Brexit is happening, with or without a deal

As things stand, Brexit is happening in 57 days.

Not that you would think it, given the British government’s announcement this week that it wants to tear up the painstakingly negotiated EU withdrawal agreement as if there were all the time in the world. Far too many members of the UK political class are determined to keep their heads firmly wedged in the sand.

This week, Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons voted on a series of amendments to Theresa May’s so-called plan B, after spectacularly blowing up her plan A two weeks earlier. The votes were designed to show the British Prime Minister what the Commons might be able to agree upon.

That was followed on Wednesday by talks between May and the leadership of the opposition Labour Party, to see if any common ground could be reached that would deliver more robust support in Parliament.

Armed with this new clarity, the thinking goes, May could return to Brussels with a “mandate” for modifying the deal in a way that would pass the House of Commons.

The problem is, the consensus in Brussels is that the UK has run out of chips and is increasingly looking like an unreliable negotiating partner.

Therefore, the EU — the only body with the power to make changes to May’s deal — is quite reasonably not willing to reopen talks it fears would lead to naught. This means that March 29 is still Brexit day, that the clock is still ticking and that with or without a deal, the UK is heading for the EU exit door faster than anyone seems to realize.

But surely a no-deal Brexit is as damaging for some EU member states as it would be the UK? So why won’t they countenance talks? Here, we come back to that whole unreliable negotiating partner thing.

And despite the amendments voted through on Tuesday, the British government has so failed to clarify what kind of deal it thinks would be acceptable to a majority of MPs.

The EU does not want to reopen talks that it believes would be a waste of time when it could instead be getting on with preparing for the fallout of no deal. It also doesn’t want to give the UK an extension to March 29 deadline without a good reason (such as committing to finding an alternative that could command a majority of MPs’ support). Why would it delay crashing out? As one diplomatic source put it: “We are sick of this, no-one wants six more months of this.”

So for all the talk in the British media of it now being “over to EU”, the focus must surely still be on securing demonstrable support for May’s deal, or at least a version of it.

At this late stage, any alternative would likely have to be an off-the-shelf model, similar to those enjoyed by some other states with the EU. (Norway, for example, is not in the EU, but is a member of its single market and the European Free Trade Area. It is not, though, a member of the EU customs union, so the “Norway model” would not fix the notorious Irish border problem).

Of late, the Labour Party has been telling May that n order for it to support a deal, the government would have to commit to a permanent customs union with the EU. That would fix the Irish border, but there’s a snag: It would also prohibit the UK from striking its own trade deals with other countries, including the US.

For Conservative Brexiteers, this is a huge problem. The ability to trade with nations independent of the EU is one of their chief arguments for leaving the EU. The majority of global growth, they say, is happening outside the EU. Britain needs to be selling to those markets, they say, not the outmoded, unfit-for-the-world European Union, with all its rules, regulations and red tape.

To date, May has been focused on getting these hardline Conservatives on board by offering assurances that her “backstop” does not tie the UK to EU indefinitely, should an alternative solution found to keep open the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (read more on this here).

But it has become increasingly clear that the harder-line Brexiteers in her party are so furious with May for what they see as her “sellout” to Brussels, that they will never agree to anything she puts before them. They, like the EU, don’t trust her any more, and see her as totally unreliable (it’s funny how enemies always find common ground).

So could May turn to Labour to get her deal through? It’s politically risky, but it looks like possible. She has finally held talks with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn and there is talk of the government channeling money to the districts represented by Labour MPs in Brexit-voting areas. Corbyn has been consistent in saying that Brexit would happen even if he were Prime Minister, and he has refused so far to formally back a second referendum.

What does all this mean? In short, that it’s looking increasingly likely the crunch comes down to May’s deal — or at least a deal that the government has negotiated — and no deal. This week we learned that support in the House of Commons for remaining in the EU is weaker than initially thought: MPs voted down an amendment to request an extension to the Brexit deadline should a deal not be agreed soon.

That doesn’t bode well for any other Brexit-blocking measure passing the Commons. And that, in turn, means Brexit is happening, with or without a deal. The UK is currently staggering towards a cliff edge. It’s astonishing that so few of those elected to represent its citizens can see this.