After months of disagreement and a historic defeat in parliament, MPs have finally given Theresa May a lifeline in what is being hailed as a “mandate” to go back to Europe and renegotiate the Brexit withdrawal agreement. Even the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has agreed to enter talks with the prime minister to set out his party’s position. He has previously been hesitant to do so and, it should be noted, was initially ignored by Number 10.
However, while things are looking a little brighter for May in relation to her party and parliament, when it comes to the European front, it really seems that nothing has changed.
What has been remarkable to witness during this process is how predicted problems have regularly been dismissed as “project fear” right up until the narrative changes and they become “what people voted for”. This was supposed to be “the easiest thing in human history’” and the UK was certain to “have its cake and eat it”. Now, as the deadline looms, hardline Brexit supporters argue that a no-deal exit is actually what people should want if they seek true freedom from the European Union.
And while most of the opposition to the current deal is ostensibly over the issue of the Irish backstop, Leave campaigners were once to be found dismissing any concerns about the dangers of returning to a hard border in Ireland as nonsense.
Parliament giving May its backing to march into Brussels and demand a better deal, mainly with regards to the backstop, while heralded as a major achievement and a boost to her negotiating power, in reality doesn’t improve her position all that much. Far from taking a no-deal scenario off the table, parliament has merely signalled that a majority of MPs would rather it didn’t happen. Meanwhile, they’ve also made it quite clear that they don’t agree on what they would prefer, nor do they know how best to go about it. It is also hard to see how parliament voting in favour of something that the EU has repeatedly said cannot and will not happen changes anything.
While many Brexit-supporting MPs such as Dominc Raab have suggested this last-minute show of unity strengthens the UK’s hand, it is hard to see how. Parliament has finally, with less than two months to go before the UK leaves the European Union, agreed on something and appears to be behind the prime minister; but this potentially fragile unity is nothing compared to the strong unity that has been constantly displayed by the European Union. The other EU nations agreed to a position shortly after the 2016 referendum and have stuck to it since. Comments from leading European figures after the vote in parliament suggest no reason to believe that this has changed.
Suggesting that this puts pressure on the EU to give the UK concessions or face it leaving on World Trade Organisation terms still shows an inability to grasp the main issues that the EU believes are at stake. The UK leaving without a deal and the economic fallout from this for both sides is of course not preferable to the EU, but as has been written before, the integrity of the single market and the stability of the EU is of primary importance to the remaining member states. The UK effectively threatening to shoot itself in the foot really provides no incentive for the EU to budge.
Corbyn’s agreement to meet with the prime minister is however potentially significant. The hard-Brexit supporters within her party are unlikely to be happy with any deal she puts forward. While Boris Johnson recently suggested that this could change, others have signalled the complete opposite. Sadly, it seems that many don’t really care what happens as long as the UK leaves and they don’t get the blame for any of the negative effects that might be felt. If May can convince Corbyn to support some form of her deal, backing from the Labour Party could help her mitigate her slim majority and the deep divisions that run in her party and get some version of her deal through parliament. Depending on Labour’s position, this could in theory lead to support for a softer Brexit, but again, it is not up to them, it is up to the EU.
Regardless of what MPs agree to in parliament, it is almost irrelevant in the European context if the EU refuses to budge on its position. Unless something dramatic changes on the continent, the options really are deal – perhaps with the promise of some assurances here and there – or no deal. To suggest that this is just the EU playing hardball and that it will crack at the 11th hour is wishful thinking.
Even if there was a chance for a better deal, with less than two months to go the time to negotiate it has long passed. The EU refusing to renegotiate now is not intransigence, it is consistency and determination in the face of continued hubris and a lack of understanding on the part of the UK.