There was no champagne and no applause. In announcing that, after 17 months of turbulent negotiations, Britain and the European Union had finally reached agreement on how the United Kingdom should leave the EU on March 29, European leaders meeting in a special summit on Sunday expressed their open disappointment and regret at Britain’s departure.
Their disappointment, however, was positively joyful compared to the fury and opposition that the deal provoked across Britain. Both those pushing for a “hard” Brexit involving a complete separation from Europe and those wanting a close trade and political relationship with the EU in future denounced the deal as a deeply unsatisfactory compromise. In addition, the deal was attacked by politicians in Northern Ireland as a means of splitting the province from the rest of the United Kingdom. And thousands of bewildered British citizens, alarmed that Brexit appears to be so damaging to Britain’s economy, are now calling for a second referendum on the deal.
Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, doggedly defended the deal, saying that it was the best that Britain could get and upheld the main demands in the referendum two years ago that Britain should regain control of its laws, its borders and its immigration policies. She echoed the warning by the 27 other EU leaders that there would be no further negotiations and no changes to the 599-page document. And she gave a stark warning that unless Parliament now approved the document, Britain faced the danger of “crashing out” of the EU at the end of March with no agreement, no new arrangements for working together and nothing to replace the thousands of laws and agreements that have bound Britain to Europe for the past 45 years.
The spectacle of such a chaotic end to Britain’s troubled relations with its neighbours has indeed raised fears no one envisaged at the time of the referendum in June 2016. Government officials have admitted that there could be massive delays at all British ports, with roads turned into car parks stretching more than 20 miles, as there would be no customs agreements to regulate exports to Europe. Flights to Europe could all be grounded without any new air traffic agreement. Medicines would run low and so would nuclear fuel without any new agreements. Food would rapidly run out as imports of fruit and vegetables from Europe would be halted. The economy would see an immediate fall of about 3.9 per cent. Factories would cease manufacturing if they could not get vital spare parts from EU countries. Unemployment would rise sharply and the pound sterling would see a huge fall in value. There might be riots in city centres, and the government was preparing to send in the army into the main towns to keep order.
But even the fears of such a breakdown in economic and political order has not softened the opposition of many politicians in the ruling Conservative party to the deal. A hard core of around 80 members of parliament are furious that the deal keeps Britain within the EU customs union and the single market, at least for two years during a transition period and maybe longer. This would force Britain to keep contributing fees to Brussels and would stop Britain negotiating any separate trade deals with the rest of the world. The Brexiteers say that this leaves Britain in the worst of all worlds – neither in the EU nor fully out of it. They say Britain would be simply a “vassal” of Brussels, forced to obey EU regulations with no longer any influence in shaping the rules.
The Conservatives and Labour parliamentarians who voted to remain in Europe are also furious that the deal leaves Britain in a worse situation that staying in the EU. They want to vote against the treaty and force the government to hold a second referendum which, they hope, would reverse the vote to leave and might allow Britain to stay within the EU. They have been bolstered by opinion polls showing a growing number of people, especially young voters, opposed to Brexit. A recent march of Remain supporters brought some 750,000 people into the heart of London.
The 12 members of parliament from Northern Ireland are angry about the so-called “backstop” arrangement, which would draw a new customs boundary in the Irish Sea if Britain and the EU could not find a means to stop smuggling across the land border with the Irish Republic. With no deal on how to control the new external frontier of the EU, there would have to be a return to the hated police and customs posts that were abolished some 20 years ago after the agreement that stopped the armed conflict with the Irish Republicans brought peace to Northern Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party says this “backstop” arrangement – to be used only if no solution to the border question can be found – would leave Northern Ireland permanently linked to the EU, unlike the rest of the UK. And Protestants in the province are always terrified of anything that weakens the constitutional link with the rest of Britain or gives Dublin greater control over Northern Ireland.
This small group is especially dangerous for Theresa May, as her government depends on their votes to maintain a majority in Parliament. If they tear up the quasi-coalition deal made with her in 2017, after her foolish call for new elections left the Conservatives without a working majority, then Mrs May would be unable to continue in government or pass any legislation.
The big unknown is the intention of the opposition Labour party. Its left-wing leaders, including Jeremy Corbyn, have never liked the EU and know that many Labour supporters voted to leave. They want to vote against the treaty in order to defeat the government and force May to call new elections – which the Labour party thinks it might now win.
But many Labour centrist and moderate members – numbering at least 40 – are passionately pro-Europe and are deeply alienated from the party’s leadership. They want to vote in favour of the Brussels deal, hoping this will also weaken Corbyn. But they are frightened of splitting the party and being seen as traitors by its powerful left-wing leadership. The government cannot therefore count on their votes to win a majority.
All in all, it looks almost impossible for May to win approval in Parliament for the momentous vote expected on December 11. She is therefore now appealing to the whole country to back her. She has survived a botched attempt by hardline Brexiteers to force her out of power and replace her with another leader. And respect for her obstinacy and determination is growing across Britain. She may manage to persuade enough members of Parliament to back her – and then the job of negotiating future trade relations with Europe can begin.
If she loses the vote, no one has any idea what could happen. Britain would be plunged into the biggest constitutional crisis it has seen since the Second World War. The government would probably collapse. There might be a new challenge within the Conservative party to May’s leadership. There would be no time to hold fresh elections before the March deadline. And if either the Conservatives or Labour won, neither side still has any clear idea of how to change the Brussels deal, how to stop Brexit or how to prevent Britain careering over the edge of a cliff on March 29th.
Even Britain’s friends in Europe are looking with amazement at the political turmoil in Britain. But with plenty of problems of their own in France, Germany and Italy, none of them knows how to help Britain or how to stop the Brexit issue destroying vital political and economic links across most of Europe.