LONDON – The saga of Brexit continues, stretching now possibly months ahead to the last permitted exit date of Oct. 31.
Is there any end in sight, with so many entrenched and differing views, both sides of the channel, in both major U.K. political parties and at every level of public opinion?
The answer for once is a cautious “yes.” As Parliament took a short break for Easter there was a distinct whiff of compromise in the air. It could yet blow away, but at least it is there and it is coming from all three of the key sources where there has to be movement for anything positive to happen — the U.K. official Labour Party opposition, the Conservative diehards with their 10 Irish allies (Prime Minister Theresa May’s precarious majority), and the European Union in Brussels itself.
No movement means, of course, stalemate. And stalemate means drifting on toward the United Kingdom exiting the EU with no deal at all, massive dislocation to business, trade and administration not just in Britain but throughout the whole integrated European system — a major amputation, if you like, without anesthetic.
It could also mean the U.K. being obliged to participate in the European parliamentary elections, due in late May — a further confusing disruption.
The logjam up to now has been dismally solid. It has all seemed to add up to a British Parliament that can decide nothing and agree nothing. But actually that is not quite correct. The Parliament has indeed agreed by a large majority on one positive view — namely that it will support the draft withdrawal agreement, painfully negotiated between the EU and May’s government, if, and it is a big “if,” the indigestible Irish “backstop” provision can be extracted, like a bad tooth, and some “alternative arrangement” for the Irish border put in place.
The backstop is the provision, embedded in the treaty, that says that somehow the border between the Republic of Ireland, (inside the EU) and Northern Ireland (part of the departing U.K.) must remain invisible, for the sake of peace, and that until that can be devised either the whole U.K. will have to stay inside the EU trade rules (the Customs Union), or Northern Ireland partly separated off and kept inside EU rules.
All this is anathema to the diehards, and they are the ones, above all, who divide the Conservative Party and prevent the British prime minister and her Cabinet from getting a majority for the draft agreement.
But here is where the first chinks of light have begun to appear. Powerful voices within the EU have begun to question whether that hated backstop really is so necessary.
Step forward Anagret Kramp-Kassenbauer, the chosen successor to Angela Merkel as chancellor of Germany. How come, she has asked, that if every single country, government or party involved wants to avoid a hard and visible border between northern and southern Ireland, schemes to keep it open and invisible cannot be worked out by all parties sitting down reasonably together. In that case, why is there any need to bother about the vexatious backstop provision at all?
Meanwhile over in London, the Labour opposition has now entered talks with the Conservatives. Perhaps, after all, there are matters on which they can agree. For example, if Labour want Brexit but with a permanent customs union, and May wants a customs “arrangement,” as specified already in the withdrawal agreement, what really is the difference? Could compromise between the two main parties with May’s “deal” be found somewhere here?
But the really crucial signs of change are in the densest block of all, the diehards inside the Conservative Party, where the word “compromise” is also beginning to be heard.
If, some of them now say, the EU really is ready to yield a bit on the key Irish backstop issue, if the alternative to the withdrawal agreement is just going to mean endless further delay, and possibly no Brexit at all, then they might just possibly, and with great reluctance, be ready to support May and the draft treaty.
If most of them move, the Irish 10 will follow and May will have back her majority for the withdrawal treaty, or something very near it. Agreement all round and relief all round.
It seems obvious, so why has it all taken so long? Blame is fruitless, better to seek a root cause. And the deep root cause here goes back to differing interpretations of democracy. It has been the iron insistence all along by the Brexiteers that the 2016 referendum majority had to prevail. That was the “democratic” message from the people.
But, of course, that was never the democratic message at all. Democracies are not the same as simple majorities. They are supposed to take account of minority views — in this case a very large minority view, against leaving. “Honoring” the referendum outcome never meant ignoring the 48 percent who voted to remain in the EU. It meant compromising — exactly as the withdrawal agreement seeks gradually, after a careful transition period, to do. That was the real “will of the people” and the correct democratic response to the 2016 referendum result.
It could still all go wrong. Despite signs of compromise on several fronts, it is still grimly possible that no withdrawal plan could ever be agreed, by the present Parliament, even by October. In that case, there would have to be either a new referendum (and even on that, and the questions in it, there might never be agreement) or a new Parliament, meaning a general election.
New party leaders and a new prime minister might then emerge, with a variety of factions in place of the familiar two main party line up, with coalitions forming and dissolving in ways the Westminster model was supposed to prevent. Such is the price of politics in the digital age.
But we must stay optimistic. The chances are that it may never happen.
David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.