NBC: Brexit's six months away -- and looking like a disaster

And you thought Washington is dysfunctional. (NARRATOR: It is.) Twenty-seven months after Britons voted to exit the European Union, the deadline for Brexit is now just six months away — and no one still has any idea how it will work. NBC provided an update this weekend marking the march to the deadline, as well as an utter lack of progress in negotiating it and few new ideas for breaking the impasse:

The U.K. is due to quit the 28-country trading and political bloc in just six months, on March 29, but British and European leaders have yet to agree on a plan for an orderly exit.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s grip on power is weaker than ever after her latest proposals were rejected by the E.U. and hard-line lawmakers within her own party have threatened to rebel. …

Many were convinced that repatriated powers to stem immigration, strike independent trade deals and slash E.U. regulation would boost Britain’s fortunes.

But a slew of issues remain unresolved, including customs and tariffs, medicine and aviation regulation, fishing rights and the thorny problem of what happens to the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which is part of the E.U. The border has a long history of past sectarian conflict.

A slew of issues remain unresolved not just between the EU and the UK, not just between the political parties of the UK, but also within the Conservative Party tasked with conducting Brexit. More than two years after taking on the mission, there remains a deep divide as to how much exit Britons should get from Brexit. The Tories are conferencing this weekend to map out their strategy, and the divide seems as wide between them as it does between the UK and EU.

Boris Johnson kicked it off yesterday by publishing a new Brexit plan that is based in significant part on the idea that the UK could eventually back away from its promise to prevent a hard border in Ireland. Johnson based it on the relationship Canada has with the EU, but that lacks one particular issue — a shared border:

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Johnson outlined a six-point alternative plan, that would scrap a backstop agreement struck with the European Union last December over the contentious Irish border.

He argued that adopting technology and making customs checks away from the frontier would prevent a return to a hard border — a sticking point in negotiations and a key factor in May’s proposal.

Johnson called for Britain and the EU to negotiate a free trade agreement — dubbed “Super Canada” — mirroring the deal the bloc signed with Ottawa in 2016.

It removed the vast majority of customs duties on exports crossing the Atlantic.

He conceded that negotiating such an agreement, which would aim for mutual recognition of standards to keep goods moving and also include services, may require extending any Brexit transition period beyond 2020.

The parallel to Canada would likely be understood by the EU as their idea of a “Super Canada,” which would be to keep Northern Ireland in the EU Customs Union. That would put the EU/UK border in the Irish Sea, which Theresa May has strenuously rejected. Her government blasted Johnson for his recklessness in pushing what essentially would mean a no-deal Brexit, as well as for reneging on promises Johnson made while in the government:

Furious ministers rounded on Boris Johnson for suggesting the UK could renege on its Brexit agreements over the Irish border, calling it unworkable and criticising the former foreign secretary for denouncing agreements made while he was a cabinet minister. …

Chris Heaton-Harris, the Brexit minister, hit back at Johnson on Friday evening, saying: “This is not a workable or negotiable plan for Brexit – as both sides have made clear on several occasions. No deal is available without a guarantee that there would be no hard border in Northern Ireland in any eventuality, the so-called Irish backstop.”

A government source also dismissed Johnson’s criticism of the December agreement. “Boris was a member of the cabinet that agreed the December joint report – and praised the PM for doing so – and was part of the committee that agreed the customs backstop,” the source said.

That’s not the only fundamental conflict on tap this weekend as Brexit stumbles into its home stretch. Some Tories now want a second referendum to see whether the inability to strike a deal might impact whether Britons still support Brexit. Former PM Sir John Major first called for a second referendum in February and is raising the question again this weekend. At least one Tory MP, Heidi Allen, says it’s necessary largely because of Johnson and his allies:

Allen told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme she would still support in principle an “11th hour” deal hammered out by the prime minister, but many in the party, especially on the right, would not.

Describing them as “fiscally and economically irresponsible”, she said: “They have behaved unacceptably through this and have completely tied her hands.

“It is they who have made Chequers dead and that being the case – they have made their position totally clear – then I think that it is the end of the road, which is very disappointing and for me leaves us with no alternative other than asking, should we come to that and no deal … then we need to go back to the public to decide what they want us to do next.”

Allen’s comments came as the former prime minister John Major made the case for another vote and described attacks made by some Tory MPs over May’s leadership as “completely unacceptable”.

Meanwhile, the prospect of a crash-out Brexit is raising talk of independence from England — not just in Scotland, but also now in Wales. The leader of the nationalist party Plaid Cymru predicts another Great Depression under a no-deal Brexit and wants to have Wales cut its own deal:

Adam Price, in an interview with the Guardian after replacing Leanne Wood as leader on Friday, said he backed the idea of a people’s vote on Brexit and that a “remain” option should be on the ballot paper.

But if a no-deal Brexit did bring about an economic crisis it could prompt more people in Wales to come to the conclusion that independence from Westminster may be the best option, he said. …

The 50-year-old said: “We have to take every opportunity to end the cataclysm that is heading our way. If we are able to get a people’s vote we should take that opportunity and ‘remain’ should be on the ballot.

“If we don’t avoid a no-deal Brexit, we are going to see an unravelling of the Welsh economy on a 1930s scale because of the importance of agriculture and manufacturing on our economy.

“We’re about stopping it but if it happens it will be a crisis on a huge level. We will have to think how best to defend ourselves in those circumstances and that may accelerate the path towards independence. It may be then that the people of Wales will want to move faster towards independence.”

This was always a risk in pushing nationalist within a federated kingdom such as the UK. Scotland has been agitating for independence even before Brexit, losing on a referendum before that but not by an overwhelming amount. The Scots opposed Brexit, however, and the failure to find a workable deal is likely to reinvigorate that movement. If Wales follows suit, suddenly Ireland isn’t the only island with an international border intersecting it — Britain will have two international borders, both hard. That will not only create a massive economic tangle, it will also put a big dent in the economic influence of what’s left of the UK. And it might result in Northern Ireland going its own way too, or reuniting with the Republic of Ireland, rather than live with the potentially violent consequences of a hard border just to stick with an economic albatross.

With all that in mind, a second referendum might be a pretty good idea. John Major’s warning in February that “the case that was made for Brexit was a fantasy case” has been proven true, at least so far, by the Tories themselves. If the Tories still can’t figure out how to put together a Brexit deal with the EU after more than two years, it’s a good sign that Major might well be correct.

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David Strom 2:31 PM on October 04, 2022