While the UK’s parliament debates the EU Withdrawal Bill, its government is pursuing a post-Brexit deal on the continent. On both fronts, the decision Britons took to leave the EU is under threat. Indeed, their government has precious little wiggle room to deliver, but it still has a few aces up its sleeve.
Let’s start with the threats.
At home, the British government is holding fast as its EU Withdrawal Bill—formerly the Great Repeal Bill—is debated in Parliament. The bill’s basic intention is to repeal the European Communities Act (which marked the UK’s accession to the European Communities), and replace all EU laws pertaining to the UK with domestic laws, so as to smooth transition out of the bloc. Predictably, hundreds of amendments have been proposed, many by anti-Brexit MPs.
In and of itself, the notion of revising or clarifying aspects of a law is a good thing. Indeed, thoughtful debate of elements such as the government’s potential abuse of powers allowing it to re-write laws without Parliament benefits everyone in Britain. However, some amendments give a strong impression that those proposing them aim to frustrate Brexit, or prevent it altogether. For example, anti-Brexit MPs from the Welsh Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party tabled an amendment that would have forced the British government to win the consent of devolved administrations before repealing EU laws.
Across the English Channel, another front has opened since the triggering of Article 50 formally set in motion the Brexit process. Since June, Brexit Secretary David Davis and his team of negotiators have faced off with EU counterparts to hammer out the details of the UK’s departure, as well the future UK-EU relationship.
Though progress has been made on certain subjects, such as the rights of EU citizens living in the UK (and vice-versa), the EU refuses to discuss the future trade relationship without knowing how much the UK is willing to pay for EU budgetary commitments it made while still a member.
Of course, there is a certain logic to ensuring Britain maintain financial commitments already made, but the EU’s approach so far has verged on extortion. For instance, when asked what he thought of the 20 billion euros tentatively offered by Britain to settle its books, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani simply replied “it’s peanuts”. No reason was provided, nor even a clear principle; to Tajani, it just wasn’t enough.
This line has been held across the EU, from Germany to France. EU Council President Donald Tusk even went so far as to issue an ultimatum to British Prime Minister Theresa May in a recent meeting. If the UK does not offer substantially more than what is already tabled, discussions cannot progress.
On both the domestic and continental fronts, Brexit Britain faces formidable foes, bent not on amicable withdrawal but on nothing less than a complete reversal of the largest democratic mandate in British history.
And yet, every cloud has a silver lining.
In Westminster, the government knows that one of the hardest parts of the job is already done. That is, Article 50 has been triggered, and the UK will be leaving the EU by March 2019. Even if its own amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill—calling for a legally enshrined date of depature—is voted down, only unanimous consent between the UK and all 27 EU member states could extend the deadline. As such, any major attempts to frustrate the Withdrawal Bill in Parliament ultimately damage Britain, making even the most ardent europhile MPs think twice about scuttling it.
On the continent, UK negotiators know that they have far more leverage than Brussels would like them to think. The British position rests on one team representing one government. Opposite them is a team dependent on unanimity across 27 EU capitals. So far, this unanimity has held, but as March 2019 looms ever closer, domestic politicians in the EU—particularly in Germany—are feeling pressure from businesses to maintain trade with one of their primary trading partners.
Speaking recently at an economic conference in Berlin, Davis implied that if anyone will flinch first in negotiations, it will be the EU. In a no-deal scenario, all parties lose. However, with the prospect of numerous trade deals lined up following Brexit, the British government knows that the EU ultimately has more at stake.
The war on Brexit is cause for worry to any who believe in nation-state democracy, or the right of all peoples to self-determination. Indeed, more fronts seem to be opening than closing. Nevertheless, there is good reason to hope that the democratic mandate handed to British lawmakers by 17.4 million Britons will ultimately be carried out.