Brexiteers waited for 20 years to get Brexit — Surely they can wait a few more years to get it right

Whatever “Brexit bill” Theresa May puts to Parliament following the 24th January’s Supreme Court decision, Parliament should reject if it triggers Article 50 before reaching a transitional agreement with the EU.

First, let us begin by establishing two principles:

  • Principle #1: Brexit must happen, in order to respect the democratic choice of the British people. Note that whether one agrees or not with this, what follows still holds.
  • Principle #2: acknowledging that Brexit, being the most major diplomatic, economic and trade policy shift in the UK in four decades, is no benign event and should happen orderly. Rejecting this principle seriously overlooks the complexities of running a major developed state, and its interdependences with its European partners, on the economy, trade, regulation, immigration and defence.
    No serious policymaker/diplomat disputes today that a brutal, “overnight” Brexit would cause serious disruption, as European and European-transposed law and treaties would be replaced by a vacuum of legal uncertainty — certainly unworthy of Britain’s status as foremost global haven of the rule of law.
    In more practical terms, EU citizens would wake up with uncertainty about their residency status and whether they need a visa. Companies would wake up with uncertainty about their manufacturing costs (due to the absence of trade agreement with EU countries where most of their industrial inputs and feedstocks are coming from), about whether their European patents (filed within a unified system that took decades to negotiate) are valid, etc. 
    Principle #2 can thus be summarized as follows: an orderly Brexit, and avoiding the vacuum of legal uncertainty caused by the absence thereof, is in Britain’s national interest. (If you think otherwise, you will most likely disagree with the remainder of this note.)
    It derives from Principle #2 that since triggering Article 50 before reaching an (even transitional) agreement with the EU bears the risk of an overnight Brexit, such course of action should never be contemplated.

It is understandable that Theresa May should seek to reaffirm her commitment to honour the British people’s will to leave the European Union, if only to avert Remainers’ temptation of asking for a new referendum. It is understandable that tactics should be part of such reaffirmation (one can notably think of the “forceful” rhetoric at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last October). However, committing to a sequence of action (triggering Article 50 before a transitional agreement is reached) entailing such a strong risk of an overly adverse outcome (overnight Brexit) defies logic.

The conundrum Britain is facing is the following: Theresa May’s political interest is to demonstrate progress on Brexit to voters at any cost, even at the expense of an orderly, rational process — which as per Principle #2 above, is detrimental to the country.

Fast forward to the 2020 General Election. Imagine the Conservative Party running without the dust having settled on Britain’s future relationship with the EU. Or worse: without Article 50 having been triggered. One can only imagine the political cross-fire Ms May’s party would be caught under:

  • On one side, Labour accusing the Conservatives of having triggered a mess without fixing it (if Mr Corbyn’s disastrous leadership ends in favour a less anti-capitalist, more European tone).
  • On the other side, UKIP vindicating the Tories for having “betrayed the will of the British people” by not having yet delivered on their sovereign decision (Interestingly, three weeks ago Nigel Farage vowed “political earthquake if Theresa May betray[ed] Brexit”).

One can hardly imagine a positive electoral outcome for the Conservative Party in such situation (and I did not even assume that such prolonged political uncertainty might have adverse economic consequences, lest I be accused of scaremonging).

It is therefore very telling that Brexit Secretary Davis’ reaction to the Supreme Court decision was the following:

  • [the legislation put to Parliamentary vote will be] “the most straightforward bill possible to give the decision of the people and respect the Supreme Court judgement”.
  • He stressed “I trust no-one will use it as a vehicle for attempts to thwart the will of the people or to frustrate or delay the process”.

The word “DELAY” here is revealing of the biased way this Government is dealing with the Brexit situation.

Indeed, last time I checked, the British people did not vote 52% for the latter proposition of “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union as quickly as possible and with no regard for its own interest?”. Therefore, voluntarily mixing up, as Mr Davis in his speech, giving up on Brexit (which would be contrary to Principle #1 above) and delaying Brexit (which is simply safeguarding the British people’s interest as per Principle #2 above) is obfuscation.

Such obfuscation might lead the Downing Street to put to Parliament the following, simplistic bill (which Mr Davis would probably tout “straightforward” as per his reaction reported above):

“The Parliament hereby authorizes the Government to trigger Article 50 for Britain to leave the European Union, pursuant to the will of the British people expressed in the 23rd June 2016 referendum.”

  • Such bill would amount to Parliament effectively relinquishing all sovereignty regarding the specifics of Brexit to the Government. Indeed №10 could then trigger Article 50 without having previously reached any agreement (even transitional) with the EU, which is a terrible negotiation position to be in and could result in a “very hard Brexit” (the “legal vacuum” described in Principle #2 above).
    Therefore, any Parliament in its right mind should reject such a simplistic bill.
  • Such bill would amount to putting a political gun to the Parliament’s head, by trying to create the following biased optics if/when MPs reject the bill: Dear British people, you voted for Brexit, I asked Parliament to allow me to execute on Brexit as per your sovereign will, they refused. [Subliminal message: please feel free to vote out these Remainer MPs at the next election.]

Is this political fiction, and am I pre-judging this Government for intentions it may not have?

We will know soon enough, but interestingly, putting a political gun to the Parliament’s head is exactly what Ms May tried to do in her speech on 17th January (last Tuesday), when she confirmed she intended to trigger Article 50 first, then negotiate an agreement with the EU, and announced she would put said agreement to both houses’ votes.

  • It is unanimously acknowledged that such agreement with the EU would be long and difficult to reach within 2 years, if possible at all (Reminder: the UK would be in a very unfavourable negotiation position).
  • Should such agreement be reached, it would probably be reached weeks, if not days, before the Article 50 2-year deadline expiry — in other words, this agreement would come to Parliament with a big, fat sticker reading “TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT”.
  • As a result, Parliament would be coerced into accepting whatever agreement the Government puts forward to them, knowing that their choice would very explicitly be “this Agreement or chaos”. Indeed rejecting said agreement would implicitly have Parliament being held responsible for the ensuing expiry of Article 50 2-year deadline without an agreement, and the subsequent legal vacuum.

By pledging to put whatever agreement she would reach with the EU to both houses votes, Ms May tried to alleviate the concerns that triggering Article 50 imminently would disregard Parliamentary sovereignty. Thankfully, the Supreme Court did not fall for such obfuscation: what is put to Parliament vote, rather than is any vote being held in Parliament on the matter, is the key question.

The specifics of Brexit, much more than the decision to leave itself, are the nation’s most crucial choice in four decades. As such, Parliament must retain sovereignty on them, rather than relinquish it to the Government (whether or not it is in favour of a Government led by a Prime Minister not having run as party leader herself in a general election is beside the point).

Therefore, should Ms May ask for Parliamentary approval for Article 50 being triggered before the end of March as she announced, Parliament’s only sensible course of thought and action, should be:

  1. Does the imminent triggering of Article 50 requested by the Government come with a detailed enough plan to manage the transition of the UK out of the European Union
    (note: mentioning 11 times “global Britain” as Ms May did in her Lancaster House speech does not qualify a plan as “detailed enough”).
  2. Triggering Article 50 without such plan creates a meaningful risk of an adverse EU negotiation outcome for the UK and the British people, including an overnight Brexit.
  3. Therefore, Parliament rejects the immediate triggering of Article 50.
  4. The Government is invited to resubmit its request when it has a detailed enough plan to manage the transition of the UK out of the European Union. It is welcome to take as much time as required to reach an agreement that addresses the following fundamental question: what PRECISE arrangements will replace the UK’s current EU membership from trade, immigration, regulation, defence and intellectual property perspectives?

As Nigel Farage said himself, Brexiteers waited for 20 years to get Brexit. Surely they can wait a few more years to get it right in the interest of the British people.