On Thursday, the UK is 100 days away from exit day. The UK Parliament is apparently unable to be reconciled with the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement as negotiated between the Government and the European Commission. No alternative plan has potential majority support in the UK Parliament. In the absence of such an agreed plan, the effect of Article 50 and legislation already passed means that exit would happen and a series of ad-hoc and emergency measures would be required to mitigate the implications of a disorderly exit.
And, on Thursday, the UK Parliament will begin eighteen days in recess.
That is not to say that this time could be used profitably by the Parliament, for the simple reason that the Government doesn’t know what to do.
We have all been in difficult situations. We can generally say “we are at A; we want to get to B; this is the best route” but, in Westminster, they literally don’t know where to go. Splits, confusion, factions: and that’s just in the Cabinet.
They say there are now only four potential outcomes: ‘no deal’; the deal on the table (even if amended, it will be essentially unchanged); a General Election; or a new Referendum.
None of these are, in truth, the outcome. None determines the future relationship between the UK and the EU, unless a new referendum were to lead to a vote to remain, but which begs a series of questions afresh about the UK’s semi-detached relationship with the Union.
And therein, I suggest, lies the problem. The obsession with the Ireland “backstop” is because the future relationship is not agreed. Article 50 says the terms of withdrawal should be agreed in the light of the framework for the future relationship, but the latter, in the form of the ‘political declaration’ lacks the structure of commitments which would supersede the Northern Ireland Protocol. To achieve that, in my view, must be a Customs Union between the UK and the EU. Only this enables the frictionless trade which obviates a hard border in Ireland without creating a new border in the Irish Sea.
If Westminster is incapable of resolving the issue; if the EU will not now change the text of the Withdrawal Agreement, then the need is for the EU to push forward beyond the present terms of the Political Declaration and propose a more concrete solution for the future relationship; one which enables Theresa May to secure wider support for her Government’s negotiated deals.
Time is not on our side. This Christmas and New Year cannot be a holiday. British officials will be hastening their ‘no deal’ preparations. To avoid this, the British Prime Minister must be able, when Parliament returns, to regain the initiative with a significant set of changes to the Political Declaration, including a binding commitment to a single customs territory encompassing the UK and EU. The EU must recognise that this needs EU leadership to make this possible.
Let that be a collective New Year Resolution.
The author is a former Leader of the House of Commons in the U.K. Government.