Brexit: UK needs a new path

Brexit: UK needs a new path

An anti-Brexit activist waves a Union and a European Union flag as they demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in central London. AFP

A week after her Brexit withdrawal plan suffered a massive rebuff in the House of Commons — it was rejected by a historic margin of 230 votes — British Prime Minister Theresa May’s statement to Parliament on her next steps does not bode well for the UK or the European Union (EU). Although her statement was peppered with consultative rhetoric — promising a “flexible, open and inclusive” approach to involving MPs in negotiating the agreement that will determine the UK’s future relationship with the EU — her continuing reluctance to pay heed to views they have already put forward indicates that she continues to stick doggedly to her original plan. While outlining her next steps, May reiterated old positions, flatly turning down suggestions from Labour Party leaders. She dismissed the idea of holding a second referendum on Brexit and refused to rule out a ‘no-deal Brexit.’ She also turned down the option of asking the EU for an extension of the March 29 deadline. Instead of working towards a softer Brexit that gets Labour on her side, May plans to win over Euro-sceptic Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who are opposed to inclusion of the ‘border backstop’, an insurance policy meant to prevent re-emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. She is preparing to renegotiate measures to prevent a hard border with Ireland.

May’s cosmetic changes to her original Brexit plan are unlikely to win support of Labour and the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties among others. Renegotiating the ‘border backstop’ in a way to win over the DUP would jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the decades-old conflict in Northern Ireland. The EU is unlikely to agree to this. Indeed, the EU is in no mood to reopen the Brexit plan for renegotiation. May has proposed scrapping a £65 fee for EU nationals wishing to remain in the UK with settled status. But this is unlikely to placate the EU.

With a little over two months to go before it exits the EU, deal or no deal, the UK remains deeply divided over Brexit, with no clear resolution in sight. Exiting the EU without an agreement will leave the UK in a precarious situation, without a transition period or a safety net. It could result in logjams at ports and shortages in food and medical supplies. Its impact on the rest of Europe would be disastrous, too. A unity government that includes Labour could help break the current stalemate. But May, who is chuffed over her government’s survival of a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons last week, is unwilling to listen to suggestions.