After three years we may be about to find out what Brexit means, at least in the minds of MPs. The prime minister’s deal tells us little more about the future EU-UK relationship than that we would leave and work the rest out later. MPs rejected that premise, and have now taken the logical step that the government refused to countenance, to try to resolve before we leave what Brexit really means. A vote last night put parliament into the driving seat and all options will now be tested. But there are some hard truths waiting round the corner.
Perhaps MPs will not quickly succeed in finding a majority Brexit meaning, perhaps the PM will finally get her way and her deal will pass. But either way we are at long last getting closer to the real debate, because even if the current deal passes we will need realistic goals for the next stage of negotiations. The outcome of the debate, we can be fairly certain, is that Brexit means that the UK cannot have everything we want.
The prime minister aimed for a Brexit that kept her party together by pretending the opposite. Her Chequers proposals simultaneously imagine a close UK-EU relationship, with shared rules on goods and customs partnership allowing frictionless trade and no border infrastructure in Ireland, and a distant one, in which the UK is able to bestride the world signing trade deals. We would have great services access to the EU, but not have to follow its rules or accept freedom of movement.
Such a trade relationship is sadly undeliverable. The EU slightly fudged the issue by parking some vague form of the proposals in the aspirational future Political Declaration, and ensured no leaking of unrealistic proposals by saying the Withdrawal Agreement could not be reopened. As negotiators they know the latter isn’t strictly true, but it was easier to do this than to be honest.
Thus the deal puts the UK as a patient in a waiting room while waiting to see if the technology to turn us into a bionic man might come to be available. There are other undeliverable Brexit visions that have yet to be dismissed, and will probably continue to cloud the debate for a while.
Advocates for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) point out…