Theresa May’s aim is to convert fear of a no-deal Brexit into acceptance of her bad deal, which would leave the UK at the EU’s mercy. In the end, the rhetoric about “taking back control” has come down to a choice between suicide and vassalage. This march of folly needs to be stopped, for the UK’s sake and Europe’s. The only politically acceptable way to do this is via another referendum. That is risky. But it would be better than sure disaster.
Let us count the ways in which what is now happening is quite insane.
In just over a month, the UK might suddenly exit from the EU. But the government and business are unprepared for such a departure: to take one example, the government is still fighting over what farm tariffs to impose. Such a no-deal Brexit would damage the UK — and the EU. If a no-deal exit did happen, negotiations would need to restart at once, but in a far more poisonous and, for the UK, more unfavourable context.
Even if the prime minister’s deal were ratified, a new set of negotiations would have to start over the future relationship. The UK is unprepared for such negotiations. These new negotiations would also inevitably end up with an unsatisfactory outcome, because the UK has never confronted the trade-offs between access and control inherent in all trade negotiations. Finally, this entire mess would make only the EU’s enemies — Russian president Vladimir Putin, above all — happy.
Britain has, in brief, launched itself on a perilous voyage towards an unknown destination under a captain as obsessed with delivering her version of Brexit as Ahab was with Moby-Dick. Has a mature democracy ever inflicted such needless damage on itself?
Why has the UK done so? The simple answer is the marriage of the widespread dissatisfaction of the British people to copious Brexit illusions.
One illusion was that the meaning of Brexit was obvious. In practice, it could cover anything from a high degree of integration to very little. The decision to leave did not determine the destination.
Another illusion was that Brexit could mean unbridled sovereignty. In practice, the deeper is a trading relationship, the more it must compromise with its trading partners on the exercise of national sovereignty. If the UK negotiates trade deals with the US, China or India, it will also be forced to accept many limitations on its sovereignty.
A further illusion is that it would be easy for the UK to trade on the terms laid down by the World Trade Organization. In practice, a no-deal exit would worsen the terms of access to markets that account for about two-thirds of total UK trade.
Yet another illusion is that the WTO covers most of the things the UK cares about. Alas, it does not. What it fails to cover includes road haulage, aviation, data, energy, product testing, including of medicines, fisheries, much of financial services and investment.
It was a dangerous illusion to suppose that it would be simple to strike a trade deal with the EU, because we started from full convergence. The opposite is true. The UK is leaving in order to diverge. Such divergence is precisely what EU rules exist to prevent. The EU would never allow a country the right both to benefit from EU rules and diverge from them, at its discretion.
A really big illusion was that if the UK were tough with the EU, the latter would come swiftly to terms. But, as Ivan Rogers, former UK permanent representative to the EU, argues, the EU would not — partly because preservation of the EU is, naturally, the EU’s dominant priority, and partly because the EU is sure the UK would be back the day after that no-deal Brexit. It is surely right on that.
So right now, parliament faces a choice between the impossible — no deal — and the horrible — the prime minister’s deal. If accepted, the latter would be followed by years of painful trade negotiations, with, at present, no agreed destination. At the end, the UK would be worse off than under membership of the EU. Its people would be as divided and dissatisfaction would remain as entrenched as they are today. Is there a better way than this? Yes. It is to ask, once again, whether the people want to leave, now that the reality is clearer. There should be a second vote.
Some will argue that this would be undemocratic. Not so. Democracy is not one person, one vote, once. If democracy means anything, it is the right to change a country’s mind, especially given the low and dishonest referendum campaign. It is nearly three years since that vote. Much has happened since then, in both the negotiations and the world. As Ngaire Woods of the Blavatnik School of Government has noted, since 2016 Donald Trump has been assaulting the EU and the WTO, western relations with China have become more problematic and the extent of Mr Putin’s assault on our politics have become more obvious. This is not a time for Europe to inflict the wound of Brexit on itself.
If, as seems plausible, parliament cannot stomach the vassalage of the prime minister’s deal, then the sane options are to ask for a lengthy extension of departure or, better, to withdraw the Article 50 application altogether. Both would give the time needed to discuss how to organise such a referendum. Mrs May’s suggestion of a direct vote on no deal might get us there.
It is now clear that the UK has no consensus on Brexit, but only division and confusion. In order to get her bad deal through, the prime minister has been reduced to threatening parliament with something worse. That is mad. If a country finds itself doing something sure to damage itself, its neighbours and the fragile cause of liberal democracy on its continent, it needs to think again. Now is the last chance to halt the journey to ruin. It is parliament’s duty to do so.