Brexiteers; ‘No Deal’ Is a Better Option Than the Deal on the Table Now

A Pro EU protester holds fake bank notes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg outside Parliament in June 2018
Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

A Pro EU protester holds fake bank notes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg outside Parliament in June 2018
Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

One is hard put to see how a government commissioned to negotiate in good faith for independence could have come up with a deal quite this bad.

Christopher Caldwell


|the weekly Standard|AIWA! NO!|Like Hannibal’s Carthaginian army after the battle of Cannae, Britain’s supporters of Brexit have won but they don’t know it—and if you don’t know you’ve won, you’re at risk of losing. Two years ago they triumphed in a referendum that asked whether Britain should exit (hence the word “Brexit”) from the European Union. They beat a better-funded opposition and a government-sponsored scare campaign that enlisted everyone from World Bank economists to Barack Obama. Led by Prime Minister Theresa May, who did not back Brexit when it was up for a vote but promised to see it through Parliament after it won, they filed a formal declaration of withdrawal in 2017. If nothing else is done, on March 29, 2019, under Article 50 of the E.U.’s Lisbon Treaty, the E.U.’s laws “shall cease to apply” in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

But in mid-November, May’s negotiators returned from Brussels with something suspicious in their luggage: a draft withdrawal agreement that seemed to undo everything Brexit had won. The reasons for having a withdrawal agreement should be minor and marginal—figuring out travel and residence rights, assessing the value of refunds due from discontinued projects, etc. There should be little friction between two polities that have spent a quarter-century harmonizing their laws, economies, and cultures. But this agreement surrendered the sovereignty won at the ballot box. The architects of Brexit announced they would not vote for it. Four of May’s cabinet members resigned. Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg called for a vote of no confidence. May has stood firm, announcing that it was the best deal she could get.

Maybe none of this will matter. If Brexiteers can get the country to next March 29, Article 50 will go into effect willy-nilly, even without an agreement. But the losers of Brexit, who tend to be the winners of the global economy, have now rallied to demand a second referendum, which they have the effrontery to call “the People’s Vote.” If they can only keep the ball in play, they may still be able to sabotage Brexit altogether.It is astonishing how unrepresented Britain’s interests are in the draft agreement May negotiated. Among its highlights:The divorce bill. This is journalists’ term for the $50 billion (at least) that Britain is to pay for the privilege of governing itself once more—as if the E.U. were not a multi-governmental empire but a fly-by-night credit-card company. The principle that makes this divorce bill necessary is that “no Member State [of the E.U.] should pay more or receive less because of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the Union.” You would think that a shrunken empire would have to pursue more modest projects. Not the E.U.! It is demanding that Britain keep it in the lifestyle to which it has become accustomed. This is a matter of desperate importance for the E.U.’s leaders, since its citizens have lately developed a neurasthenic sensitivity to new fiscal demands. In mid-November, protests erupted across France against Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to levy a gas tax to fight climate change.The backstop. This is the name for a vague aspiration to regulatory harmony and an open border between the Republic of Ireland (which belongs to the E.U.) and Northern Ireland (which belongs to the U.K.). Because of the interdependence of the two Irish economies and because of peace agreements negotiated in the 1990s, there is a case for keeping Northern Ireland in the same European Union customs area as the Republic. But it’s hard to do. It creates a different economic regime in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the U.K. and risks allowing the territory to converge with the E.U. over the long term. May’s solution was to draw the whole U.K. into the backstop, and for this, the E.U. requires long-term down-the-line harmonization of trade policy. That puts an end to what roughly half the people who voted for Brexit thought they were voting for: a deregulation of the economy. An “independent arbitration committee” would settle any disputes that arose.The transition period. This is the killer. It would establish, even after Britain’s independence becomes a fact next March, a “transition period, during which the E.U. will treat the U.K. as if it were a Member State, with the exception of participation in the E.U. institutions and governance structures.” In other words, Britain would get all the taxation of being in the E.U. with none of the representation. E.U. law would continue to apply until at least the end of 2020, at which point the transition period can be renewed until (what follows is the way it appears in the agreement) “20xx.” The European Court of Justice will be, by common consent, the highest court in the land, and that preeminence will continue until eight years after the transition period. So not only does the agreement deprive Britain of the sovereignty its voters sought for a quarter of a century—it does so in a way that is unfixable. And possibly permanent. Europe’s courts, following the example of the United States in the past half-century, have become policy-making and opposition-harassing bodies. If Europe’s courts are supreme in Britain, it will only be a matter of time before one of them declares Brexit illegal.B

One is hard put to see how a government commissioned to negotiate in good faith for independence could have come up with a deal quite this bad. Lead E.U. negotiator Michel Barnier was tough. He considered it a “duty” not to compromise the E.U. position. Britain must be damaged, punished, and humiliated for Brexit. German chancellor Angela Merkel backed him. It is not that Europeans are especially cruel—only that if the negotiators sent a message that a country could retain the benefits of E.U. membership while winning more independence and autonomy, there would be a rush to the E.U. exits.

Where Europe was obdurate, Britain was divided. British elites, no less than continental ones, have been browbeaten with the lesson that the root of Europe’s problems is “nationalism” (which has come to mean any form of national feeling), that the E.U. is Europe’s only possible antidote to nationalism, and that any criticism of the E.U. is therefore radical. Almost the entirety of the press is of this view. We can limit our quoting to Times of London columnist Jenni Russell, who wrote in the New York Times of those who favored Brexit: “These hard-liners are ruthless. They aren’t prepared to accept a compromise. . . . They have destroyed any sense that I—and many others—had that we owe it to them to honor and accept the original referendum.”

May’s heart was not in it. Her people arrived at the negotiating table in Brussels unsure whether they were upholding their constituents’ rights as British citizens or their rights as European citizens. Many Brexit supporters take a more conspiratorial view—that May did an end-run around her official negotiators, Dominic Raab and David Davis, and entrusted the real work of hammering out a deal to young Europhile aides working behind the scenes.

The E.U.’s defenders warn that without such a deal, Britain will “crash out” of the union or get a “hard Brexit.” That rings hollow. To those who voted for Brexit, no deal would be better than this deal. To repeat: No deal is necessary to bring Brexit into effect on March 29. But a functioning, pro-Brexit government is. May’s majority is razor-thin, and the pressing question now is whether the deal could be rejected in Parliament without triggering an irresistible cry for fresh elections, which would serve as a proxy for the second referendum that Brexit supporters would never otherwise grant.

Britain has tried to do everything by the book. It activated Article 50 patiently, debated it patiently, passed it patiently. It would be excellent if Britain could regain its independence this way. But that approach is failing. Brexit is not about economics or efficiency or fellow-feeling. It is about sovereignty, which is built on strange and savage paradoxes. To do things by the book is to legitimize the government you have called it intolerable to live under. Few requests for sovereignty as polite as Brexit have ever prevailed.

CHRISTOPHER CALDWELLis a national correspondent at The Week

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