Brexit – nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen

The backbenchers hit back. Theresa May won the leadership challenge but she is in deep trouble to get a majority for her deal with the EU to leave the club on 29th March 2019.

In a final effort Britain and the European Union concluded the negotiations about the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU. Both the British government and the EU came to the conclusion that this is the best possible deal for a regular Brexit. The European partners continue to regret that Britain is leaving, but they accepted that Brexit will happen. Prime Minister Theresa May showed herself confident that the United Kingdom will have a bright future outside of the EU, if she really believes that is open for speculation.The hard Brexiteers in the Conservative Party at least do believe that.

With more than 500 pages the divorce document proves how complicated it is to disentangle more than 40 years of British EU membership. The transition towards non-membership is nothing but trivial and will take time. The future relationship between Britain and the European Union shall be very close. However, the devil will be in the details which have to be negotiated during the transition period.

But now the British Prime Minister needs the meaningful vote of the House of Commons on the exit deal. At the time being there is no majority for the deal. A considerable number of staunch Brexiteers have made clear that they will not vote for the agreement, because they fear that the so-called “backstop” for Northern Ireland will keep Britain under EU rules for an indeterminate future – in fact they fear that this gives Remainers time to show that Brexit was no good idea and should be reversed.

For the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn announced to vote against the deal. The Labour Party is split. Corbyn wants a better deal for Brexit, a considerable part of his party, possibly the majority, want no Brexit at all. It is not clear to me if Corbyn really believes he could get a “better Brexit” – possibly he really sticks to such illusions, showing that he has no idea about political realities in Europe. But possibly he knows better and plays a cynical game to get an early election and take power for his socialist project. His official position that the Labour Party should favour a Customs Union with the EU means that Corbyn has to stick to Brexit – only to a softer version.

The Liberal Democrats and the SNP, two parties which want Britain to remain in the EU, will vote against the deal for different reasons. Prime Minister Theresa May travels around the country to win support from the people hoping that this will exert some pressure on the members of Parliament, and she goes to Brussels to get some help to win a majority for the deal. The 27 made clear that the deal cannot be changed again. However, cosmetic changes would neither help to overcome the very deep resistance of Brexiteers nor the tactical games of the Labour Leader.

The Prime Minister now plays out her own “Project Fear”. She told the House of Commons that the alternative to the best possible deal she brought from Brussels will be either a no deal scenario pushing Britain over the cliff edge, or no Brexit at all.

Theresa May survived the challenge to her leadership of the party, but this does not guarantee any majority for any Brexit deal. The Prime Minister embarked on a dangerous brinkmanship hoping that in the end a majority will fear either the cliff edge or a new referendum or a Corbyn government. This calculation may work but it is no safe bet. What will happen if she loses the “meaningful vote”?

At least she is safe from another challenge to the leadership of the Conservative Party (for one year), but the Labour Party could trigger a no-confidence vote in Parliament. But I would expect her to win that vote, because no Tory would risk an election that opens a chance for Jeremy Corbyn to become Prime Minister. The hard Brexiteers would be happy if the deal is rejected because they believe that the cliff edge must not be feared. The problems will in their view be temporary, the advantages of “taking back control” immediately would outweigh all risks of the hard break.

This may be a fatal error, but the proof of the pudding is only in the eating, and that happens much later. The soft Brexiteers and the Remainers in the Conservative Party would be happy to stay in power and believe that they could make ad hoc deals with the EU to mitigate the immediate impact of a hard Brexit.This will be very complicated but possibly preferable to losing power.

The main responsibility for the future of Britain may now lie with the Labour Party. If the party will be able to reach out to moderate Conservatives and the other pro-EU parties and force another referendum, this could be successful. In that case even a reversal of Brexit is possible.

If Corbyn continues his actual course of speaking like a hard Brexiteer, fomenting illusions about a different Brexit deal and resisting the manifest tendency for another referendum in his own party, then he will neither get new elections nor a reversal of Brexit. He is notorious to have voted against all legislation that furthered European integration, he is consistent in his anti-EU position. So it may be possible that he will embark on tactics that will promote hard Brexit instead of stopping it. He may also believe that the negative consequences of the “cliff edge” could make his victory in the next election safer than any early election. And he would be free to construct his “socialism in one country” without any EU-rules stopping him.

Some media in Europe now ask why the EU does risk th e “cliff edge”. This is the wrong question. The EU cannot do much to overcome the problems of the British Tories. Even rather big additional concessions would not change the situation, because Labour plays its tactical games and the hard Brexiteers want to leave and would use any pretext to force leaving whatever the circumstances. They really believe that this is the better future for Britain.So it is not the hard stance of the Eurocrats that makes the situation so critical, it is the internal tactics of British politicking that brought Theresa May into mayhem.

Why don’t the Brexiteers and their supporters see that Brexit and especially a hard Brexit would make the British people poorer? – They have good reasons to be sceptical about economic forecasts for ten or more years. The Bank of England and the Treasury both were not too good in long-term predictions. But even if it would be true that the National Income would grow less, such that in 10 years the BNP would be 10% less than without Brexit: the Brexiteer is convinced that if you pay the price of 100 Pound on each 1000 Pound you gain additionally (to be clear it is about less growth not about a shrinking economy) this would be worth to “get back control” on so tricky issues like migration or trade policy. However, the Brexiteer believes that a bespoke British global policy would more than compensate for the losses predicted by “Remoaner” experts.

To be clear: I do not share the optimism of the Brexiteers. The world is no longer that of the nineteenth century and the British Empire is gone. But I think we must understand their reasoning to be able to further our own German and common European interests.  

Our interest is to have the closest possible relations with the United Kingdom which are possible under the new circumstances – wished by the British side. Britain remains an important partner in Europe. Britain chose to leave the club, so it cannot enjoy the privileges of the club, but it must enjoy all the privileges of a close friendship.