Issue 195: 2019 03 28: Aaargh!

L0011212 "The scream". Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images [email protected] "The scream". Lithograph 1895 By: Edvard MunchPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

28 March 2019


Brexit Postponed

By John Watson

Aaargh.  No, Aaaargh!!!!!!!!  Only a day or so ago the Brexit debate seemed to be coming to an end with the EU refusing to move the date from 29 March unless Mrs May’s deal was agreed.  That cut down the options.  No chance of further negotiation, no time for a referendum.  A simple binary choice “deal or no deal”.  All the posturing would have to stop and, in the absence of any enthusiasm for no deal, the Government’s agreement would go through and we would all move on.  Plenty of room for argument over trade deals in the future, but stage one done and dusted.  Mrs M could then retire in glory leaving her successor to deal with the next stage in a constructive and consensual way.

That is how it should have gone but it didn’t, of course.  The EU lost its nerve and extended the deadline.  Now we have until 12 April even if Mrs May’s deal does not get through.  That is a whole fortnight away, so out of the cupboards jump all the usual suspects crying “have our cake and eat it”, “cancel the article 50 notice”, “call a further referendum”, “we need a Canada style arrangement with or without the ice and lemon”, and goodness knows what else.  The “referendum people” continue to march and the “withdraw the article 50 notice people” continue to sign their petition.  Or is it the other way around?

Worse still, it could all slide further.  Suppose there are “meaningful talks” before the 12th?  Will the EU really bring the curtain down?  We have always known that they were afraid of no deal.  That is only natural with the Eurozone economy not far off contraction and ill able to afford damage to its sales to the UK, but we had assumed that they would take the risk of holding the deadline, especially as the likely result would be to push the deal through.  Alas, they have flinched once and there must be a possibility that they will flinch again, or that is how the pundits will reason, so everyone has put his or her favourite outcome back onto the table and an attempt has been made to choose between them through a series of indicative votes.  Of course it failed.  Aaaaargh!

At the very beginning of this process, we and others made the point that, despite its political context, this is in the end a negotiation and any experienced commercial negotiator will tell you that difficult deals are done at the last possible moment.  Put that moment back, take off the pressure and you lose the imperative for agreement.  Back into the morass it all slides.  Aaaaaargh!

Arlene Foster seems to have recognised this with her comment that you do your deal when you can see the whites of the other side’s eyes.  A few days ago we were there, but no longer.  We will have to go again through the process of identifying options and everyone losing patience with each other before a deal can be agreed.

There is one possible escape from this.  If the EU allowed us the 22 weeks or so necessary to hold a referendum there would be a distant light at the end of the tunnel.  That may seem a good way to resolve things but it would only work if the options offered to the public were genuinely available.  Cue for plenty of proposals from assorted windbags who are sure their pet version would be acceptable to the EU and think it should appear on the ballot.  “I had very constructive talks with Mr Barnier over a delicious glass of Burgundy and he was definitely in favour….”  Aaaaaaargh!

And so it will all flow on until there is a real deadline and that is where the danger lies.  If that moment is not recognised there is a risk that we slip over the edge and end up without a deal at all simply because no one realised that the now or never point had been reached.  That could be a disaster but in fact a much worse disaster has already occurred.  I set my return to the UK from the Southern Hemisphere for 6 April on the basis that Brexit would have occurred by then.  Now it won’t and everyone will still be arguing about it.  Aaaaaaaargh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


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