The UK and Europe

Forget a Brexit “deal”. It’s Brexeternity that lies ahead

Denis MacShane / Oct 2018

Photo: Shutterstock


Can we drop the word “deal” from our Brexit lexicon? In Brussels during the Tory Party conference I asked a French and a German business executive how they would translate “deal”. The Frenchman said “negotiation” – the same word as in English and the German paused for a moment and said “Vertrag” which means a contract or a treaty.

In Brexit English, the term “deal” is confusing. The UK is leaving an international treaty organisation – the European Union. The language of anti-European passion talks of a superstate, or a federal Europe, or assumes Angela Merkel has to lift a finger and all Europe follows her wishes. As the Germans say that is Quatsch – rubbish.  The EU is a precisely worded legal institution – a set of laws which its member states have agreed on and pledged to obey.

The European Court of Justice is there to uphold those laws – especially those governing the EU’s internal – in English the single – market which was only made operational when Margaret Thatcher forced through the abolition of national vetoes and moved the then European Community to a system of majority voting.

That was the giant transfer of competences – far greater than all the treaties – Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon that followed. By being in the EU its member states agree to live under rule of law in certain areas – aviation safety, chemical industry norms, or medicine safety to name but some.

The so-called four freedoms of movement – of capital, goods, services and citizens – are also set down in law.  Other countries have much higher shares of EU citizens living in their midst than Britain. Germany has nearly 7 million for example and as a share of population there are twice as many Poles in Ireland as in Britain.

But only in Britain, did the clamour against European “immigrants” reach the feverish heights that was previously associated with Enoch Powell’s denunciation 50 years ago of non-white immigrants who came into Britain from the Windrush generation onwards.

David Cameron appealed in vain to his fellow European Union leaders for Britain to be excused its legal obligation under Treaty law not to discriminate against other EU citizens.  Even if they wished to oblige – and most were puzzled at the British failure to register EU citizens, have ID cards, or allow so many to work for the state which is not required under FoM rules, or train sufficient doctors, nurses or skilled craft workers for Britain’s measurable needs – it was impossible for Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande to breach Treaty law.

Today, the main task set under Article 50 requirement is to leave an international Treaty. Last December Mrs May and Michel Barnier agreed that legal obligation would be met by Britain accepting its financial obligation, treating decently EU citizens in the UK and enshrining in international law that would be no physical or hard border between Northern Ireland, outside the EU Treaties, and Ireland inside them.

The latter point has proved difficult because of well-reported objections from hardline Ulster protestant identity politicians as those in England who want to play the Orange Brexit card. But for half a millennium England and now the UK has honoured its treaty obligations under the Latin tag pacta sunt servanda – treaties must be obeyed. Words can be found to bridge the gap between different lines emanating from Dublin, the DUP, and Brexit Tories. It is hard to imagine many MPs – especially Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-Irish Labour Party - voting for anything that hints of a return to tension and violence in Northern Ireland.

And a Withdrawal Agreement is really is all that can be achieved in the next weeks. The constant reference to a “deal” as if the 700 odd legal instruments which bind the UK to the rest of Europe and allow existing commerce, jointly funded research, the European Arrest Warrant, or millions of Brits to retire in warmer southern Europe will take years to re-negotiate.

Unless Mrs May decides to use a new public consultation to cut the Gordian knot of the total paralysis Brexit has imposed on British politics and government with the Labour Party just lying in the deckchairs of Westminster enjoying the spectacle of her disarray but unable to offer a single way out of the mess except the demand for a new election the language of a miracle “deal” by Christmas is just lazy.

There can be a Withdrawal Agreement, and a declaration about future negotiations during which the UK stays de facto part of the EU so travel, commerce, and existing arrangements continue but under the authority of the House of Commons.

Thereafter a Brexternity of difficult tetchy negotiations with the usual tiresome posturing and preening in the House of Commons stretches before us. There is no deal that can solve that and MPs yet unborn will be debating the exact nature of the relationship between the UK and Europe well into the 21st century.

Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane

October 2018

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