Banks, the businessman who financed one of the pro-Brexit campaigns during the 2016 referendum. The committee on digital, culture, media and sport, which is investigating “fake news,” wants Banks to explain his links to the Russian government before the Brexit vote, following reports based on leaked emails that seem to show that his contacts were more extensive than he has previously admitted.
Meanwhile, the issue that most threatens May’s government, the status of the Irish border, remains highly divisive and in urgent need of settling.
“It’s an enormous series of tests,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. “It’s a test of her authority in front of Parliament, it’s a test of Cabinet unity and it’s a test of her ability to be all things to all men.”
For months May has been adjudicating between warring factions in a Cabinet bitterly divided between those who want to keep close ties to the European Union to protect the British economy, and hard-line Brexit supporters who want to break free.
Rumors of a plot to topple May have swirled within her Conservative Party since last year when she called a general election and lost her parliamentary majority, and they have not gone away. She has survived, as Menon put it, because, “her strength is not her popularity; it is the lack of an alternative candidate who can unite her party.”
But the mood is febrile. In a series of leaked comments, pro-Brexit Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson last week accused his government of lacking “guts” in talks with Brussels, suggesting that President Donald Trump would do better.
A promised white paper on Britain’s overall negotiating objectives is now not expected before July, and not before a special meeting of senior ministers at May’s country residence.
May favors a “customs partnership” under which Britain would collect tariffs for the European Union on many goods but would be able to strike some separate trade agreements.
Brexit supporters prefer another scheme called “max fac” — short for maximum facilitation — that accepts the need for customs controls but uses technology to keep checks light. But that is entirely unacceptable to the European Union (as is May’s plan, though to a lesser extent).
But the immediate question is what to do until one of the plans can be made to work, and how to keep open the border between Ireland, which is in the European Union, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
If she can get agreement on Ireland, May can postpone the troublesome detail of future trade talks until after March next year, when a transition period is to begin. By then, she hopes, the political climate may have cooled.
The Irish border question is urgent because Brussels has made solving it a precondition of discussing a deal on future trade, and an accord on Ireland will require great political agility.
May has promised that there will be no hard border (which might stoke sectarian tensions), but she has also insisted that Northern Ireland will have the same economic rules as the rest of the United Kingdom. She relies on the support of 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland, so she has little room for maneuver. May’s idea is to keep the whole of the United Kingdom in a type of European customs union for goods until the technology is ready to eliminate the need for most frontier checks.
When the hard-line Brexiteers got wind of that, they erupted. Brexit Secretary David Davis threatened resignation, until he won a pledge that the British government “expects” that situation to end no later than December 2021.
The British plan runs afoul of the European Union, whose chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, rejected the scheme last week, suggesting that it amounted to cherry-picking. British officials hope, however, that the bloc’s leaders might be more sympathetic, particularly if Britain offers financial contributions.
Whether the plan — even as a temporary backstop — can convince May’s Conservatives remains unclear. However, her one advantage is that Brexit has caused such rancor in British politics that it has even divided its supporters.
Some, like Davis, want more detail about future ties to the bloc as soon as possible, fearing that if Britain quits without firm pledges from Brussels, it will surrender all of its leverage, including a hefty $53 billion exit fee it has promised.
It could then find itself obeying a set of trade rules over which it has no say at all.
But others want Brexit to happen so much that they will put up with almost any compromise to secure formal exit from the European Union in March, confident that Britain will never rejoin the club they hate.