We are heading for a Blind Brexit

PUBLISHED: 08:00 17 September 2018

Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: PA / Charles McQuillan

Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: PA / Charles McQuillan

PA Wire/PA Images

There have been predictions of Brexit in many forms. But the one Britain is hurtling towards is the most dangerous of all – and fatal to Remain. JONATHAN LIS explains .

Twenty six months of the government deploying Britain as a crash test dummy, and you probably think you’ve heard all the Brexits. Hard. Soft. No-deal. Clean. Smart. Grey (Remember that?). Red, white and blue. (Who could forget?) But the final Brexit may be the scariest of all. Welcome to ‘blind Brexit’. If the government gets its way, it may be coming to a negotiating chamber near you.

So what is it? Think of it like Blind Date, only where Cilla forces you to marry one of the contestants before you see or hear them.

Here, then, is the bad news.

The idea is that the government and the EU are both desperate to sign off a deal. A no-deal scenario would be the most destabilising event in Britain since the Blitz, and would also profoundly disrupt the EU both economically and politically. But when we talk about a ‘deal’, we frequently conflate two deals: the withdrawal treaty, and the deal (almost certainly numerous deals) regarding our future relationship. We can technically sign off an agreement that covers only the divorce settlement, citizens’ rights and the Irish border – and, of course, a status-quo transition period – and call that the Brexit deal.

In this scenario, the two sides would agree to a non-binding political declaration – reportedly as little as four pages in length – which would, in the vaguest terms, commit the UK and EU to work on the usual buzzwords: a deep and special partnership, a thorough and comprehensive free-trade agreement, committed and broad security cooperation.

It would offer nothing concrete on, say, the single market and customs union, and save everything for the transition – which would probably last a minimum of five years, and even then require an actual implementation period once everything that had been negotiated was finally actioned.

In the final fudge, then, Brussels would allow our exhausted government to squeak past the finish line, declare Brexit ‘delivered’, and kick every major decision affecting British jobs and the economy into the long grass of near-interminable negotiation.

A solution of such dismalness would embody the most insidious of political agreements: the kind designed to save the face of political leaders and relieve them of an inconvenient problem, while the people they serve are hung out to dry.

First, it would represent a comprehensive breach of a government promise, and of voters’ trust. Theresa May, trade secretary Liam Fox and ex-Brexit secretary David Davis spent almost two years assuring us that we would have a trade deal (Fox famously promised it would be “the easiest in human history” to achieve) ready to be implemented the day after Brexit. (Davis, equally famously, said one could be signed within a ‘nanosecond’ of leaving the bloc.)

Bluntly Orwellian or simply moronic ministers continue to insist that we will begin an “implementation period” despite having nothing to implement. This, however, is worse. A blind Brexit does not even oblige the two sides to have begun trade negotiations, yet alone come anywhere close to completing them.

As the name suggests, blind Brexit would also be extremely dangerous. Outside the EU, we would lose the only card we still have – that of abandoning the project altogether. Shorn of any bargaining position, the UK would either have to either accept all the terms on offer or else walk out of negotiations – which would immediately bring us to the precipice of the grounded aircraft, collapsed border infrastructure and decimated workforce that the government is currently so desperate to avoid. Meanwhile, any route back into the EU, via Article 49, would likely take many years and cost us our current opt-outs.

Third, it would gravely damage the Remain cause, and specifically the campaign for a People’s Vote. The entire premise of the vote is to empower the British people to evaluate the prime minister’s deal against the option of staying in (and, as some advocate, leaving with no deal at all).

That means clarity and transparency about our future economic status and influence over decision-making. But if nobody knows what that is, we cannot vote on it. The new Leave campaign would once again guarantee the cherry-picked utopia of supreme sovereignty and global trade domination, without any official documents to refute it, while the new Remain campaign would once again inhabit ‘Project Fear’ for the crime of pointing out basic but unprovable truths.

For this reason, the People’s Vote campaign has already released a statement deploring an “establishment stitch-up”, while others have appealed to the EU not to let our government throw its people under the bus. Remainers have every right to be angry: a blind Brexit would be the most flagrantly undemocratic venture in modern UK history. It would cheat the British people of the right to determine their economic future, gaslight them with the lie that they were getting what they voted for, and condemn them to discover the truth only when it is too late.

That was the bad news. What could possibly the good news? Simple: a blind Brexit may well be impossible.

The key to any Brexit deal is in the Irish border. Specifically, the ‘backstop’ arrangement, agreed in principle in December, in which Northern Ireland cleaves to those EU rules which guarantee a fully open and invisible land frontier with Ireland. Brussels and Dublin understand this to mean that Northern Ireland will remain in the customs union and single market in goods in perpetuity, unless negotiators can find a better solution.

London, meanwhile, wants a time-limited arrangement and so far refuses to countenance the whole UK remaining in the customs union long-term. Under the Chequers plan, the whole UK would stay in the single market for goods (thus ensuring an open border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland), but EU negotiator Michel Barnier has already rejected that as breaching the integrity of the single market and its four freedoms. If the UK wants free movement of goods, it must also accept free movement of people.

To this extent, the Irish backstop not only represents the withdrawal treaty’s backbone, but also the key to our future economic status. If the UK rejects any kind of internal sea border for tariffs or regulations, it follows that Northern Ireland will dictate Great Britain’s future status. In the absence of agreed alternatives, a backstop demands a permanent customs union for Northern Ireland – and so the UK must also commit to that possibility.

And if the UK must remain in the whole single market so goods can travel freely on the island of Ireland, that will reveal itself at least implicitly in the withdrawal text. The only alternative is for Great Britain and Northern Ireland to go their separate economic – and ultimately perhaps political – ways. May has already declared that no UK prime minister could allow that, and if she tried, she would remain UK prime minister only a few moments longer.

Consequently Brexit becomes blind only through a government which has its hands tied and still tries to blindfold us. The British people will view this relationship clearly enough: a near-vassal state scenario in which the UK remains in key EU institutions without any meaningful say or vote in them. Such an endgame is loathed by Leavers and Remainers alike.

Blind Brexit gives fudge to the British government and bread and drippings to the British people. It is the product of our government’s palpable and historic failure. But it is not as scary or unknowable as it sounds. If we keep our eyes open and survey the chaos in open sight, we will see right through it.

Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the think tank British Influence

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