As the Prime Minister addressed the house today, her personal stamina was clear. However, equally clear are the messages from Brussels that there are no further negotiations to be had, with Jean-Claude Juncker saying there is “no room whatsoever” to renegotiate the deal. It’s at this point that British commentators are confounded – what next?
The UK effectively has two options. The first (and current plan) is to continue conversations with the EU in an effort to secure “assurances” about the backstop and its undesirability. I believe this will result in an agreed set of wording from the EU, which will do nothing to assuage MPs and British voters on the unacceptability of the backstop, as it will not form part of the Withdrawal Agreement and will therefore not be legally binding.
The second option is to formally tell the EU that we do not accept their deal and to spend the next the time until 29th March preparing to leave the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement (remembering that the UK will automatically leave the EU on this date – it does not require a vote in Parliament for this to happen). At this point, I believe the EU will panic. They – the governments of France and Germany in particular – do not want there to be no arrangements in place on 29 March. Brexiteers and the EU alike want trade to continue as unhindered as possible, livestock to continue to be moved across borders and flight passenger data to continue to be exchanged. The EU will return to the table to negotiate a series of mini-deals on the most pressing issues, in order to minimise short-term disruption.
Declaring our willingness to walk away from the Withdrawal Agreement at this point is the only option the UK has left to regain any leverage. The prospect of a clean exit on WTO terms is incentive enough for the EU to want to negotiate a managed withdrawal on key issues on which both sides can easily agree.
The clock is ticking and the UK government now has to choose whether it really wants to spend the next three months in futile and humiliating talks with the EU or take the bold and far preferable position of dropping the withdrawal agreement, embracing WTO terms and readying itself for a happier life as an independent country again.
The time has come for decisiveness.
Lewis Feilder is on the Conservative Party’s Parliamentary Candidates’ list and works as a management consultant in London. Follow him on twitter: @LewisFeilder