Brexit road ahead is going to be hard

What are the terms? On November 25, leaders of the EU-27 group of nations signed off on the 585-word treaty setting out the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the union as well as a non-binding political declaration of aspirations for the future relationship. While insisting that she did not share European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker’s sentiment that it was a “very sad day,” British Prime Minister Theresa May has little reason to celebrate. After 18 months of negotiation, the deal that must be approved by Parliament pleases very few. The document sets out everything from Britain’s “divorce payment” to the end of free movement, changes to fishery policy, and customs arrangements. What about Northern Ireland? Crucially, it deals with the seemingly-intractable problem of avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland (the EU nation), through a backstop or insurance scheme that would kick in and keep the border open in the event of a hard Brexit. The trouble is that, as it is an insurance mechanism, it can only be ended under very specific conditions, so its existence riles the “hard” Brexiteers, who believe it undermines the “taking back control” aspect so crucial to their Brexit vision. It also displeases Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which believes it would lead to different rules across the U.K., threatening national integrity. The Labour Party also opposes the deal on the grounds that it fails its six tests, including providing the “exact same benefits” Britain has as a member of the single market and customs union. Even U.S. President Donald Trump has weighed in, suggesting the deal was more in favour of Europe than anyone else. Ms. May has insisted that it is the best deal on offer, though her threat that voting it down would take Britain back to square one is being ignored by and large by MPs convinced their opponents will blink first. What happens in Parliament? The situation will reach High Noon on December 11 when the deal goes to Parliament, potentially involving “hard” Brexiteers, Labour and those campaigning for a second referendum uniting to defeat the deal. The DUP, on whose votes the government depends to pass legislation thanks to the 2017 general election, has fired warning shots, abstaining from some votes relating to the Finance Bill. What could happen then is anyone’s guess. Some are suggesting a so-called TARP scenario to avoid economic Armageddon, named after the 2008 battle to get the U.S.’s Troubled Assets Relief Programme through the House of Representatives. Then, the House initially rejected the programme that bailed out the banking sector but passed it after markets tanked: could British MPs react in a similar way to the prospect of crashing out? Or could the British government be forced to delay Brexit or hold a second referendum? The Labour Party — whose support would be crucial for achieving this — has sent mixed signals, including whether the option of remaining should be part of a new vote. Within the Conservative Party. some like Jacob Rees-Mogg continue to plug away for a no-deal exit. He remains influential despite a failed attempt to trigger a no-confidence vote in May, and there are chances that those who have remained in the Cabinet could join forces with him if they fail to exact further concessions from Europe. There are also surprise voices such as former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab who recently suggested that leaving the EU on the terms of the current deal could be worse than remaining in the EU on current terms. What lies in store? In all of this Ms. May has sought support from the public and business, but with limited success. A November poll showed that just 19% of the voters back the deal, while business is particularly concerned about immigration arrangements, including the end of free movement and a focus on highly skilled workers. One thing is clear: with so many combinations and permutations for the days and weeks ahead, Brexit is the political drama that keeps on giving.

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