Brexit Diaries 17: Get ready for a car crash

Theresa May could have been handed a poisoned chalice by promising a parliamentary vote on a Brexit deal. Her position is starting to look increasingly weak, Barbara Wesel writes.

It was another of those Brexit rounds in Brussels: Short, pointless and lacking in results. David Davis warbles on about great progress, Michel Barnier puts the damper on the Brexit minister’s enthusiasm. But suddenly the French diplomat awoke from his torpor: Was it true, that the UK had only two weeks left to make an offer on the Brexit bill, a journalist asked. "Yes, I think so." Finally some clarity. No money, no trade talks, such is the new reality. A turn of events which introduced a welcome bit of drama in the ongoing boredom.

Over the weekend turned the knife some more: "Everybody should prepare himself for a no-deal," he said to a French Sunday newspaper. It was not his option but a possibility. All member states and businesses should prepare themselves, and the European Union was already doing so.

And where did Barnier see the problems? Talks are extraordinarily difficult and need time. A number of consequences have been underestimated on the British side. And some don’t want to take responsibility for what they have decided. All of this is the diplomat’s rather abbreviated version of five frustrating months at the negotiating table.

Politics

June 2016: 'The will of the British people'

After a shrill referendum campaign, nearly 52 percent of British voters opted to leave the EU on June 24. Polls had shown a close race before the vote with a slight lead for those favoring remaining in the EU. Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had campaigned for Britain to stay, acknowledged the 'will of the British people' and resigned the following morning.

Politics

July 2016: 'Brexit means Brexit'

The former Home Secretary Theresa May replaced David Cameron as prime minister on July 11 and promised the country that "Brexit means Brexit." May had quietly supported the remain campaign before the referendum. She did not initially say when her government would trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty to start the two-year talks leading to Britain's formal exit.

Politics

March 2017: 'We already miss you'

May eventually signed a diplomatic letter over six months later on March 29, 2017 to trigger Article 50. Hours later, Britain's ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, handed the note to European Council President Donald Tusk. Britain's exit was officially set for March 29, 2019. Tusk ended his brief statement on the decision with: "We already miss you. Thank you and goodbye."

Politics

June 2017: And they're off!

British Brexit Secretary David Davis and the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, kicked off talks in Brussels on June 19. The first round ended with Britain reluctantly agreeing to follow the EU's timeline for the rest of the negotiations. The timeline splits talks into two phases. The first settles the terms of Britain's exit and the second the terms of the EU-UK relationship post-Brexit.

Politics

July-October 2017: Money, rights, and Ireland

The second round of talks in mid-July began with an unflattering photo of a seemingly unprepared British team. It and subsequent rounds ended with little progress on three phase one issues: How much Britain still needed to pay into the EU budget after it leaves, the post-Brexit rights of EU and British citizens, and whether Britain could keep an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Politics

November 2017: May pays out?

Progress appeared to have been made after round six in early November with Britain reportedly agreeing to pay up to £50 billion (€57 billion/$68 billion) for the "divorce bill." May had earlier said she was only willing to pay €20 billion, while the EU had calculated some €60 billion euros. Reports of Britain's concession sparked outrage among pro-Brexit politicians and media outlets.

Politics

December 2017: Green light for phase 2

Leaders of the remaining 27 EU members formally agreed that "sufficient progress" had been made to move on to phase 2. Talks will now focus on a transition period and the future trading relationship between the two sides. While the Britain's Theresa May expressed her delight, European Council President Donald Tusk ominously warned that the second stage of talks will be "dramatically difficult."

The Irish border illusion

Ireland was easy, that’s what David Davis said from the beginning. Both sides agreed, that there should not be a hard border on the Irish isle after Brexit in order to maintain peace and the Good Friday Agreement. The solution was therefore to simply ignore the new border between the EU and Northern Ireland. It’s a pity that Dublin now punctures this serviceable illusion.

"If London will not allow for Northern Ireland to stay in the customs union and internal market, there will have to be checks at a future border,"  says Ireland's foreign minister Simon Covenant. "I know it’s a difficult issue for the negotiating team, but Brexit poses difficult choices." What was needed was a solution that works for both sides.

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Ireland On Ice

So let’s once more square the circle. And let’s do this within the next two weeks, please, because progress at the December council is not only about the money, it is also about the Irish question.

"English nationalists have planted a bomb under the settlement (the Good Friday agreement from 1998) that brought peace to Northern Ireland," says Irish columnist Finton O'Toole . As if the region had not seen enough bombs.

The pound falls and despair rises

What is weaker than a kitten? A prime minister who causes the currency to drop. On Monday traders in London reported a sharp fall in the British pound caused by Theresa May’s political weakness. All through last week her lack of grip and strength had been bemoaned on a daily basis. Forty MPs are supposedly now prepared to sign a letter of no confidence. Only eight to go and May is on the way out, which might be a relief for all concerned. 

The prime minister has by now lost two ministers, one over sexual sleaze and another over lack of discipline. After Michael Fallon's groping came Priti Patel’s solo attempt to create her own Israel policy. But at least the process was fun: thousands followed the trajectory of her plane on the trip back from Africa and her last ride to Downing Street, where she was to receive her marching orders.

May was also set to lose a crucial vote in Parliament on the Brexit bill. But David Davis was sent out for last minute preemptive action and in another U-turn promised MPs, that they would get a final vote on the result of Brexit negotiations after all.

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But careful: what looks like a victory may turn out to be a poisoned chalice. If Parliament says no to the Brexit deal, the result will be an exit by car crash or cliff edge. The vote will come so late, there cannot possibly be enough time to renegotiate the deal. Is this really what MP’s wanted? They are in any case not given the choice to cancel Brexit. But there is time before October 2018 for remainers and soft Brexiteers alike to figure out what to do.

The bad boys of Brexit are back

For more than a year they were the worst of enemies. Michael Gove had ignominiously stabbed Boris Johnson in the back during last year’s leadership bid. Gove wanted to become prime minister so badly that he declared fellow Brexiteer Boris Johnson to be unfit for high office. He was of course horribly right but it was still an unpopular move and Theresa May won the race.  

Brexit however needs every man on deck and Boris was ready for reconciliation. Therefore the two bad boys of Brexit wrote a letter to the Prime Minister demanding more energy in Brexit negotiations. May was to show more confidence and end all attempts in the Tory party to block Brexit. This memo was of course leaked to the newspapers in order to create the sufficient pressure on Theresa May. Gove and Johnson both are her ministers. If she were not so horribly weak, she would need to continue and fire them both for disloyal behavior.

Like a puppet on a string

Observers say Theresa May will soon be ready to promise more money on the Brexit-bill. Remarks made by Michael Gove on the BBC’s Sunday politics show are interpreted as the go-ahead: He would not block May if she were to hand over extra cash to Brussels in order to secure a good Brexit deal, said the Minister giving his blessings. Does that make Theresa May look like a puppet on the string of the Brexiteers or is the impression mistaken?