Brexit Reaching Tipping Point

On 15th January, the Government suffered a historic defeat (by 230 votes) in its first bid to get Parliament to accept the Withdrawal Agreement and accompanying Political Declaration.  As a result, the sense of chaos and uncertainty in Westminster has accelerated. Whilst it is clear that the Parliament does not want this deal (in its current form), what is not clear is what sort of deal there would be a majority for.  The EU is clear that the ball is now in the UK’s court and the Prime Minister, assuming she wins today’s confidence vote, needs to set-out a plan by Monday.  Following last month’s article, below is an update of the potential options available in the coming weeks and months.  It is likely that a combination of these will be required.

  • Cross-party dialogue: this is the most obvious first-step that the Government needs to take and the noises from Downing St. suggest that it has already started to do this.  However, such an approach does not have much chance of succeeding if additional options to the PM’s deal are not considered.
  • Indicative votes: have been suggested by several MPs as a means to break the deadlock as the votes would be non-binding. It would help to gauge what there could be a majority for in the House of Commons.  The scale of the Government’s defeat on the Withdrawal Deal shows that another vote on the current deal has no chance of succeeding unless it can be changed fundamentally.
  • Renegotiate with the EU: on numerous occasions during the Brexit process Westminster has been operating in a silo and has not sufficiently considered the EU’s perspective in the negotiations.  Whilst some form of Brexit might eventually emerge as a favoured arrangement within the House of Commons, it has no chance of succeeding without agreement by the EU.  What is clear is that the EU will not back-down on the backstop and the UK Government’s strategy of trying to isolate Ireland has back-fired at every juncture.  It is therefore clear that if the UK wants to dilute the backstop, which is detested by many in Westminster, a lighter form of Brexit will be required. Below are some of the possibilities available;
    • Norway Plus / Common Market 2.0 – both of these options are broadly similar and essentially amount to the UK being within the European Economic Area (EEA) similar to Norway.  But, in addition, the arrangement would include agricultural products and the UK being part of a Customs Union.  As mentioned previously, this option has gained traction but the big drawback is that Freedom of Movement would have to be accepted, and as this was a major reason for the Leave vote in the first place.  It is unlikely to be favoured by many in the Labour party. Added to this, the UK would not have voting rights, would probably have to pay into the EU budget, and could not strike its own trade deals.  Therefore, it continues to be very difficult to see this arrangement being successful without some form of emergency brake on immigration as a minimum, even then it presents grave difficulties. 
    • Customs Union with the EU: this is  the favoured option by the Labour party as it would go some way towards addressing the Northern Ireland border but would potentially curtail free movement.  However, on its own, it would not prevent border checks on the island of Ireland as sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks would still be required.  Unless the UK could agree some form of regulatory equivalence agreement with the EU, of the kind that has never been reached before, then Brussels will continue to insist on a backstop. It would also mean an independent UK trade policy for goods would be largely redundant.
    • Free-Trade Agreement with the EU: an accord similar to the CETA agreement with Canada is championed by many Brexiteers as the panacea to the current impasse and they claim that it will also address the Irish border problem.  A cursory assessment of the EU’s Official Controls Regulations (2017/625) would show that this is simply not the case, as SPS border controls would still be required on the island of Ireland.  Such controls would of course be unacceptable to the DUP and the famed technological solutions are years away (and some doubt whether they are feasible at all). 
  • Second Referendum: this is still the favoured option amongst many Remain MPs, however, as with all other options, there is not a majority in Parliament for this and the Labour leadership is lukewarm to say the least.  Even if a majority of MPs decided on a second Referendum, the path ahead would be fraught with difficulties.  Firstly, what question(s) would need to appear on the ballot box to reflect the now diverse range of opinions in the UK (from No Deal to No Brexit).  Secondly, it could lead to social instability as there would be heated opposition in some quarters and would at least entail another six months of uncertainty.  Some would argue that another Referendum, if framed correctly, could at least lead to a definitive answer (e.g. if Leave won, then the issue is dead for a generation).  However, all indications suggest that it would be another close vote, and if anything has been learned in the last few years is that the British public do not want more of the same, no matter what the outcome is.
  • No Deal: continues to be the default option and with 72 days until Brexit, its likelihood increases by the day, particularly if the House of Commons does not pass a cast-iron guarantee that No Deal will not happen. As outlined in previous issues, a No Deal has the potential to severely damage UK farming, especially as it may well eventually encompass a liberal trade policy with respect to imports.  On 16th January, the NFU has emphasised its view that a No Deal would be catastrophic for UK farming and most business associations agree with this view.  From an Irish perspective, a No Deal also presents a major dilemma.  If it does not introduce some forms of regulatory checks on produce coming in from the UK (including from Northern Ireland) in the event of a No Deal, then this may be viewed unfavourably by customers elsewhere in the EU and non-EU, who may in-turn place some additional controls on Irish produce. Such a development would have damaging ramifications for the Irish economy, whilst the re-introduction of a hard border would have severe social consequences. In such a situation, it is therefore likely that the Irish Government would first seek to introduce temporary measures along the border (citing safety concerns), similar to what was done during the foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001.  It could potentially keep these for weeks if not months in the hope that a more sustainable Brexit outcome could be achieved.  However, even such a temporary move is also likely to entail problems.
  • Extension to Article 50: all of the options set-out above contain unpalatable elements.  With the time relentlessly ticking towards the 29th of March and numerous Bills and secondary legislation still required to be passed by the Commons, the prospect of an extension to Article 50 grows by the day.  Rumours circulating in Brussels suggest that preparations are being made for a formal request by the UK for an extension and while a period of 3-months is doable (i.e. till early July) a longer period would present legal problems for the European Parliament if the UK is still a Member State and has no MEPs. Therefore, if an extension is to be accepted by the EU and its Member States, it will need to be coupled with a clear plan from the UK as to what form of Brexit or plan of action it could agree on which could be countenanced by the EU.

Overall, it now appears that an extension to Article 50 will be required and another attempt will be made by the Government to get some form of Withdrawal Agreement passed by the Commons.  It would appear prudent to do this after indicative voting to discern what sort of a deal would garner a majority, bearing in mind what would also be acceptable to the EU.  If the Government fails at the second attempt to pass a deal, much will then depend on Labour.  If it attempts another confidence motion and loses, will it call for a second Referendum?

Many questions remain. All the while, agri-food businesses have to try and cope with all of the uncertainty which does not show signs of dissipating just yet.

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