Brexit: the latest development

Interviews | | 6-04-2019, 23:15

With the Brexit developments proving to become uneasy, painful and unpredictable, the experts try to understand and evaluate the whole process. We have spoken Murad Muradov, our co-editor and Britain expert to shed some light on the current Brexit process. 


What do you think would happen now that the latest updated version of the EU deal has been turned back by the Parliament? Is the country heading for a no-deal Brexit, or the transitional period will be prolonged?

Indeed, the deal so painstakingly negotiated by Theresa May with the EU, has been declined by the British Parliament three times throughout the last several months, though it must be emphasized that the margin of defeat has got significantly narrower: while the first edition of the deal suffered the catastrophic, biggest-ever defeat in the Parliamentary history with a margin of more than 200 votes, the last Friday’s voting defeated it with a 58 votes’ difference. Due to this inability to come to terms with Brexit, the British government had to ask the EU to prolong the deadline which previously fell to March 29, initially until April 12, but it is quite clear that unless a miracle happens, the Parliament will not be able to resolve the riddle in such a short amount of time and will have to apply for a new, this time much longer, extension (Donald Tusk, President of the European Commission, already announced that Brussels will require an extension until the end of the year the soonest). However, in her latest speech to the nation Theresa May claimed that she would apply for the extension until May 22, so that to spare Britain from participation in the upcoming European Parliament election: it would rather absurd to hold them for the country planning how best to leave the EU. 

Seemingly unperturbed by the three consecutive failures to win over the MPs, PM May has already claimed she would try to finally have it passed from the 4th attempt. However, even if the prospect of non-happening Brexit did not trigger the sufficient majority of Eurosceptic MPs to support the deal, one can hardly expect so many of them to change their minds on the agreement that, as the EU officials made clear, is not to be changed upon London’s wish. Such intransigence aroused speculations that the worst-case “no-deal” exit is on the table. That’s why the Prime Minister in her latest speech called for the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to conduct talks about an optimal deal that would satisfy the majority within the both parties Yet, when the increasing majority of the MP’s face a real, rather than virtual, prospect of such an unpredictable affair against the background of anti-Brexit demonstrations of an unseen scale and growing disappointment with the whole ruling class (“establishment”, as they call it in Britain), it is hardly viable to take these enormous risks, so the most likely scenario envisages an extension application. Still, the events of the recent years must have taught everyone that seemingly irrational choices may be taken, so one should not totally dismiss a possibility of hard Brexit.


How would you estimate the changes to the EU deal agreed in Strasbourg? Do you think they would make substantial difference?

Arguably, the most contentious issue within the Brexit deal package has been the Irish question- the would-be status of Northern Ireland, which, should Britain remain outside the customs union, will have to have a border with their Republic neighbours, a move which would directly hurt millions of people on the both sides of the border and is bound to trigger political tensions in this problematic region. So, as the negotiated deal provided for a so-called “backstop” opportunity for the EU- de-facto extending the terms of the customs union until the special status of the Irish border is agreed upon, the Brexiteers viewed it as an instrument of pressure for Brussels which would endow it with an opportunity to effectively preclude London from taking steps they view as “truly independent”. After the meeting in Strasbourg on March 11, Theresa May announced that she agreed to change the terms of this backstop so that the EU would be able to apply it for a limited term only. Otherwise, there were no major differences with the original version of the document (and to be honest, the legal provision that would serve to limit the Brussels’ grip over the Irish border negotiations, remained vague), and it wasn’t persuasive enough for the MPs, as well as the public at large, to significantly change their opinion. The dramatic increase in the support for Theresa May’s deal at the third voting was rather due to the fears of the looming no-deal Brexit and the prospect of the second referendum that could ditch it altogether. 


How would you estimate the political momentum for Brexit- are the hard-liners or Europhiles now on the rise?

Definitely, the shocking incapacity of the pro-Brexit parliamentary majority of consolidating behind an optimal solution coupled with unreadiness to face a crashing no-deal scenario had boosted the Remainers’ cause and made their demands for a second referendum more plausible. In a speech delivered shortly before the third vote on the Brexit deal, the Prime Minister emphasized that these repeated failures to agree might bring this offer back to the agenda, something which would annihilate the careers of many pro-Brexit politicians who put their stake on “defending the democratic choice of the British people”. Polls show that only a small fraction of the Conservative Party consider hard Brexit an optimal outcome, while most others call for a deal to be struck (of course, preferences as to what kind of deal it should be, differ greatly). However, the whole story of Brexit, unleashed by David Cameron’s 2015 electoral promise to hold a plebiscite, exposed the enormous depths of hubris within the British political class, whose many representatives seemed to believe that the optimal outcome would be somehow achieved. The latest inability to come to consensus has been to a certain extent due to this once-prevailing mood, and it creates a trap which may lead the parliament into accepting the most unpredictable of outcomes even contrary to the rational preferences of the majority. 

At the same time, in the light of the government’s willingness to ask for a short extension from the EU, it is worth to wait for the reaction from Brussels to better estimate the moment. Previously, the EU officials warned that Britain shall be granted a long delay, in case it wants any. This move probably intended to boost the positions of Remainers within Westminster while also putting London in an uncomfortable negotiating position- something Brussels has mastered throughout the last three years. In case the EU rejects the 22 May deadline and instead insists on a much longer one, there may be an outcry to push an exit without a deal, but it is still very unlikely to gain majority, and in the end the Parliament will be likely to agree. In this scenario, one can believe that the Remainer campaign will double their efforts and gain more popularity. At the same time, in the view of growing ruptures within the both main parties, one cannot preclude snap election some time in 2019 which may thoroughly reshuffle the Parliamentary environment and create an entirely new situation. However, currently it would be very premature to stake on this scenario. If Theresa May succeeds in securing her scenario, she will have better chances to finally win over the Parliament and secure a middle-ground deal as there is growing