Last week MP’s voted on a number of amendments to the withdrawal deal agreed by May and the European Union. In the Parliamentary debate that took place, May called for agreement and compromise on the changes MP’s wanted to see before they would accept the deal and allow the Prime Minister to return to the EU and attempt to secure further concessions. The two amendments that Parliament voted for are the Brady amendment, which says that we will avoid the Irish backstop with ‘alternative arrangements’, and the Spelman amendment, which would rule out a no-deal Brexit. Both amendments narrowly passed, by 16 and 8 votes respectively. Yvette Cooper’s amendment, which would have extended Article 50 until the end of 2019 also narrowly failed to pass, as did Labour’s amendment that would require further debate on Britain’s position in the customs union after we leave. On top of this, the EU responded by claiming that the withdrawal agreement would not be renegotiated as a no-deal outcome would be the lesser of the two evils considering the consequences of renegotiation. With so many seemingly contradictory boxes to tick before a deal can be agreed by the UK Government and Parliament, as well as with the EU, it really does feel like Brexit has become an impossible task.
Since May’s deal was defeated in the Common’s vote on the 15th of January, the balance of power has shifted from the Government, and May, towards Parliament. This is evident in last week’s votes which saw MP’s take control of what direction the withdrawal agreement should take. Prior to this it was in May’s hands to come up with a deal that would be accepted by both the British Parliament and the EU, and obviously she was unable to do so. May’s opening speech during Last week’s debate called for MP’s to make it clear what they wanted in the deal, rather than simply what they didn’t want, so that when it comes down to passing the deal through the Commons it won’t be rejected a second time. The problem with this is that even if May and Parliament are able to create a deal that is acceptable to a majority of MP’s, the deal still has to be acceptable to the EU, and many of the issues that MP’s rejected the original deal for, such as the Irish Backstop, seem to be the very issues on which the EU aren’t willing to budge. The Brady amendment, which seeks to renegotiate the backstop, was passed by Parliament, but rejected by the EU as unacceptable. Similarly, while MP’s voted to block a no-deal exit, what do they expect to happen on 29th March when we leave without having passed a deal with both Parliament and the EU, after they also voted against extending the Article 50 process. The increased dialogue between the Prime Minister and MP’s is promising, however this should have been the case from the start, not less than two months before we’re due to leave.
One of the biggest issues in securing a Brexit deal is the lack of consensus on what we want from Brexit. May, and many soft and reluctant Brexiteers are trying to honour the referendum by taking us out of the EU but are also attempting to preserve the economic strength gained from EU membership. At the other end of the leave spectrum, hard Brexiteer’s, such as Jacob Reese-Mogg, believe that we would benefit from cutting ties with the EU, as this would give us political and economic freedom. This boils down to a choice between the strength and security we would have if we remained a member of the EU, or the freedom and national sovereignty gained from leaving the EU. On the 23rd of June 2016, the British people narrowly chose freedom over strength. The problem hard Brexiteer’s have with May’s deal, is that it does not deliver us the freedom and independence that the public voted for. The majority of MP’s hold the belief that we would be economically stronger inside the EU, and this leads them to push for softer Brexit scenarios, such as a Norway style deal, which would try to retain some of the economic benefits of EU membership, but would deny us the freedom we seek from independence, such as full control over our borders and laws.
This lack of consensus on what we want from Brexit has caused all these different factions, each supporting a different course of action, to come forward in Westminster and as none have a majority, we now have a deadlocked situation. This dichotomy of strength vs freedom means that all of these proposed courses of action are easily argued down in debate, with arguments that essentially boil to down either “What’s the point in being strong if we aren’t free?” or “Why be free if it makes us weak?”. The back and forth of these arguments, and the bottomless pit that is a lack of consensus on what we actually want to achieve with Brexit, has led many to argue that we should return the question to the people and ask them specifically what kind of Brexit, or no Brexit, that they want in order to prevent the current spiralling that we have seen so far in the debate. We have already seen May and her Government shift power downwards towards Parliament, a people’s vote would shift power further downwards into the hands of the people.
Many people argue that to hold another referendum in which citizens would vote on their preferred Brexit ‘deal’ would be undemocratic. This statement, however, is literally an oxymoron. A vote, especially a referendum, cannot by nature be undemocratic. While it may go against the outcome of the 2016 referendum, this would in fact make the outcome more democratic, as it would account for changes in opinion as well as demographic changes (e.g. children who have since turned 18, voters who have since died). Three years of Brexit chaos has dramatically changed opinions and enlightened people as to what Brexit actually means, and the sacrifices that would have to be made to bring it about. Allowing the people to vote on what course of action they would like to see takes the decision-making power out of the hands of Westminster and gives it to the people, which to me is the epitome of democracy. Using a Single Transferable Vote style referendum, voters are able to rank their preferences, with 1 being their most preferred, 2 being their second choice etc. Click here and the following video explains the system in more detail. This voting system would give the Government the consensus, the mandate, and the final say on what the British people want from Brexit, all of which have so far been lacking from the debate. Despite this, it is extremely unlikely that a people’s vote will now take place, as May continues to push for amendments to her deal rather than looking at other options and risk losing her position.
Ideally, we would have remained an EU member and attempted to reform and improve the issues and division from within the bloc. Even as he called for a referendum in 2016, David Cameron had just returned from Brussels having secured an improved relationship between the UK and the EU, with the UK being granted more national control and the EU promising to look into internal reforms. If the British people understood the nature of this new relationship, then I don’t believe a majority would have voted to leave.
Brexit should be understood as a roll of the dice, an opportunity to rearrange the chessboard. At the moment the debate is centred on where we want the pieces to fall, do we remain closely linked to the EU? Or do we want to take a new path? While I don’t agree that leaving the EU was the right thing to do, it is my opinion that if we really do want to leave the EU, then we should commit to it. We should be clear on how closely interlinked we want to remain from an economic and political perspective, and then set our sights beyond the continent.
Once we have left it will be of the utmost importance that we don’t waste this opportunity for change in all aspects of British politics. New trade deals will need to be made that can replace our European markets, with massive potential in the emerging markets of Asia and Africa, as well as with the Commonwealth. While on the subject of trade, it is important to mention that when people suggest we can fall back on WTO trading rules, they are suggesting that we trade on rules that no other developed nation, or large economy, trade on. WTO rules aren’t meant to be the basis for a trade policy, almost every nation in the world also trades in some kind of free trade area or customs union.
The Brexit process has also tested our political institutions, highlighting the weakness of the Government, and the strength of an active Parliament, but has given us the opportunity to improve and reform our internal politics. It is these opportunities that should be the reasons for wanting to leave the EU, and it is these opportunities that should be the focus of the exit deal. However, to focus on the potential which emerges from our departure, we have to first break through the cycle of misinformation, tribalism, and the self-serving politics we are starting to see in Westminster.