The recent October EU summit in Brussels was widely predicted as a key moment in the formulation of a Brexit deal between the UK and the EU. In reality, despite some words of encouragement on both sides of the negotiating table, on the surface nothing concrete was achieved. Almost two-and-a-half-years since the June 2016 referendum, and over eighteen months since Article 50 was unlocked, the end of March 2019 deadline for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is rapidly approaching.
The sticking-point remains the Northern Irish border question but the two sides are unable to agree on what the Irish border backstop (designed to stop the need for customs checks) would look like and how long it would endure. With neither a united Ireland nor an end to Brexit on the cards, not finding a workable solution, which avoids a hard-border between the North and the Republic, seriously risks preventing a deal from emerging.
Theresa May hinted at the October Summit that there could be an extension of a few extra months to the transition period scheduled for the end of December 2020. This has not played well with many in her party! An emergency EU summit could be scheduled for November in an attempt to formulate a deal but, realistically, the summit scheduled for mid-December looks like crunch-time.
In truth, the Prime Minister finds herself in an almost impossible position as she tries to forge a pragmatic path towards a solution. The history of the British Eurosceptic debate is not one where pragmatism tends to prevail. Issues pertaining to national sovereignty and national identity provoke passionate responses where compromise is low on the radar. On the Remain side too, those involved in the march for a so-called People’s Vote have moved beyond the pragmatic stage, increasingly frustrated by their perceived realities of the consequences of Brexit.
Even if the UK negotiators do succeed in brokering a deal- whatever its shape- it will most-likely dissatisfy a majority of the political class, UK citizens and the media. It would need to be ratified in Parliament by February 2019 at the latest. Given the government’s slender majority this will be problematic. The Prime Minister will be faced with trying to keep a potentially fractured cabinet united, attempting to maintain unity in a divided Parliamentary Conservative party, as well as trying to keep the Irish DUP on board. It also looks increasingly likely that Labour will utilise their six tests to scrutinise a potential deal and therefore vote against it!
Even if a potential deal is ratified in Westminster it then has to be approved by the European Parliament and by the European Council before an end of March 2019 exit. Given the volatility surrounding the Brexit debate neither of these votes should be taken for granted. For Theresa May, the next six months will be about survival. Previous Conservative Prime Ministers Thatcher, Major and Cameron were all arguably unseated as a result of the European question. It remains to be seen whether Theresa May will be added to this list.