Time and again in his short premiership, Johnson has demonstrated his disdain for parliamentary democracy. Now we will see the full consequencesby Jonathan Lis / January 10, 2020 / Leave a comment
While half the world was busy pondering a war between the US and Iran, and the other half a war inside the British royal family, late on Thursday afternoon the House of Commons completed its approval of the EU withdrawal agreement with a majority of 99 votes, ensuring our exit from the bloc on 31st January after 47 years of membership. Given the Conservatives’ vast majority, the vote was not in doubt, and the media virtually ignored it. That does not change the fact that it was the most pointless, reckless and destructive act of self-sabotage in our country’s history—and was delivered by the people elected to safeguard the national interest.
The days when Brexit votes produced water-cooler television moments belong to another era. Amendments came, fell and were forgotten. Some, like the amendments on workers’ rights, were of vital importance to the less well-off. Some, like the amendment on protecting rights for child refugees, were of vital importance to our basic humanity. None of it mattered. They all failed.
The bill will now pass through the Lords, where it is almost guaranteed a smooth passage. On an individual level peers, like MPs, do not believe this is the right course for our country, but will heave us along it anyway. Realistically, they have no other choice.
The government wants us to believe that Brexit is now over, our problems will now be resolved, and our brighter future can now begin. That is false. They know it’s false. And they don’t care.
Consider the years of drama it has taken simply to bring us to this point, and what has actually been achieved. None of the arguments deployed during the Brexit referendum focused on the withdrawal, but the future. Indeed, barely a single moment in 2016 was dedicated to any of the issues that have taken 42 months to resolve: citizens’ rights, the divorce payment and the Irish land border.
We now have 11 months to deliver Brexit effectively from scratch: a comprehensive trade deal encompassing goods, services, fisheries and agriculture, and a further relationship determining our level of integration within the EU’s political and security apparatus that we did so much to create. The EU has never negotiated such a complex arrangement with a third country, and it has never been up against such a tight deadline while doing so. Its deal with Canada, which mainly focused on goods, took seven years to complete. By the time the EU agrees its mandate for the UK negotiations, and leaves enough time to ratify the deal at the end, we will have just seven months.
There is another difference with the Canada deal, and indeed all other trade deals struck by the 27. In that negotiation, the EU could take as long as it needed to get the right arrangement for both sides. Either party could have walked away and maintained the status quo ante. With Brexit, the two sides are confronting an entirely artificial deadline, now entrenched in law by a reckless prime minister who will brook no flexibility. Worse, there is no possibility of a reversion to the status quo ante unless new legal provisions are drawn up to enable it. As things stand, once the transition ends, so does our entire legal relationship with the EU, except for the narrow spread of issues settled in the withdrawal treaty. We simply do not know how much we can negotiate by the autumn and what happens to the vital sectors, such as services and security, where agreements may be unfinished.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen illustrated the difficulties quite succinctly in her speech at the London School of Economics this week. She stressed that the EU would have to prioritise, and underlined the hopelessness of attempting to complete everything by the end of the year. Then there were the familiar refrains. Without free movement of people, she said, the UK will not enjoy free movement of goods, services or capital. If we insist on significant divergence in standards, regulations, taxation or state aid, the EU will retaliate and safeguard its competitive interests. “With every choice comes a consequence,” she said. “With every decision comes a trade-off.” Brussels has been attempting to educate the UK about cakeism and cherry-picking for four years, and the lesson has still not been learnt. Finally, it may be about to sink in.
There are any number of reasons to be alarmed about the bill that has just cleared the Commons. The removal of rights for child refugees and failure to guarantee workers’ rights—both of which Boris Johnson initially promised to include—are the most eye-catching and egregious. But the more deeply insidious element in this bill is the power-grab. Parliament—the people’s representatives—will no longer have any meaningful say over the process. They have, in effect, discharged their duty. MPs will have no right to approve the negotiating mandate, or to request an extension to the transition when the inadequacy of its timeframe is inevitably revealed. Time and time again in his short premiership, Johnson has demonstrated his disdain for parliamentary democracy. Now we will see the full consequences. The only consolation is that, in investing all the power in himself, he will equally invest all the blame.
And yet Johnson has not seized power all on his own. He was elected with a thumping majority. The British people’s choice was a hard Brexit, and the consequence will be an economic shock. The question will not be who gets hit the hardest—that is Britain, and specifically, the British people least able to afford it. The question will be how hard that shock proves, and how enduring.
On Wednesday, von der Leyen ruefully observed that “Brexit will not resolve any of the existing challenges for the EU or the UK.” It was the most truthful comment any leader has made for a long time—and in fact understated the case. For every problem Brexit fails to solve, it will simultaneously create a new one. The fact that this has still not been accepted does not make it any less true—or any easier to disguise.