Ideally, a prime minister with vision would have created a cross-party Committee of National Brexit Unity to negotiate Britain’s most difficult international treaty since World War II. Unfortunately, Theresa May hasn’t delivered and divisions are so wide in parliament that there is likely to be discontent with any future Brexit agreement.
Both the United Kingdom and European Union have begun preparations for a crash-out, no-deal scenario when Brexit is due in March 2019. Despite these fall-back plans, both the UK and EU governments are desperate for a deal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it succinctly at a business conference this week: “We don’t want the discussions to break down. We will use all our force and creativity to make sure a deal happens. We don’t want these negotiations to collapse. But we also can’t fully rule that out because we still have no result.”
There was a brief glimmer of hope after Mrs May and her new Foreign and Brexit Secretaries managed to paper over cracks with EU leaders late summer. But as soon as Parliament reconvened this week, deep rifts opened again. Both Brexiteers and Remainers in the Conservative and Labour parties poured scorn over Mrs May’s so-called “Chequers” Brexit.
Chequers proposals dead in the water?
It is very possible that Mrs May’s Chequers-negotiated deal with the EU will turn out to be similar to Norway’s accord with the Union. The UK – which is already a member of the European Economic Area – would then effectively be part of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), but with some control over immigration from EU countries. The UK would also be able to negotiate trade deals with the US, China and other nations. At a later stage, there would be a withdrawal from the EFTA and an independent free trade and services accord with the EU.
The deal that Brexiteers favour is an advanced “Canada plus” agreement covering free trade in goods and services and zero tariffs. There would be cooperation in security, aviation facilities and data. The EU is likely to favour an EFTA solution and it is likely that the Parliament, Scotland and Northern Ireland would also back it. The weakness of the Canada-plus proposal is that it does not have a solution for the Irish and Northern Ireland borders. Indeed, that is why Mrs May embarked on the Chequers compromise.
Foreign investors would also prefer an EFTA-type option, that is, the UK effectively remains within the EU common market and continues to be the English gateway for European trade and investment.