Cans kicked down the road, last--minute concessions made, the process kept on track — just. This is how many people expected the Brexit negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union to go. But that is just a description of the situation at Westminster.
We still don’t know whether the government has the votes in the Commons to take Britain out of the customs union. Theresa May avoided a rebellion on the issue this week by, essentially, promising the rebels they would have the chance to vote on this before the summer is out; the chief whip has guaranteed to them that the Trade Bill will return to the Commons before the summer recess. But, as May herself recently acknowledged to the Brexit inner cabinet, the EU won’t engage seriously with any of the UK’s customs proposals until it sees that the government can carry the Commons on this.
Optimists in government hope that something might turn up which will allow them to win on this issue. They think that the government having a position on what kind of customs arrangements it wants, which it finally should do by then, might sway a few MPs. They also suggest that if the June summit sees agreement on a UK-wide ‘backstop’, the government might just have enough momentum to get over the line on this.
As May said to the Brexit inner cabinet, they ‘all knew that the EU’s preference was for the UK to stay in the customs union’. One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder whether the EU will want to do anything at the June summit that would help the government win a customs union vote.
The other parliamentary event that will have been noted in Brussels this week is the shenanigans over the Lords ‘meaningful vote’ amendment. The government defeated it but only after offering concessions that further chip away at what the Article 50 bill established, that if no deal can be done between Britain and the EU then this country leaves without a deal and trades with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms.
Ever since Theresa May lost her majority, it has been doubtful that a ‘no deal’ Brexit could pass through parliament. But what has been less clear is by what mechanism MPs could stop it, short of bringing down the government — a step that nearly every Tory MP would be reluctant to take, given that Corbyn is the leader of the opposition. However, the concessions that have allegedly been offered to Dominic Grieve and the supporters of his amendment begin to offer a route for the Commons to force the government to back away from ‘no deal’ without bringing it down.
This will interest Brussels, because it reduces the risks to them from the talks collapsing. If they end up squeezing Britain so hard that Mrs May feels she has to walk out, there is now a mechanism emerging for parliament to get the government back to the negotiating table.
All this means that the scenario which would result in no economic disruption for the EU and show other member states the futility of trying to leave — with Britain staying in the European Economic Area and a customs union — is closer than before. For Britain, this would be an awful deal. It would leave this country as, essentially, a non-voting member of the EU. It wouldn’t be able to strike free trade deals, would have to obey EU regulations and would have to accept free movement continuing. It would also have a corrosive effect on our democracy, since it would be clear that the spirit of the referendum result had not been honoured.
This heaps more pressure on Mrs May to find a better deal than that. The next big step in the process will be the publication of the government’s white paper which will set out, in detail, what the UK wants its relationship with the EU to be after Brexit, and how it will work. This white paper will be the UK’s offer on the future relationship.
David Davis wanted this white paper published before the EU council summit in June, but he lost that argument with No. 10. Instead, the whole cabinet is expected to meet at Chequers early next month to agree on the document’s contents.
The last such meeting took place in February before May’s Mansion House speech, and that only involved the Brexit inner cabinet. But what happened then is instructive. Brexiteers left that meeting believing that ‘divergence has won the day’. But over the next few days, that victory appeared to be less clear-cut. As one influential Brexiteer laments, ‘Winning one meeting doesn’t mean you’ve won in Whitehall.’
The Chequers gathering could be a stormy affair. Both Boris Johnson and David Davis want a big, last-ditch effort to change the course of the negotiations. They both feel that the government mustn’t agree to pay the divorce settlement to the EU, much of which is a goodwill gesture, without some enforceable commitments on trade. They also both feel that the UK is being salami-sliced in these negotiations, and that the government’s approach needs to change. It is a sign of how badly Brexit is going that not all the cabinet are thrilled about the prospect of being invited to this session. ‘Some of us were hoping to avoid being implicated in all this’, says one cabinet minister, only half-joking.
The UK went into the Brexit talks with a decent hand. But through mistakes — triggering Article 50 before knowing what we wanted, the lack of preparation for walking away, and the loss of the Tory majority (which made the EU far less worried about what the UK would do in the event of no deal) and a contradictory approach to the Irish border, that position has been squandered. The question now is what can be rescued from the situation in the short term.
In the long-term, the consolation for Brexiteers is that any deal that doesn’t result in the UK taking back a substantial amount of control will be politically unsustainable and will lead to pressure for a future government to renegotiate. Hopefully that government will have learnt from this government’s mistake, and will make sure that the country is as prepared as possible to walk away before entering the talks.