At the end of June, the European Council met hoping for progress on the Brexit negotiations. However the deep divisions in the Cabinet (exemplified by the recent brinkmanship between David Davis and Theresa May) led to the embarrassing fact that, yet again, the Prime Minister was turning up to a European Council summit with nothing to offer. As far as the rest of the EU is concerned, the question around the Northern Ireland border was the key Brexit issue that was supposed to settled in June. The government has had two years to figure out how to square a circle in Northern Ireland, but has come up short every time. The latest debacle involved the UK government offering a backstop deal that wasn’t really a backstop, on top of an ‘implementation’ period with nothing to implement. Theresa May has had to spend her time negotiating with her party instead of with her European counterparts.
The long awaited white paper on the government’s position still has not appeared (at the time of writing) and Jeremy Corbyn made this point about the embarrassing lack of clarity and details in the first PMQs after the recess. That this was not available before the crucial votes on the amendments to the Withdrawal Bill from the Lords, and with the newer amendments from Labour’s front bench, is a shameful disgrace that shows enormous disrespect for Parliament.
However the government got its way and defeated all these amendments in the Commons- although they were allocated a ludicrously short time for debate, with their only compromise being a very last minute promise to consider a version of Dominic Grieve’s amendment to prevent there being a ‘take it or leave it’ choice between a bad deal and no deal.
On the future relationship, the EU is clear that the UK government’s own red lines – ruling out the customs union, single market rules or any role for the European Court in settling any disputes about jointly agreed rules — mean the only deal left open for the UK outside the EU is that of a low level Free Trade Agreement, which will result in more barriers and less trade than now. Even the government’s own figures show that a FTA will seriously damage the Economy.
The government’s position would also fail to protect the workplace, consumer, and environmental rights and standards that UK citizens currently enjoy, which is a major concern for us, but also for other EU countries who fear that Britain will trigger a race to the bottom in such standards. The government has also provided no clarity on how it would avoid a hardening of the Irish border. The rest of Europe is waiting with bated breath to hear how you can turn that border into a customs border without having customs controls! Having ruled out option after option to appease the Brexit hardliners in her party, it is increasingly clear that whatever deal Theresa May comes back with will be a job-destroying Brexit with less trade, diminished rights and a high cost to the exchequer — a future that bears no resemblance to the promises made by Brexiters two years ago.
Labour is committed, and Keir Starmer has recently reconfirmed this, to voting against (and not simply abstaining) on any proposed deal that does not meet its six tests and keeps the UK in a customs union with no hard border in Ireland. Defeating such a deal when it comes back to be voted on in the Commons could also trigger an early election, if this miserable government has not fallen before then. It would in any case mean that Brexit will have to be re-negotiated or re-considered entirely.