The UK parliament has returned from its summer break with a political crisis on the near horizon. More than two years after the EU referendum, the range of outcomes that are still plausible has not gotten smaller. It is conceivable that Britain could leave the EU without any form of deal; that it could leave with a withdrawal agreement and a stable transition; that Article 50 could be extended; or even still, unlikely though it is, that Brexit might not happen.
The government’s white paper, popularly known as the Chequers plan, has done little to create certainty, and indeed it has made a parliamentary confrontation all the more likely. As the first, detailed holistic sketch of the possible future relationship between the UK and the EU, it tries to reconcile seemingly incompatible ambitions: regulatory sovereignty with trading continuity; ‘taking back control’ with an open and frictionless border.
It is a sophisticated fudge, but, while Prime Minister Theresa May initially stared down her cabinet critics, the proposals have become a rallying point for opposition. It has been savaged by many Brexiteers, and received a critical reception from an EU Commission that carefully guards its own red lines. Opposing sides of the argument have something they agree on: the Chequers proposals are worse than membership.
But the real question is not whether Chequers is a good or viable model for future relations that the EU could accept. (It is not.) Rather it is whether British MPs are willing to sign-up to a withdrawal agreement with no guarantees of what that future relationship will look like.
For a while, it was hoped the UK’s departure from the EU would be accompanied by a meaningful framework for the long-term relationship, perhaps mirroring in some form the doomed but legally binding renegotiation of terms achieved by the Cameron government before the referendum.
Now, however, there is no time to agree and ratify these terms before the end of March 2019, and the debate will be about just how vague the declaration on the future relationship will be.
The most likely outcome of any successful EU Brexit summit this autumn, therefore, will be a withdrawal agreement, broadly on the EU’s terms, accompanied by a lofty political statement about the future relationship. This will be high on ambition and rich with promising language but it will come with all the clarity and enforceability of a promise printed on the side of a bus.
An obvious flaw of this situation is that it will simply prolong the current economic uncertainty. It has become accepted wisdom that that a transition period is essential because the scale of complexity of Brexit. But for a transition period to be meaningful and useful, it needs a destination. Britain needs to transition to something.
In reality, the proposed transition will be an extension of negotiations, but with the UK having legally left. In this new phase of negotiations a similar range of possible outcomes will be possible, with the crucial difference that Brexit can no longer be simply cancelled. The same divisions will continue to fester; the same trade-offs will be there. After March 2019, British politics may well still be dominated by debates about customs arrangements and the Irish border.
Transition without clarity on the future relationship is simply a prolongation; it is Brexit purgatory.
With only vague promises about the future possible, the next major crisis will come if and when the prime minister puts the withdrawal agreement before Parliament, potentially in November. May is likely to return from Brussels with a commitment to an operable ‘backstop’ arrangement in Northern Ireland and an agreed set of liabilities of around £40 billion, accompanied by bright sounding promises about the future. She will say this is the only deal in town.
Some Eurosceptics might have been persuaded of the wisdom of the negotiated withdrawal settlement if it was a down payment on a future relationship they could support. But with no guarantees in return and a potentially unlimited ‘backstop’ in Northern Ireland, their votes will be hard to come by.
Seeing tight polls, a divided Conservative party and a weak minority government, the principal interest of the Labour Party’s leadership will be in forcing a general election. For the more avowedly anti-Brexit group within Labour, defeating the government is the most realistic path to the radical shake-up – potentially via a general election, realignment of parties or second referendum – that is the only possible mechanism of stopping Brexit altogether. With the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Greens also opposed, and only a handful of Labour MPs likely to rebel, the government has little room for error.
Which means the fate of Brexit will ultimately be determined within the Conservative Party. Conservative Eurosceptics must again decide what they are willing to risk, and how much they are willing to compromise.
The choice in simple terms is between zealotry and gradualism. Do they oppose the withdrawal agreement, risking the collapse of the government or a general election? Or do they swallow the backstop, spend the money, get Britain legally and irreversibly outside of the EU, and continue their fight for a hard Brexit after March?
Past history suggests that Conservative Eurosceptics are temperamentally ill-disposed to compromise. For a core group, the battle over EU has been the fight of their political lives. But there are two reasons to think that this time, they will.
The first is that defeating the government could unleash forces they cannot control. If May were to fall, a hard-line Brexiteer would not face an easy coronation in a leadership election, and in any case a new leader would face the same parliamentary arithmetic. Were defeat to lead to a general election, it would create the very real possibility of a Corbyn-led government, which some sceptics will fear as much as a reversal of Brexit.
Additionally, there is nowhere close to a parliamentary majority supportive of the disorderly ‘no deal’ which some Brexiteers are sanguine about. Rather than the UK drifting towards so-called WTO terms, a defeat over the withdrawal agreement might well create temporary and unlikely alliances in Parliament doing all they can to avoid that chaos, with unforeseen consequences for the British party system.
The second reason is that the hard Brexit they desire is still possible after March. The future relationship will be determined in future negotiations, and the UK could still conceivably move from the transition to hard Brexit in the form of a Canada-style free trade agreement – or even revert to an exit on WTO terms – in December 2020. In this scenario, they would have 18 months longer to make their case.
Will Eurosceptics accept the costs and compromise of the prime minister’s withdrawal deal? Or derail the government in pursuit of a purer vision? Brexit will be shaped by their choice.
Thomas Raines, Head, Europe Programme, Chatham House.