The Brexit impasse

Article written by James Azzopardi – Executive, MEUSAC
Published on Malta Today – 13.02.19

Since Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union was invoked by the UK Government on March 29, 2017, a tumultuous period in the politico-economic discourse of the (post-)negotiation process was triggered as well. While this was to be expected, given the convoluted nature of the relationship between the UK and the EU and the agreements in place, the Brexit negotiation process has uncovered a myriad of issues, some based on the past, and others based on the future.

Negotiating such a deal was never going to be easy. On the one hand, Prime Minister Theresa May had to secure the best deal for her country while facing criticism in the House of Commons and within her own party. On the other, the EU, mainly through Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, had to safeguard the basis for a stable future relationship with the UK, whilst not conceding a lot of ground in order to circumvent a UK-stowaway scenario especially when it came to the Single Market. The EU also had to avoid accepting a deal which would replicate member-status benefits thus encouraging other Member States to take the UK’s route.

The whole process can be described as a theoretical impasse between a pragmatist approach and one based on principles, which in turn seemingly led to a dead-end in practicality, akin to Sisyphus’ rock.

The period during the negotiations between the UK and the EU regarding the principles of the Withdrawal Agreement (June 2017 – November 2018) saw the resignation of two Brexit Secretaries (David Davis and Dominic Raab) and substantial divisions within the House of Commons, especially when discussing the UK’s future with the EU27. While the ever-unyielding Speaker of the House John Bercow controlled the emotional Members of Parliament during Prime Minister’s questions on the various red lines involved in the negotiations, one issue kept emerging time and time again: the Irish border backstop.

Given the violent history prior to the Good Friday Agreement and with the recent violence in the city of Derry, Northern Irish fears have somewhat materialised and gave a sombre tone when discussing the issue of the backstop. In a nutshell, the agreed backstop would avoid the return of a ‘hard’ border (including physical checks) between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In fact, according to the European Council “the backstop is intended as an insurance policy to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland and ensure the integrity of the Single Market”.

In a rare speech, the EU’s Deputy Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand stated that the backstop itself was developed by the UK’s negotiators. Despite this and whilst acknowledging the many political motives involved, one could also consider the backstop as one of the numerous reasons that the House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected the deal during the ‘meaningful vote’ on January 15, 2019.

While the EU made it clear that the Withdrawal Agreement was not open for re-negotiation, the rejection of the deal meant that Prime Minister Theresa May had to seek another option. With the Irish border backstop still being the bone of contention, it was natural that the Brady Amendment, one of the main amendments which passed on January 29 after a vote was taken, circled around this matter. The text of this amendment to the deal included that the Northern Ireland backstop should “be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border; supports leaving the European Union with a deal and would therefore support the withdrawal agreement subject to this change”.

Prime Minister May’s government supported this text and the House of Commons voted in favour of the document (317 to 301), giving Prime Minister May a mandate to change the same backstop she negotiated with the EU. However, just as importantly, before the Members of Parliament voted in favour of this amendment, they also voted in favour of a non-binding resolution (Spelman Amendment) which stated that the UK will not leave the EU without a deal.

One might say that a no-deal Brexit was on the cards as soon as the disagreements regarding the original deal became vociferous, while the EU would not budge in relation to the backstop itself.

However, the latest turn of events in terms of votes can be contradictory, as even though the House of Commons voted in favour of avoiding a no-deal scenario, the same House supported the reopening of negotiations on a deal which was already rejected. Furthermore, EU leaders immediately reiterated that there would be no changes to the backstop. Although this might well be a negotiation tactic, it is still a strong position, especially when most Member States have spoken out in favour of this decision.

These latest developments still mean that Prime Minister May has to convince the EU to truly re-open negotiations to forge out a new deal with enough changes to the backstop for the House of Commons to approve. While the aftermath of Prime Minister May’s meeting with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on February 7 will likely result in more meetings during late February, these negotiations are seemingly being pushed to the brink.

With time running out to find another compromise before the UK formally leaves the EU on March 29, 2019, a pyrrhic victory on both sides should be avoided, as a healthy future relationship between the EU and the UK would ultimately still benefit the continent and the citizens on both sides of the Channel.

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