British Prime Minister Theresa May announced the draft deal she agreed with the European Union, which would keep the UK in the customs union until the end of 2020 (official exit from the EU is triggered on March 29, 2019). This would allow the UK and the EU to continue negotiating for a more permanent post-Brexit arrangement. This temporary arrangement is eminently important for the Northern Ireland issue. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, and when it leaves the EU customs union along with the UK, the border to the Republic of Ireland would have to be restored, which would undermine the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which allowed for closer bilateral relations between both parts of Ireland.
The EU and the UK are both interested in keeping the Irish borders open, and keeping the UK in the customs union would provide for that. But the British government does not think they have a mandate for remaining in the customs union, so delivering on Brexit means to leave the customs union. That is, according to the hard Brexiters, who form perhaps 62 of the 316 Conservative Party MPs. It is their support that May needs to rely on for the December 10 vote on the Brexit deal in the House of Commons. Hard Brexiters believe that the temporary agreement can be extended indefinitely and keep the UK in a halfway house similar to Norway or Switzerland, where they retain membership in the customs union and all of the EU legislation without being able to change the EU laws. May wants to play for time hoping for a better deal in the future. But the reality is that if the past two years of negotiation are not enough time to hammer out an acceptable deal for both sides of the channel, why would more time facilitate hammering out such a deal, especially when the EU would be perfectly happy with what amounts to a permanent soft Brexit without calling it such?
If hard Brexit prevails the UK leaves the customs union. Then the Irish border could be reinstated, but that could be prevented with a “backstop” solution, where Northern Ireland is kept in the customs union, while Great Britain (i.e. UK minus Northern Ireland) would leave the customs union. But that solution is complicated too, because many Tory backbenchers and the 9 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs, i.e. pro-Unionist northern Irish politicians, that prop up the Tory minority government, will very likely oppose this solution, as it would “break up” the UK.
The daunting reality for Theresa May is that now that the Brexit deadline is fast approaching, the internal government divisions come to the fore. The Chequers deal, which would have removed the UK from the customs union in services, but kept it in goods trade, had passed in July, and was soundly rejected by the EU negotiators, and triggered the resignation of David Davis as Brexit secretary and Boris Johnson as foreign secretary. Now the new Brexit secretary Dominic Raab also resigned after the public announcement of the current deal. He is now replaced by the loyalist Stephen Barclay. The hard Brexiters led by Jacob Rees-Mogg are now staging an open rebellion against May by organizing letters to put a motion of no confidence against May, so May could be out of a job. On the other hand, the Tories don’t really have a powerful alternative as Boris Johnson lacks much parliamentary support and Rees-Mogg is unlikely to run for leadership. For the hard Brexiters, May has long been a nightmare given that she originally campaigned for Remain during the referendum, and is now tasked with negotiating a Brexit she does not really believe in herself.
Under Theresa May’s leadership a hard Brexit is very unlikely to happen. Regardless of her rhetoric about wanting to deliver a Brexit, it is unlikely to happen with a clean break, which means leaving the customs union and adopting WTO rules for EU trade with the UK. The UK would also have to negotiate dozens of trade agreements with other countries that the EU already has a trade agreement with, and Britain lacks the bureaucratic expertise for that. In the short time frame, they can’t really negotiate new trade deals. The nightmare scenario involves long delay lines in the trade between Calais and Dover, which could add more costs to British consumers and make some businesses unviable, thus costing many job. For hard Brexiters, this outcome would still be desirable given that they care about political sovereignty more than anything else.
If we assume, however, that hard Brexit is off the table, then there is the soft Brexit, which would include the current deal, which keeps the UK in the customs union until the end of 2020, and indefinitely extends that agreement into the future. The British government would then have to admit at some point that the temporary agreement really is permanent, but it is also conceivable that they extend and pretend, but it would keep this topic as a permanent low-heating fire that could derail any government whether Tory or Labour.
Other possibilities are a new deal with the EU, a general election or a new referendum. May is unlikely to embrace the first option given that she had spent two years negotiating with EU partners that she regards as intransigent, which is unsurprising as the EU leaders want to make it as uncomfortable to leave the EU and deter other member states from considering the same option.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, supports a general election, which inevitably will lead to further Tory losses, because both Tory Brexiters and Remainers are unhappy with the deal on offer. However, even if the Labour Party wins and Jeremy Corbyn becomes the next prime minister, it will take some time for him to get on top of the continued negotiations with the EU and there is now not enough time until the March 2019 departure date. Secondly, it is not clear how a Corbyn administration would negotiate differently. He is not a hard Brexiter, and there are almost no hard Brexiters in the Labour Party. He would probably negotiate for a soft Brexit, similar to May. Former prime minister Tony Blair even calls for a second referendum.
This is the last of the remaining options, and would be in line with the legitimate political choice to avert Brexit. Of course, the British government could unilaterally call off Brexit even without a referendum but that would be politically self-defeating, because it would lack legitimacy. But there are complications with a second referendum. First, it is not clear whether despite all the bad news and uncertainty about Brexit that the majority of people are convinced of wanting to remain in the EU. It will again be a very tight vote that could simply reaffirm the 2016 referendum. The second objection, more importantly, is that a second referendum would make a sham out of the purpose of a referendum, which is to attain a result and get on with the consequences of it. A second referendum communicates to voters that they should vote until what the political establishment desires. It is still possible that another referendum will happen regardless, especially when the hard Brexit (no deal) solution gets through, i.e. the December 10 House vote falls through and May can’t get the votes in a rescheduled vote. The UK would then crash out of the EU and the high economic costs and dislocation would push public sentiment strongly toward remain.
Brexit is certainly without precedent, and there is not much of a useful playbook for the current British government to go by. The controversial nature of Brexit suggests that the prime minister does not have politically desirable options given that the division between Remainers, soft Brexiters and hard Brexiters makes it impossible to create a deal that is acceptable to all political factions. Authoritarian states will take the Brexit confusion as justification to distrust democratic political processes that create substantial political and economic uncertainty. Even in the unlikely scenario that Brexit will be reversed, the delegitimated EU, which was partially at the basis of the original Brexit referendum, will have another lease of life, but the centrifugal forces and calls to undermine the EU will continue unless neoliberal policies that destabilize the lives of working people can be reversed.