Brexit Debacle Continues
The UK government is continuing with the pretence that it is negotiating with Brussels to resolve the impasse over the Northern Ireland backstop provisions in the withdrawal agreement. Hard-line Brexiters in the (just about) ruling Conservative Party and its backers in the DUP are adamant that the backstop arrangement must be removed from the deal or that the UK be given either a time limit on its applicability or the ability to leave it in a unilateral fashion. The backstop is intended to avoid the implementation of a “hard” border on the island of Ireland which is a requirement of the Good Friday Agreement which brought “The Troubles” to an end when paramilitary groups agreed to follow the path of peace.
The obvious elephant in the room is that a backstop which is time limited or can be unilaterally scrapped isn’t a backstop. Whilst neither the EU or the UK envisage a situation where the backstop would become a permanent feature, this is not enough for the purists. This means that the UK’s Attorney General and Brexit Secretary have been visiting Brussels in the hope of a fanciful breakthrough which could satisfy the DUP and ERG and give the withdrawal agreement a chance of passing through the Commons. It is a political unicorn safari.
May is pledged to offer another “meaningful vote” on her deal on or before 12th March. If it fails, parliament will vote to determine if a “no deal” exit is acceptable (it isn’t). Then they would vote to instruct the PM to ask Brussels for an extension of the A50 notice period. This would require the unanimous agreement of the remaining EU member states and it is not a foregone conclusion that it will be granted. Should that happen, the UK would have the choice between a disorderly Brexit or rescinding its A50 notification.
In the event that the EU grants an extension, some suggest that it would only do so for a lengthy period (21 months is mentioned); others think it could run until the EU parliament reconvenes after European elections (July 1st) since the UK would have no MEPs after that date which generates legal issues. The French position (currently) is that it would only agree to an extension if there was substantive change in the UK: either a change in May’s red lines, or a further referendum. However, the situation is fluid and UK politics is the most volatile it has been in a generation.