Guest post by Dr Anthony Costello, lecturer in EU Politics and Comparative Government at the Department of Government, University College Cork.
The 25th November 2018 marked a turning point in the ongoing Brexit saga. British and EU negotiators finally came to a seemingly acceptable agreement on Brexit after nearly two years of painstaking negotiations. The 585-page agreement – which, if passed by the Westminster parliament on the 11th of December – will see the UK effectively remain in the EU’s Customs Union for the foreseeable future [if not indefinitely]. As soft a Brexit that can likely be expected at this stage of the negotiations, Irish and European stakeholders have welcomed the agreement. However, regardless of how satisfactory the withdrawal agreement is for Irish and other European counterparts, the agreement does not deliver the Brexit which was promised by May’s government since the activation of Article 50 and is far removed from the preferences of pro-Brexit voters since the June 2016 referendum results. If this agreement is passed, socio-political consequences may be expected.
For those who voted to leave the EU in the June 2016 referendum, Brexit meant taking back British sovereignty. This entailed a full divorce between the UK and the EU which would enable the UK to regain control over establishing free trade deals with non-EU countries, control over immigration policy, regain judicial and political autonomy and release the UK from membership based obligatory contributions to the EU’s budget.
Since the activation of Article 50 in March 2017, the Brexit negotiation process evolved into something nothing less than bizarre. As is expected from negotiations, the process consisted of competing preferences between the UK and the EU. However, the complexity of the negotiation process was not found so much in competing preferences, but rather in the competing solutions offered by negotiating partners. Although the EU was apparently open to creative methods of coordinating and managing Brexit, the UK’s persistent strategy of offering ‘technical solutions’ to somehow create frictionless trade across a supposedly unrecognisable border caused issue from the beginning. A hard Brexit would undeniably require a border in order to uphold the integrity of the EU’s economic market. In addition to the integrity of the single-market, the erection of a border brought with its constitutional considerations pertaining to the integrity of the 1998 Belfast Agreement and what the absence of a border meant for North-South Relations and Anglo-Irish relations. British ignorance toward the basic principles underlying the single market, as well as the historical, political and economic complexities associated with Northern Ireland was eventually brought to the fore of public consciousness across the EU.
The Conservative-DUP deal established in June 2016 added insult to injury. In the absence of a political administration in Stormont, the pro Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) found their preferences maximised due to their proximity to the central organs of British power compared to their nationalist counterparts. Amidst the British government offering poor ‘technical solutions’ to resolve Brexit, the sheer reality of Northern Ireland’s role as a constraint on the UK’s Brexit preferences came to light in December 2017 when the DUP rejected the British governments agreement to provide ‘regulatory alignment’ between Northern Ireland and the rest of the EU (via Ireland). Fearful of a special-status arrangement for Northern Ireland that would cut the region off from Great Britain via a supposed sea border, the DUP appeared to push more strenuously for a hard Brexit. It was at this time that British negotiators came to realise – a little more- that not only those of whom were propping up their government where the very people that had the potential to derail their expectations of fully departing the EU, but that Northern Ireland’s geo-political conditions held real political weight.
December 2017 marked a period in the negotiation process whereby UK negotiators not only had to deal with the constitutional complexity of the border issue and what it meant for North-South Relations, but also had to deal with the hardline preferences of the DUP who would refuse to let Great Britain leave the EU without Northern Ireland. Thus, at this point in the negotiation process, it was clear that Great Britain’s only escape from the EU was to effectively persuade the DUP to accept special-status for the region or leave Northern Ireland behind. Neither option was achievable. As of December 2017, Great Britain was so constrained by the hands of the DUP, as well as Northern Irish geo-political conditions that ‘full regulatory alignment’ for the whole of the UK seemed to be the only option. Nevertheless, whatever this undefined concept meant, it did not sound compatible with the style of Brexit that the electorate had voted for in June 2016. This added further complications to the process.
To no surprise, the negotiation process throughout the first half of 2018 was shaky beginning with the UK’s rejection of the draft withdrawal agreement in March 2018, as well as the re-emergence of ‘technical solution’ placed on the agenda and a then still undefined notion of regulatory alignment despite demands for a full departure from the EU single-market and customs union. By mid-2018, the utterance of ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland again received backlash from the DUP causing senior party members to question Theresa May’s motivation and reasoning. This was a rather myopic strategy given that DUP rejected regulatory alignment for Northern Ireland in December 2017 and was rather hostile with the notion of full UK-wide regulatory alignment throughout the early months of 2018. For the DUP, leave meant leave, and securing its place on the Brexit ship was imperative so that no soft Brexit approach could undermine its constitutional credibility as part of the UK or draw into question its future constitutional status.
For an anti-Brexit Europhile, after nearly two years of negotiating, the November 2018 withdrawal agreement is a welcome step in the soft Brexit direction. However, one cannot play down the fact that Britain is conceding defeat to its preferences due to its constraints. The deal is no doubt good for Ireland and its wider EU counterparts. It is even arguably the best deal for Northern Ireland from a European perspective. However, it fails to deliver the Brexit promised to Brexiteers and that does matter. The Brexit on offer by the agreement is removed from the seemingly hard-line Brexit preferences defended by May’s government since March 2017. Constrained by Northern Irish and party-political conditions, the UK is now prepared to effectively remain in the EU’s Customs Union – until a better deal comes along – that allows them to release themselves of their constraints, particularly those associated with Northern Ireland. However, such a prospect does not seem likely. It took nearly two years to achieve this deal and all other alternative options considered were deemed incompatible. At present, the only real option for the UK to fully depart from the EU – if even possible – is to shed itself of the Northern Irish weight it carries. This too would be a difficult task to achieve.
So this unearths an important question; if this withdrawal deal is passed by Westminster on the 11th of December, what may this mean for the UK? Quite simply, it places the UK on the periphery of the EU, but still very much ‘within’ the boundaries of that periphery. The UK will remain subject to EU trade rules and indirectly influenced by the EU’s rules pertaining to the single market as well as policies surrounding Economic Governance, all whilst the UK loses its influence at Brussels’ negotiating tables. EU immigrants will remain in the UK and financial contributions to the EU will continue to be made. As part of the Customs Union, the UK’s sovereignty in many respects remains pooled, yet the ability for the UK to influence the coordination and management of that sovereignty may be -in part – limited. In the end, the UK’s ambiguous departure from the EU may prove not only to be unsatisfactorily soft, but the extent of sovereignty which Brexiteers were promised and hoped to retrieve may not be realised any time soon, if perhaps ever.
In failing to deliver on what they promised, one can only wonder what consequences await the Tory party and wider political society in the UK. The government has failed in its mandate determined not only by the June 2016 Brexit referendum, but also in being re-elected after the June 2017 general election, albeit with the aid of the DUP. Full economic sovereignty has not been returned to the British people, the country has left the EU in all but name only, financial contributions will continue, and immigration is unlikely to reduce. As time passes, the reality of what was lost may become more apparent to Brexiteers. Grievances may run high and the forces behind Eurosceptic right-wing populism may only prove to intensify. The Tory party remains divided on Brexit, the government is constrained by its Northern Irish bed-fellows, the Labour party also remains divided on Brexit, and as an alternative to the Tories, it has little added potential to get a better deal. It is also unlikely that either party can get a deal which truly satisfies all Britons, both Brexiteers and Remainers. Thus, those Britons who have lost their chance at a real Brexit – at the hands of liberal mainstream party-politics – will likely look toward parties who are clearer and more united in their Brexit goals. This could easily pave the way for populist parties such as UKIP to achieve greater electoral successes in future and thus play an influential role in navigating the UK’s eventual exit from the EU. Lest we not forget, that it was supposedly UKIP that arguably won the 2016 referendum, so let us not assume that they would not win an election.