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Brexit: Deal or no-deal?

Muhammad Mahmood | Published: October 14, 2019 20:44:54 | Updated: October 15, 2019 21:06:21


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has gone on to save his Brexit plan with a warning on last Monday to the European Union (EU) that he would not delay Brexit beyond October 31. The warning came in the wake of EU leaders' refusal to approve the deal in next week's summit if he did not back down. Mr Johnson told French President Emmanuel Macron in a phone call "the EU should not be lured into the mistaken belief that the UK will stay in the EU after October 31''. He also on Friday (October 4) further emphatically tweeted that the UK would leave the EU on October 31, ''New deal or no deal - but no delay''

The political debate over the result of the 2016 referendum that the UK should leave the UK (now popularly termed as Brexit) still continues to the point that country has become quite polarised with every one having his or her opinion on the issue. The Brexit debate also opened up serious escalation of the constitutional crisis which already dragged in the Queen when Mr Johnson called on her to prorogue Parliament in September - a move later the Supreme Court overturned. The UK does not have a constitution, so the Prime Minister relied on past practice, giving advice to the Queen.

To further complicate an already complicated issue, an Act was passed (popularly known as the Benn Act, but officially known as the EU Withdrawal Act (no. 2)) in Parliament by cross-party opposition MPs led by the Labour Party. Although Mr Johnson has made it amply clear on numerous occasions that he would not support further delay to Brexit, the Benn Act stipulates that if the Prime Minister cannot reach a deal with the EU by the end of the Summit on October 17-18, he must request for a three month extension to prevent a no-deal Brexit on October 31.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson sent a seven-page letter containing the proposed Brexit deal to EU Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker on October 2. He described his proposals as ''fair and reasonable compromise''. His document proposes that Norther Ireland along with the rest of the UK leave the EU's Customs Union on October 31, but still retain access to the EU Single Market for goods. To avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, he further proposes customs check to take within Northern Ireland to replace the 'back stop'. The 'Irish back stop' was an arrangement to avoid border checks until a trade deal permanently avoiding the need of checks at the border. But many Conservative MPs feared that would indefinitely trap the UK in the arrangement by signing away the economic independence.  The proposal also added the Northern Irish Assembly to have the power to review this border arrangement every four years.

But by last Tuesday (October 8) night, it appeared that Prime Minister Johnson's Brexit Plan was practically dead and there was hardly any prospect of a deal by October 31. A telephone call between Mr Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel who made it amply clear that the EU had taken a new position and his Brexit plan was unacceptable to the EU unless Norther Ireland remains in the customs union forever, no deal will be reached. The UK government source also indicated that that was also the position of France. The source further added, "If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially not just now, but ever''.

But the comment prompted a tweeted comment from Donald Tusk, the European Council President directed at Mr Johnson, ''What is at stake is not winning some stupid blame game. At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don't want a deal, you don't want an extension, you don't want to revoke, quo vadis? (where are you going?). The tweet clearly implies Mr Johnson is seeking a no deal Brexit. European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker even issued a more ominous warning and warned that a no deal Brexit would ''lead to the collapse of the UK''. He was alluding to the internal dissension on the issue within the UK, especially Scotland's opposition to Brexit.

Mr Tusk's frustration is quite understandable. In the 23rd June, 2016 referendum, a clear majority of the British electorate indicated to opt out of the EU. But this created an existential threat for the EU leadership (none of them are elected by the people) who wants only ''ever closer union'' of European countries that will lead to the creation of a super state-- a ''United States of Europe''. Therefore, Michael Barnier as the chief negotiator from the EU side has been determined right from the start to produce a document that would essentially give the EU everything it wanted. At every stage of the negotiation process to give effect to Brexit was designed for the UK to capitulate to EU demands. In this effort the EU has its allies within the UK, a section of the British establishment in connivance with the civil service have also joined in force to undermine Brexit and subvert the democratic will of the people. The joint effort in effect pushed the UK into a blind alley making Brexit almost impossible and that cost the prime ministership of Theresa May.

The specific issue that cost Mrs May her job was the ''Irish backstop'' which is considered as an effective means to ensure that the Irish border remains open regardless of the outcome of the UK and the EU future relationship after Brexit. The Good Friday Agreement also known as the Belfast Agreement was signed on April 10, 1998 to end the political violence in Norther Ireland. The agreement stipulates that no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. But after Brexit this will be the only land border between the UK and the Irish Republic and that means border checks on goods, if there is not a deep enough trade deal between the UK and the EU. But many British MPs have many misgivings about the ''back stop'' for a variety of reasons including territorial integrity and sovereignty of the UK.

The back stop has become an ongoing problem and making not much headway. Now Mr Johnson, aware of his predecessor's fate, has come up with his new idea to have a second border with the currently completely open existing border. This new second border will be located a few kilometres down within Northern Ireland where the real customs and immigration checks will be done. But Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar remains unconvinced with the Johnson plan because there would still be tariffs on north-south trade and that would seriously jeopardise the agri-food sector on both sides of the border. Now the deal appears to be doomed anyway, and the UK government has come to the conclusion that an EU-UK agreement 'essentially impossible not just now but ever'. Now the possibility of a no-deal Brexit is very much a strong possibility.

However, there has been a suspicion in some quarters that Mr Johnson has been pursuing a no deal Brexit right from the beginning and his two-border proposal was exactly designed to achieve that objective. His very inventive two-border proposal was put forward to demonstrate that he was serious about negotiating a deal with the EU in a 'spirit of compromise' while he knew full well that the proposal was a no goer with the EU leadership enabling him to shift the blame onto them for the failure to strike a Brexit deal. He even went on to capture the high moral ground by forewarning the EU leadership saying that failure to reach an agreement would amount to 'a failure of statecraft for which we would be responsible'.

Now Parliament will meet on next Saturday (October 19) to discuss almost inevitable failure to reach a Brexit agreement with the EU. The session is scheduled to coincide with the end of the European summit to be held on October 17-18 where his proposed Brexit plan in all probability will be rejected. Boris Johnson is committed to leaving the EU on October 31. He already declared he would rather be ''dead in a ditch'' than seek an extension, despite MPs passing a law that could extend the deadline into the new year. However, in the event that an extension is sought on the basis of the Benn Act, Mr Johnson can tell the people that he was forced into that situation. There is also widespread speculation that he might refuse to do so to precipitate a crisis leading to a no-confidence motion and that will enable him to go to an election styling himself as the defender of the 'will of the people.' But then there is also another option-- a Corbyn government which will avert a no deal Brexit. But for Mr Johnson, as things stand now, he would need a Houdini style political escape route to achieve his no deal Brexit.

As I complete writing this article to meet the submission deadline, news at hand indicate that Mr Johnson and Mr Varadkar had a meeting yesterday just outside Liverpool in north western England and both appear to see a pathway to a possible deal is possible, and negotiation now appear to be on the move. Meanwhile, Michael Barnier, the EU chief negotiator and Stephen Barclay, the UK Brexit secretary already met briefly in Brussels. But earlier Mr Barnierhas given his well considered view that the Johnson Brexit plan is unworkable as it does not ensure the  security of the EU. The use of the term 'security'' is rather puzzling as the UK and most other EU members are members of the US led military alliance, NATO which will continue to exist and operate regardless of a deal or no deal Brexit. I presume what he actually meant was that he would not be satisfied until a deal is concluded to the satisfaction of the EU leadership which is a complete capitulation to the EU demands by the UK.

Now the ball is rolling again but it appears EU officials are not all that optimistic about a positive outcome. While EU Council President Donald Tusk cautiously welcomed the new development, but also warned that 'time was practically up'; and there was 'no guarantee' of success. This Friday Mr Barnier and Mr Barclay will meet in Brussels to resume talks in the light of the new development, but there is a caveat, Mr Barnier is going to assess whether enough progress has been made to warrant a resumption of the talk ahead of next week's EU summit.

But the October 31 deadline still remains in place. If a no deal option becomes a reality, according a minister of the Johnson government, the prime minister using a legal loophole will send two letters - one requesting an extension and the other telling EU leaders he does not want one enabling him to bypass the legal obstacles. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition leader accused Mr Johnson of 'using the Queen' to deliver his pre-election message at next week's opening of Parliament. We all now have to wait to see how things shape up next week.

muhammad.mahmood47@gmail.com

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