Britain should pause and step away from no-deal Brexit

  • As Theresa May’s mission to Brussels runs into trouble the chances of an orderly exit from the European Union appear even brighter, and the time may have come for the country to think again
PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 5:55pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2018, 9:13pm

Theresa May’s mission to Brussels to save her Brexit deal has run into trouble, with European Union leaders blaming the British prime minister for failing to come up with viable proposals for reassurances that might avert rejection by parliament. As a result an orderly exit from the European Union next March is no closer, and the prospects of a disastrous no deal, or even no Brexit, loom larger.

EU leaders have reiterated that the Brexit withdrawal agreement is “not open for renegotiation”, only clarification. May said the deal was “at risk” unless British MPs’ concerns could be met with legal assurances on the controversial “Irish backstop”, such as a one-year time limit, aimed at preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. But EU leaders accused her of recycling old ideas already rejected and shelved plans for providing reassurances until it was clear what she wanted.

After delaying a parliamentary vote on the agreement in the face of certain defeat, then unconvincingly defeating a motion of no-confidence launched by opponents among her own Conservative Party followers, May was hoping to allay the concerns of the 37 per cent of government MPs who voted against her. They say the backstop could bind Britain to EU rules indefinitely and affect its ability to strike trade deals in its own right. They demanded changes to ensure it was only temporary and capable of being terminated by Britain.

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May has said she will not lead the party into the next election, which she considered necessary to win the confidence vote. Any other result would have meant chaos in terms of uncertainty over Brexit, with a new leader unlikely to be in place until well into the new year. The deal that May declined to put to a vote may be flawed but it remains the only one on the table. It was always going to be difficult to get the EU and Britain’s parliament to agree. There may a glimmer of hope in European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s urging of Britain to set out more clearly what it wants.

There also remains an outside chance, which May could gamble on, that with the assurances she seeks about the backstop and further delays to the vote – to the point where it is this deal or no deal – she could get it over the line. But she might be delaying the inevitable.

Whatever happens no deal must be avoided. It may take another referendum on EU membership to resolve the issue. That would come with risks of its own. The political establishment is split and polls do not show a clear public view. It comes down to this deal, or no deal – or stay. The latter option, to revoke its intention to leave, remains open to Britain. It can always revisit a question that has divided and perplexed the nation after a couple of years of reflection. It is better to pause than to leave with no deal.