Rayhan Ahmed Topader:
As British MEP Daniel Hannan puts it, if the Founding Fathers had followed Britain’s approach, they would have asked King George III to negotiate their exit from the British Empire, and when he said no, they would have put 1776 on hold until he agreed.Cutting the ties that bind the UK to the EU was never going to be easy. But it would have been much easier if Theresa May’s government had taken the EU’s occasional hint that the two sides should negotiate a free trade area.Admittedly, hints are not an offer, much less a deal. Britain’s House of Commons has voted to request a delay in Britain’s exit from the European Union. It’s like a kid who removes a band-aid slowly hoping it’ll hurt less. Far better to rip it off and be done with it. The people of the United Kingdom voted in June 2016 to leave the EU. Both major parties pledged to support that in June 2017. But currently the Commons can’t muster a majority either to support the lousy exit deal the British government has negotiated with the EU or to just bail out of the EU without a deal. So Britain, says the Commons, cannot stay, and yet it cannot go.Get exclusive insider information from Heritage experts delivered straight to your inbox each week.Subscribe to The Agenda It’s a ridiculous position. And a UK-EU free trade area would not have given Brussels the regulatory hold over Britain it cherishes.
So the EU might well have turned its back on its hints when Britain got down to brass tacks.But the advantages of a free trade area are so compelling that Britain was foolish not to jump at the EU’s suggestion. Instead, London has trapped itself in a dead end of pursuing a partial customs union with the EU, an approach that has all the EU’s many disadvantages and very few of its limited benefits. May’s approach to Brexit reflects most of the fixations that have blighted Britain’s efforts to come to terms with the EU over the decades. There is Britain’s refusal to recognize that the EU is basically a political institution, not an economic one, and so it can be expected to treat a customs union as a way to impose political controls on Britain. There is London’s obsession with European markets at the expense of the wider and faster-growing world. And there is the malign influence of big business on British policy-making. British big businesses like the world as it is including the EU because this is the world in which they got big.The May exit deal is not about solving the problem of the Irish border. A UK/EU free trade area would solve that in a minute. The May exit deal is about trying to salvage as much of the EU’s world as possible for big business. And that means a customs union with the EU.
If Britain leaves the EU without a deal, it has already announced it will cut most of its tariffs to zero. This would be a major, unilateral boost for free trade. And British big business, embodied in the Confederation of British Industries (CBI), hates that. On Wednesday, they claimed that a turn to free trade would be a “sledgehammer for the economy.” It’s the CBI’s safety-first interests that have shaped Britain’s negotiations with the EU. The British government is dominated by politicians who do not want the U.K. to leave the EU. But it has also been dominated by an approach that favors a few big businesses over the many smaller ones. It favors the few producers who export to the EU over the many consumers who import from everywhere. All of these priorities are completely wrong. And together, they have backed the U.K. into a corner. The Commons has voted to kick the can down the road, but that will not solve the fundamental problem: the only deal the EU is now willing to offer is unacceptable to the U.K.Leaving the EU was always going to hurt a bit. But British business will adapt that is what business does. Begging the EU to offer a better exit deal is a losing game, because the EU now has no incentive to do so. Yet the right goal remains a free trade area between the U.K. and the EU. To get there, the U.K. will have to prove that it is willing to stand on its own. And that means Britain must rip off the band-aid, exit the EU without a deal and then approach the EU not as a supplicant.
The chronic uncertainty facing the economy and business will be prolonged.The small margin of safety that existed between our scheduled exit and the hardstop of the European elections will be eaten up. As Mr Lidington said, it makes it more likely that we go off the cliff of a no-deal. That’s why the Brexiteers pushing for that outcome have banked it with a smile. Even in the grim story of her handling of Brexit, the past 24 hours have been a low point.She started yesterday with a plan to ask for a delay to the end of this year. Then the Brexiteer faction in her Cabinet staged a revolt. She is now so weak a Prime Minister that she was unable to sum up the discussion of the meeting she’s paid to chair.The letter she was supposed to send to Brussels in the afternoon with the formal request for a delay never materialised. This morning the collapse in her position was complete. Downing Street said she’d only be asking for a short delay.So why is Mrs May making this downright reckless ask of the EU? One word: survival. Her only objective now is to stay alive and put off the reckoning for a week. When asked to choose between the interests of her party and her country, she has picked neither. Now her fate lies in the hands of the European leaders she has publicly blamed for her own failures.They may well grant a stay of execution.
A couple of months delay costs them next to nothing.But there will be those in the EU tempted to force the issue. Why shouldn’t they insist that if there is a delay, it’s a long one? That’s what Donald Tusk was suggesting a week ago.At least that would give time for the proper rethink that both the hard Brexiteers and the People’s Vote campaigners seek. Or, if they really wanted to play hardball, the EU could refuse any delay and force Britain now to confront this question: leave without a deal, or revoke Article 50 and remain. For today, Mrs May has made that ultimate choice much more likely. But as an independent nation with both the desire and the power to negotiate a free trade area.The problem is not stating that as a goal. It is finding British politicians with the courage to pursue it and the vision to seek a better outcome to Brexit than the dull preservation of the status quo. But David Lidington is one of the sane and sensible voices left in the heart of Downing Street. He became Theresa May’s effective deputy after she fired Damian Green and William Hague turned down her entreaties to do the job. Six days ago he said this in Parliament about the idea of asking for a two- to three-month delay to Brexit: In the absence of a deal, seeking such a short and, critically, one-off extension would be downright reckless. It would, he warned MPs, make a no-deal scenario far more rather than less likely.
Six days later that downright reckless path is the one that his Prime Minister has chosen. We are told she will be asking the EU for a delay in our departure date from March 29 until the early summer.She does so with no prospect in sight of passing her deal through Parliament which she herself last week set as a condition for seeking a delay. Far from it. The Speaker has told her that she can’t put that same deal to the vote again, and the EU has told her that it is not re-opening negotiations that might change that deal. Such a short delay will achieve nothing for the country. Quite the reverse.
Writer and Columnist