Tomorrow is a critical day because it is when Parliament will debate the amendment to delay Brexit. It may or may not pass, but if it does it opens up a new can of worms.
One of the repeated complaints from both Remainers in Parliament and businesses in the country is that the current situation is doing damage to the economy because it is creating uncertainty, which is debilitating. It saps confidence and encourages the postponement of decisions. So surely people from both sides of the debate can agree that it would be a good thing if uncertainty could be dispelled.
But how is that achieved if Brexit is delayed? Uncertainty would be prolonged. And there is every chance that a delay would bring no resolution. After all, the European parliamentary elections are in May and they will absorb pretty much the full attention of the Brussels establishment. After the elections, that establishment will go into suspension as it departs for the summer holidays, allowing precious little time before the end of the year to get any change out of Brussels and to forge the necessary compromises here in Parliament. Meanwhile, we would all have been wracked by a combination of boredom, fatigue, exasperation and anger.
Of course, many of those who press the case for delaying Brexit in reality want it to be dropped altogether. Yet, such a blatant betrayal of the 2016 referendum would cause profound uncertainty. The greatest fear of both businesses and investors is not some sort of Brexit that they don’t like – “hard”, “soft”, immediate or delayed – but rather the prospect of a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn.
Delaying Brexit, with or without the prospect of a second referendum, accentuates this danger, never mind the prospect of both major parties splitting. Indeed, the only way to significantly reduce uncertainty is to leave the EU on March 29, as scheduled. Admittedly, a no-deal exit would not eliminate it altogether because there would still be uncertainty about how successful we would be in securing free-trade agreements (FTAs) with countries around the world, as well as with the EU. There is such uncertainty even under Mrs May’s deal because it fails to pin down the future trade relationship between the UK and the EU. Indeed, if Mrs May’s deal eventually passes, we can look forward to a protracted period of wrangling during the 21-month transition period.
Actually, there may be another way to reduce the uncertainty and to banish many of the fears of Remainers about the costs of Brexit. It has been advocated by David Campbell Bannerman, the Conservative MEP, and is supported by the academic and entrepreneur Michael Burrage. They point out that it is possible, if both the UK and EU agree, for us to carry on trading with each other without imposing tariffs while an FTA is negotiated. Under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules this is permitted by Article 24 of the GATT Treaty. According to the legal expert Martin Howe QC, we can even achieve this result by operating a provisional or temporary FTA involving zero tariffs.
If we did this, the anxiety about tariffs being imposed on our trade with the EU would go out the window. Equally, the absence of tariff barriers would reduce delays and frictions at borders.
So why didn’t the Government pursue this option straight away? And why is it not pursuing it now? Is there some legal barrier that would prevent us from doing so? If not, did the Government eschew this route because it thought that Mrs May’s “deep and special partnership” with the EU would be preferable – and that it would be achievable? Or was the Government worried that a temporary FTA with the EU would prevent us from signing FTAs with the rest of the world? Or is this apparent rejection of the temporary FTA option simply another manifestation of the establishment’s wish to sabotage Brexit altogether?
Let us be charitable. Perhaps the explanation is that the Government believed that the EU would never agree. If true, this would be highly significant, for European businesses would have strongly supported a zero-tariff temporary arrangement and surely they would have put intense pressure on their governments, and hence on the European Commission.
Moreover, if the EU really wouldn’t have agreed to it then and still wouldn’t agree to it now, I can think of no clearer demonstration of warped EU politics trumping economic self-interest.
But I can advance another suggestion for reducing uncertainty, only half in jest. My proposal is that the Leavers agree to a second referendum provided that two conditions are met. First, we leave on March 29 either with no deal or with the temporary FTA discussed above. Second, the referendum must be held two years after March 29.
Amongst other things, this would solve the vexed issue of the question to be asked in the referendum. It would have to be “Should the UK remain outside the EU or rejoin it?” This has the delicious irony that Leavers would then become Remainers.
Of course, it could be argued that my proposal would also increase uncertainty because the result of the referendum, and hence Britain’s eventual destination, would be unknown for two years. But in practice this isn’t true. Does anyone seriously believe that, having “crashed out” of the EU and suffered ordeal by “border frictions” and all the other nonsense, and found, surprise, surprise, that all was well, people would vote to rejoin the EU? Of course not.
The Remain position has gained support from a combination of inertia and fear of the unknown. We never voted to join the EU in the first place and in 2016, despite all the uncertainties and propaganda, we voted to leave it. If we held a referendum two years after we had successfully left, it would hardly be worth bothering to count the votes.
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