Accept the Deal
Why We Should Back the Withdrawal Agreement
3 December 2018
May's deal is the best we could expect from a political establishment unenthusiastic about, or even hostile to, Brexit. If it is rejected, this will embolden anti-Brexit politicians to push for a second referendum to overturn the result of the first. This would be disastrous for British democracy. Therefore, we should back the deal, as a first, faltering, but necessary step in the restoration of British sovereignty.
Divided for so long, many Remainers and Leavers are now on the same side – at least for now. They oppose the deal negotiated by Theresa May’s Conservative government, arguing that it is worse than any alternative. The fact that these alternatives are so varied – ranging from “No Deal” to giving up on Brexit altogether and remaining in the EU – tells us something about this current alliance.
Sentiment on the left is generally hostile to May’s deal. This is partly because it was negotiated by a Conservative government, which means some reject it without giving it any consideration whatsoever. It is also because many Remainers on the left see this as an opportunity to derail Brexit. A few left Brexiters argue that the deal is incompatible with any principled defence of national sovereignty and that it breaks with the government’s commitment to deliver Brexit following the vote to leave delivered on 23 June 2016. This is the view of a number of those involved in The Full Brexit. The official Labour Party position is to reject the deal, call for a general election, and, failing that, to endorse a second referendum. As a general election looks very unlikely, there is growing pressure on the Labour leadership to commit itself to a second vote on EU membership.
This would be a historic mistake for the left and we should instead back the Withdrawal Agreement. Let me develop this argument in five points.
Firstly, we should not be debating whether or not this is a good deal. It is not. In many respects, it is a very bad deal. But this comes as no surprise. In any negotiation, if one is not willing to walk away, then it is difficult to see how one might secure a good deal. The UK was at no point in the negotiations willing to walk away. The government should have started preparing for a no deal from the outset, making clear that this was a viable – if not a preferred – option. Instead, it pushed it to one side, reducing to almost nil its leverage in the negotiations with the EU. However, it was not alone in doing so and this refusal to plan for “no deal” is symptomatic of the limited engagement with Brexit on the part of those required to implement the result of the referendum. This is not to point to civil servants, who would have made such preparations had they been asked to do so. It points rather to the weak political agency behind Brexit within British politics.
Secondly, there is no conspiracy at work in the Withdrawal Agreement. This is no secret plot to keep the UK in the EU. No one in the EU denies the UK’s right to leave. They may regret it or welcome it. But the official position is simply that the UK voted to leave, it triggered Article 50, and so the EU must respond and negotiate with the UK its terms of exit. The real questioning of the legitimacy of the 23 June 2016 vote has come from our side, from within the UK. This has taken the form of a relentless assault on the motivations and cognitive capacities of Leave voters. British politics is the weakest link in the Brexit chain and we are seeing this work itself out before our eyes.
Thirdly, we must not forget how remarkable it is that we have gotten this far in the Brexit process. This was a vote which subverted the traditional order of things, where those with control, power and influence call the shots. This agreement is certainly not a victory – far from it – and it leaves up for grabs much of what we consider Brexit to be. But the other alternatives are either completely unknown and indeterminate, or are a clear repudiation of the 23 June vote.
We should not underestimate the scale of the task that Brexit represents and how much is yet to be achieved. Since its membership in 1973, the United Kingdom has become a member state of the EU, understood in the deepest sense of that term. The orientation of its governments and state administration has been towards Europe. Brexit was less an expression of national sovereignty as a test of the capacity of the British state to exercise its sovereignty, set by an unexpected result from a national vote. Our starting point is a weak articulation of sovereign authority, not the existence of a fully-fledged and operational sovereign. To complain that May’s deal is a betrayal of sovereignty thus puts the cart before the horse.
There is a need to weigh up tactics and strategy and to be above all realistic about the best path to take in ensuring that the UK leaves the EU. We are at a moment that has some echoes of the weeks and months immediately following the 23 June vote. There was great pressure on Theresa May’s government at that time to trigger Article 50 immediately. Indeed, during her first speech as Prime Minister in July 2016 you can hear the chants of protestors demanding that she trigger Article 50. Those arguing in favour of triggering Article 50 as quickly as possible believed it was needed to prevent the government from not honouring the referendum’s outcome. But Article 50 was never fit for purpose. It imposed deadlines that were excessively short and took Brexit out of the domain of public debate and into the terrain of secretive negotiations between UK and EU civil servants. What we need at present is therefore some pragmatism and cool heads. We need to consider what outcome is best likely to secure Brexit rather than opt for easy sloganeering and knee-jerk rejectionism.
Fourthly, we need to be clear about the deal itself. It is designed with the desire to preserve the status quo in Northern Ireland at its core. Only when we take this as the starting point does it make sense. This was also the starting point for Chequers. At the very least, this should make those seeking to reject the deal pause for thought. What is their own alternative to preventing the return of a hard border in Northern Ireland? Some may say that they have no concern about this and the border should return. That may be so, but such a position will not make it through the House of Commons nor will the EU27 sign off on such a deal. Nor is it a position that has won much popular support over the last year and a half. So we are back to square one. The Labour Party’s position is to keep the UK in a permanent new customs arrangement, which corresponds even less to the referendum outcome. Others suggest that we should pursue a Norway-style option and join the EEA. This arrangement is even further away from Brexit, and it has the trappings of permanence which the current deal does not.
It is also worth being clear what the backstop means exactly. The EU did not want this arrangement. Their preference was for a Northern Ireland-only backstop, but this was rejected immediately by Theresa May and was greeted with opposition from every corner of the British political establishment. It was a clear non-starter. So the EU agreed a UK-wide backstop. In many ways, and as many have observed, this splits the EU’s Single Market – an arrangement for the trade in goods is distinct from the freedom of trade in services, capital and labour. For this reason, it is very unlikely the EU would wish to keep this arrangement in place for any longer than would be necessary.
It is also important to recall that the frictionless trade envisaged with the EU applies only to levying customs duties on goods. The UK-wide backstop is for the customs union, not for the Single Market. Any Single Market regulations and non-tariff barriers would therefore be applied in Northern Ireland, but not in the rest of the UK. The prospect of significant differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK thus continue with the backstop. This prospect will be as problematic then as they are today and will push for a resolution one way or another. The current agreement does not solve the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it merely pushes it into future negotiations. Citing the backstop as reason to reject the deal is a mistake. The backstop is not the key issue. The principal challenge has always been – and continues to be – what the UK’s long-term relationship with the EU will be based on, and this is what those in support of Brexit should be thinking about.
What does the current deal achieve? Two things. It keeps the Brexit process alive. As we shall see below, the alternatives do not. It also buys us time, both in terms of how to resolve the question of Northern Ireland and in terms of the future relationship with the EU. A number of different options remain on the table with this deal.
Fifthly, the alternatives to this deal all make it much more likely that Brexit does not happen. If the deal is rejected by the House of Commons, it is very unlikely that there will be a general election. The Fixed Term Parliament Act means that some Conservative and DUP MPs would have to vote with the Labour Party. It is difficult to see this happening. A more likely scenario is that a failed bid by May to push her deal through the House of Commons would embolden dramatically those calling for a second referendum on Brexit. This would require an extension of Article 50. There is a fair chance the EU27 and the European Parliament would accept this, especially if the only alternative to it were an unplanned “no deal” exit. Were this to happen, then the right position for Leave voters would probably be to organize for it and campaign for Brexit once more.
But it is simply impossible to deny that entering into the terrain of a second vote would be a massive defeat for those who voted to leave the EU back in 2016. There have been many parliamentary votes since then, all sanctioning the UK’s departure from the EU. In advance of the vote, the House of Commons did not introduce any special threshold for the vote nor did they attach any other conditions to its result. And yet, British citizens would be asked to vote again.
There is of course some precedence for this: Ireland voted twice on the Lisbon Treaty for instance – once against, then the second time in favour of it. But it is difficult not to see this as an instance of being asked to vote again because the answer the first time around was “wrong” in some sense. A second referendum takes us into the territory of Berthold Brecht’s famous lines about a government dissolving the people and electing another.
 Christopher Bickerton, European Integration: From Nation-States to Member States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)
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