Don’t despair of Westminster. This is what open debate looks like. It’s a big week for Varadkar too

Next week under pressure of a deadline less than a fortnight hence, it may get worse before it gets better. What we’re seeing in the Commons would be perfectly rational if it weren’t happening so late. A minority government formed by a split party has lost control and attempts are being made to form an ad hoc majority in Parliament over the burning issue of the day.  It’s a novel situation certainly, but talk of a disintegrating system, much less a disintegrating society, is much exaggerated. Living in the Northern Ireland of the past half century teaches you that, as the parade of  Orange bands and lambeg drums filmed by Ben Quinn of the Guardian outside the palace of Westminster reminded me.

As Parliament’s efforts to find its own Brexit solution have only just begun, what is plainly needed is more time.  For some people the overheated cockpit of the Commons is not the ideal atmosphere  for finding solutions, but had they been following the debate rather than watching the clips,  if fair minded they would have been impressed  by the quality of debate across the chamber,  mostly freed from party shackles. This was often Parliament at its best and occasionally at its most dramatic.

Generals in the First World War would recognise Mrs May’s excruciating strategy of attrition.  But maybe her Somme moment has passed. Now perhaps in Field Marshal Haig’s phrase “with backs to wall,” her 100 days Offensive resulting in Armistice is about to begin. Linking the deal to any emergent complementary alternative after Monday’s second round of indicative voting has a logic to it if only MPs can agree on one – and if she can accept it. Red lines like a customs union which denies independent free trade negotiations and the Norway option which appears  to require free movement are barbed wire entanglements in the way.  If all else fails she becomes Ludendorff who surrenders and nobody becomes Haig. Maddy Thimont Jack of the Institute for Government has a good analysis of  Monday’s prospects, noting as others have done, that on Friday the DUP abstained rather than voting against the two soft Brexit options which would get rid of the border in the Irish Sea, and that Labour MPs may prove decisive in getting the May deal through.

So if a solution fails to emerge in three weeks, the Brussels bureaucrats will if necessary be sidelined by the big boys and girls of the national leaders to grant more time and quite a lot of it,  grumbling no doubt.  In spite of the minority of  highly placed No Dealers, Parliament will accept it with a grand show of reluctance, perhaps in two tranches, to 22 May at first, and then if necessary, much much longer. Former prime minister Gordon Brown has published his ideas on how  the time might be spent –  searching for consensus via a citizen’s assembly- and UCL’s Constitution Unit explains how their prototype worked. Brown writes:

A year’s extension would allow us to pursue a British version of Ireland’s successful experience in participatory democracy when they held citizens’ assemblies, to find common ground on deeply divisive issues in advance of a referendum.

Options for more “control of our laws” could include parliament passing a UK law that any decision of the European court that offends our national and constitutional identity, and is thus in violation of article 4 (2) of the treaty of Lisbon, is unconstitutional. Options for more “control of our borders” could include registering migrants as they arrive, as Germany does, and imposing a time limit on any stay without gaining employment, as in Belgium. And outlawing, as France has, social dumping: the practice of paying Latvian workers only Latvian wages while working in France.

All these changes are achievable within the EU’s freedom of movement rules. After Monday a year-long extension to conduct public hearings – once at the bottom of the list of options – may not just be the best alternative to no deal, but the only alternative.

I have reason to believe that the problems raised by the European election timetable can be negotiated away by indirect elections – selecting a contingent of MPs from our own parliament – and by not participating in the election of the presidents of the European commission and parliament.

If we do not now promote the open and informed public debate that’s required, future historians will conclude that our country turned its back not only on our long history of internationalism and engagement, but also on our once globally renowned traditions of pragmatism, rationality and evolutionary progress. However, by striking out on a new path, we can still save our country from decades of recriminations and decline at home, and diminution in the eyes of the world.

While government and parliament have an instinct for a solution, they also have a wrecking gene called the struggle for party advantage, or populism. They are not all statesmen and women yet. Pressure is focused on the bowed figure of Theresa May. A group of ministers and MPs are demanding that she cut her losses and go for No Deal. She herself is wedded to a fourth attempt to pass her deal, running alongside stage two of the process to agree an alternative. All of them except No Deal and Revoke Article  50 require the  “non- negotiable” withdrawal agreement to create the transition period to negotiate the final settlement; so there is a certain logic to her case.

Meanwhile attention has been shifting to the southern front, largely ignored by a self absorbed Westminster. EU 27 including are frightening themselves imagining No Deal.  Merkel and Macron will challenge Varadkar over what he means when he says he will keep the border open. But all three share a common incompatibility; with the border open how can they protect the single market? And if the backstop is the only device anyone can think of for  doing so, how can they prevent the very outcome that would close it – somewhere, somehow, sometime – a UK No Deal?

RTE’s Tony Connelly has  a magisterial  piece which begins with the observation:

Mention the need to protect the single market and there is a clamour that this means a hard border; mention that all sides will find ways to avoid such a border, and there is a clamour that the backstop is unnecessary.. “It’s this endless ping-pong between these two messages which are neither helpful nor right,” says one exasperated diplomat. “We need to continue to flesh out that middle ground so that people understand…..”

And continues with the question:

How might things work then from 13 April if no-deal happens?

There will be those Brexiteers, not least the DUP, who will look at the range of approaches outlined above, and say that it proves there is no need for the backstop.  This would be a fundamental misunderstanding of how the EU has approached this entire issue (and what the UK grudgingly, it seems, signed up to).

Having checks away from the border, using the transit procedure, deploying data on flows and traders to determine risk, and interpreting risk to determine controls, using technology to monitor consignment flows (even if that involves cameras, and cameras are infrastructure) are all essentially damage limitation.

It would cause a huge increase in red tape and administrative costs, and a potential explosion in middle-men agents and logistics companies.  And damage limitation would be a diminishing asset.

From day one of no-deal the EU would undoubtedly take a highly pragmatic and flexible approach.  But what happens on day 20, or day 100, or day 365? EU law – and other member states – would demand that measures are phased in and tightened over time.

The backstop, on the other hand, was designed as a holistic, legally operable, legally-binding international treaty to maintain the status quo on the Irish border and across the island in perpetuity.  It was designed to preserve the all-island economy, so that for example the milk trucks criss-crossing the border to collect milk could keep doing so into the future, and that in general cross-border trade, the knitting together of previously alienated border communities, and the 145 areas of North South cooperation provided for in the Good Friday Agreement could continue unimpeded by Brexit.

Following yesterday’s vote, this is what is now at stake.


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