In December the Government was forced to pull the meaningful vote in Parliament on its negotiated exit deal with the EU. This poses a huge risk to the UK and, with no ready alternative for avoiding the very hardest of Brexits on 29 March 2019, Brexiteers and Remain MPs alike should vote through the Withdrawal Agreement to avoid the cliff edge of ‘no deal’.
For all the turbulence of the Brexit talks between the UK and the EU, everything had run broadly according to schedule. Both sides of the negotiating table agreed a legal text for UK’s withdrawal from the bloc back in November, which the EU27 then rubber stamped at the European Council meeting shortly after. The Withdrawal Agreement stipulates the UK’s outstanding commitments (including a financial settlement), maintains citizens’ rights on both sides of the channel, and provides for an open border on the island of Ireland. Crucially, it also delivers a transition period that keeps Britain in the Single Market and Customs Union until the end of 2020.
Troublingly, with ‘Brexit day’ now less than three months away, there is no clear support for the Withdrawal Agreement in the House of Commons, as evidenced by Theresa May’s decision to postpone the planned meaningful vote until after Christmas. Nor, however, has Parliament been able to articulate a common, alternative course of action. It has not even come close.
This is mostly because MPs’ opposition to the Prime Minister’s deal comes from opposite ends of the political spectrum. The Government cannot count on its thin working majority holding up, largely because the DUP and hard-line Eurosceptics on the Conservative backbenches object to the so-called Irish backstop arrangements.
On the other side of the debate a growing number of MPs are calling for a new referendum on EU membership – or at least a public vote on the Withdrawal Agreement – with a view to halting Brexit altogether. This group was emboldened by the ECJ’s recent judgement that Article 50 can be unilaterally revoked (albeit with a number of key caveats), but there are huge barriers in their way. There is not yet a clear consensus on what question would be asked, and neither main party has backed a new vote at all. More significantly, there is obviously not enough time to organise and hold such a major national vote before 29 March. True, an extension to the Article 50 period is possible, but this requires the unanimous approval of the EU27. It is hard to see why European governments would wish to indulge further British prevarications. Difficult questions would also be raised by delaying Brexit until after the European Parliament elections in May.
If Theresa May is to break the impasse in Parliament then she may be better served looking across the political divide to disillusioned Labour MPs than to her own party behind her. The Opposition does recognise at least the need for a transition period to avoid an economic cliff edge (after all it was Labour who called for such an instrument before it became government policy).
One way of gaining the backing of pro-Remain MPs could be to drop the Political Declaration – which points the way towards a future UK-EU relationship – from the deal that is voted on. This addendum to the main Withdrawal Agreement could be removed and renegotiated later, as it relates to matters beyond the transition period and is not a binding legal text. Although this would mean going back to the EU27, their consent should be easy to get as it is their stated interest to see the UK stay closer to their Union beyond 2020.
A further possibility for the Government would be to put a series of motions before the Commons to advise on the future relationship. This could serve two purposes. Firstly, it would help guide the next phase of talks and help prevent a similar blockage at the final hurdle to the present one. Secondly, it would likely make explicit to MPs, in undeniable Parliamentary arithmetic, that no other, single option – remain, referendum, EEA membership, no deal – currently enjoys any greater support than the current offer.
Regardless of whether Theresa May opts for either of these routes, MPs have a responsibility to approve the Withdrawal Agreement as it stands. It is a fair and pragmatic deal, in that it extricates the UK from the EU whilst keeping the two closely aligned for a time-limited period. More importantly, it is the only sure way to avoid a ‘no deal’ scenario on 29 March 2019, with all the economic catastrophe that the Treasury, Bank of England, and others predict this would bring. Bravado and brinkmanship have plagued the Brexit process, and they are in danger of doing so again. MPs must vote for the Withdrawal Agreement when Parliament resumes.
John McStravick is Vice-President of Agora, and Senior Political Analyst researching Brexit for a political monitoring firm.