On April 12, the UK can officially withdraw from the EU, if the Parliament does not approve the government agreement on withdrawal. The House of Commons has already refused to support the agreement three times. Also during the evaluation votes, parliamentarians did not support any of the Brexit-related scenarios. And only on April 4, the Lower House of the British Parliament with a margin of one vote supported the government's initiative to address the EU with a request for a new Brexit delay.
On April 5, it became known that London is asking to postpone Brexit till June 30. At the same time, citing sources in Brussels, the media reported that the EU will offer a "flexible" delay of 12 months, which can be reduced. Some decision can be taken by the EU at a meeting of the European Council on April 10.
“Apostrophe” spoke about the situation with SIMON ASHERWOOD, Professor of political science at the University of Surrey and Deputy Director of the “UK in a Changing Europe” program of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
- What do you think of Theresa May's latest plan, which calls for a new postponement?
- It is a reflection of the extremely difficult situation in which May found herself. Until now, she had tried to get her own party to approve her plans. She now understands that some of her deputies will never support the agreement on withdrawal from the EU through the agreement on "backstop" (a mechanism designed to guarantee maximum openness of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, - "Apostrophe"). As a result, she needs to find out whether she can count on the support of the opposition - the Labour Party. The price for this will be some changes in the political declaration on possible future relations between the UK and the EU.
- During the last evaluation vote, the difference in some options was small: 3 votes for the idea to stay in the EU Customs Union and 12 votes for the confirming referendum. Do you expect that in case of a new vote the Parliament will support them?
- It's still very uncertain. If these options become part of the agreement between May and Corbin, then yes - perhaps they will be acceptable. But if the Parliament has to make a decision in the future without a government agreement, if May does not reach an agreement with Corbin, there will be evaluation voting. And we still don't know what will happen.
Everyone still believes that they can achieve the desired Brexit option (or lack thereof), and see no reason to compromise.
- That id because they believe that they can achieve this before April 12 or do they hope for another delay?
- A new postponement is necessary, because until April 12, the UK must submit a plan. And for this it is necessary for the Parliament to support the agreement. But it also takes more time for legislative work to translate the agreement into British law. It would take weeks. That is why Theresa May yesterday (April 2, - "Apostrophe") said that the EU would ask for another delay - after April 12 and until May 22. Parliament's support for the agreement is not enough for the decision to withdraw from the EU to enter into force. The delay will be necessary, even if the UK accepts the agreement now.
- What could be the conditions of the EU for an additional delay?
- The EU does not want to give more time for this process if it does not get the plan. It is the UK plan that will be a condition of postponement. Another one is that the United Kingdom is not preparing to hold the European elections on May 23, so that there will be no question about the legitimacy of the new European Parliament. Another condition would probably be that if the UK wants to follow the path suggested by Theresa May, Parliament should approve the agreement before Monday, because a meeting of the European Council is scheduled for Wednesday. And until then, the EU needs to know that the UK is demonstrating the seriousness of its plans - that is, it needs action, not just words.
- What do you expect from the EU in this dialogue - compliance or rigidity?
- While there is compassion to the UK, the recognition that this is a very difficult situation. But this sympathy is probably less than before. It is really striking that the EU is now saying much more that it is ready for the UK to exit without an agreement; it is saying that there is no more time for this drama – decisions are required. I think that the EU is trying to treat with understanding, while protecting its own interests. And this is very clearly seen in the European elections: if the UK does not prepare for them, it will be difficult to expect further delays.
- What Brexit scenario do you think is the most likely one?
- Ultimately, the exit agreement will be approved, although I do not know when. So far, many politicians and members of the British public have not really understood that all discussions about future relations depend on the approval of the exit agreement: it is necessary to get out before it is possible to start negotiations on future relations. And this agreement is the only possibility agreed between Britain and the EU to withdraw. And during the transition period there will be a new big debate about what the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU might be.
It is still poorly understood what options are available for Britain. A new referendum is unlikely; general elections are only slightly likely. That is our position.
- What are the real dangers, because of which part of the deputies has such a strong position on the mechanism of "backstop"?
- There are two components. The first one is that the Northern Ireland deputies are concerned that this puts Northern Ireland in a different position when compared to the rest of the United Kingdom. For supporters of Northern Ireland belonging to Britain, any changes in the situation are unacceptable. They fear that this is a step towards Northern Ireland either joining the Republic of Ireland or gaining independence in some way.
Another problem is that the "backstop" structure means that the UK and EU agreements are needed to stop its application. Therefore, probably, many MPs believe that this is some kind of trap that "backstop" is the way the EU wants to see the relationship in the long term, and therefore they always refuse to stop its action.
I understand both concerns, but the EU has made it clear that “backstop” is not a good mechanism, as it creates a lot of technical and legal problems for them. And the Irish government has made it very clear that this is not part of a plan to take Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. So a lot depends on who and what you believe.
- What will be the main consequences if the UK leaves the EU without an agreement?
- The main consequence will be a huge mess: economic destabilization; long delays at the borders; interruptions in the supply of goods for business, food, especially fresh food; some contacts will probably be impossible to fulfill; people's rights will be in a very uncertain situation.
There will also be political devastation: an exit without an agreement will mean that both parties (that is, the EU and the UK, - "Apostrophe") will be accused of what happened.
This does not mean that the UK will collapse, but we will need to restore relations. The EU and the UK will remain very close, and they will have to look for a relationship. The EU has made it clear that in the event of a withdrawal without an agreement, it will be a priority for them to try again to resolve the termination of UK membership: this concerns issues of financial obligations, protection of the open border in Northern Ireland. That is, everything that is in the exit agreement will remain a priority for the EU in the discussion of future relations.
Britain will understand that its relations with the EU will be extremely difficult for a long time, if there is no agreement.
And it will have its price for Britain in the world: other countries may wonder whether it is a reliable partner with whom it is necessary to develop relations.
- What is your vision of the prospects of the Conservative party after Brexit or in the case of another delay? And what will happen to the government?
- The government is in a very weak position. It is obvious that Theresa May is not believed in much. At the meantime her situation is safe, but at some point she may feel that she can not continue to remain in office.
The Conservative party cannot agree on what should be done. There are many disagreements within the party, which are not easy for Theresa May and the new leader to overcome. That is, politics and leadership are questionable. And who will replace Theresa May? There is no one in the party who seems to be a leader capable of uniting it. But there will be a big skirmish between supporters of hard and soft approaches. And it is not clear who will win.
- What consequences will the whole story of Brexit have for the Parliament and the government in the context of what people think about their work?
- The real danger is that it makes a very bad impression about politics and politicians. It is already clear that the public considers the talks bad, that the government and the EU have done a bad job. And there is a risk that because of this, people will turn away from politics and participation in it. There is an obvious danger that in months or years there will be some populist who will say that all this is bad, and radical changes are necessary.
Most people are tired of this process, but also understand that it is important and they want politicians to do a good job.