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Last Updated : Sep 13, 2019 07:35 PM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Digging Deeper | Brexit: Britain is leaving this time for sure

In this episode of Digging Deeper, we’re taking a look at what is unfolding in the parody that is Brexit.

Moneycontrol Contributor @moneycontrolcom

Brexit - that thing where the UK was going to exit the European Union, because England and Wales were upset about...well, something. Scotland and Northern Ireland weren’t keen, and voted to remain with the EU. But a vote means one side wins and the other loses. So Scotland has to leave the EU even if it doesn’t want to, and is not happy about it - government websites related to tourism and travel in Scotland have entire sections dedicated to assuaging the fears of EU citizens. VisitScotland.com even went to the extent of saying, “our people are as friendly as always”. Strange thing to specify on a tourism website, innit?

What brought about such a comical situation in UK-Europe is a story we all know (but still don’t fully understand) - that alone is worthy of its own Monty Python sketch. But John Cleese did say he’d Brexit himself the hell out of the UK sometime in November last year, so we probably won’t. Well, okay, an episode of Yes Minister then. The point I’m trying to make is that Brexit isn’t going particularly smoothly. That whole business of deal or no deal has gone back and forth so much that it’s a meme factory at this point. Three Prime Ministers and one continent-sized procrastination episode later, Brexit is nowhere close to resolution. October 31 is the deadline for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s govt to seal the deal, or seal the no-deal, and leave the EU.

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In this episode of Digging Deeper, we’re taking a look at what is unfolding in the parody that is Brexit.

What is Brexit?

A quick rundown of Brexit is necessary to understand the main topic that dominates United Kingdom politics.

So, in 2016, UK Prime Minister David Cameron conducted a referendum to see if British citizens wanted to leave the European Union. That issue had been part of his election campaign, one he saw fit to fulfill. But the result was the opposite of what the political establishment expected. 52% of the UK voted to leave the EU while 48% voted to remain. That was embarrassing for Cameron, and he quit. Theresa May became the PM and she promised to honor the wishes of the British people. She couldn’t, and in a move that will definitely have future generations mocking the govt of 2019, Boris Johnson became the Prime Minister. He is not what one would call a wholesome representation of the ‘Britishness’ we associate with the usual residents of 10 Downing Street. The only British PM more unpopular than him might be Tony Blair, and that’s not saying much. Brexit was supposed to happen by March 29, 2019. That did not happen, so the EU and the UK set Oct 31 as the next deadline - 6 weeks from now.

Which brings us to this deal and no-deal conundrum. Let’s break that down, shall we?

There’s a couple of things we need to understand - like soft brexit, hard brexit, and no deal. Soft brexit is a brexit deal between the UK and the EU that will ensure things don’t change much. That will mean the UK gets most of the economic benefits of being in the EU, with minimal changes. There is a catch though. The European Union says access to its single market can only be granted if all of its principles, including the free movement of people, are respected. But immigration is one of the main reasons for the whole Brexit mess, so it could prove to be problematic in any case.

A Hard Brexit would mean Britain goes its own way - a clean break that results in major changes in economic policies, trade deals, and rules for EU residents living in the UK. European goods become more expensive and WTO trade rules apply. The easy access and overall smoothness of the UK’s present day relationship with the EU would take a hit.

If the politicians in the United Kingdom cannot reach an agreement by the day of the deadline, the country walks out of the EU with no deal. So while Hard Brexit still gives the UK some cushion and leeway in trade agreements etc., ‘No deal’ brexit means Great Britain walks away from the EU with no cushion whatsoever. An Investopedia.com analysis reported that the Bank of England warned about a no deal Brexit. It said, “Such a scenario could shrink the UK economy by 8% in a year and lead domestic house prices to fall by a third. British and European stock markets will certainly be punished, as will the UK currency. The rest of the world’s economy is expected to get caught up in this chaos, too…”

Even the IMF warned that ‘no deal’ risks triggering a further slowdown in global growth. That analysis also pointed out that Britain constitutes approx. 2% of the global economy and 4% of world goods trade, so “global ramifications of all realistic scenarios are likely to be manageable.” Capital Economics has warned that a disorderly exit could hurt British GDP growth by 1–2% spread over two years.

So what’s the latest in Brexit?

Previous PM, and awkward dancer to native tunes on foreign tours, Theresa May, herself a ‘remainer’, tried to negotiate what became known as the Chequers deal - a cherry picking of all the best points of Brexit and the relationship with the EU. Despite three attempts to get it approved, it failed, and May quit. Which meant no more viral videos of Ms May dancing. Enter Boris Johnson, apparently an English knock off of Donald Trump. Except, of course, that he has Turkish and other foreign genes in him, which led to the occasional joke about deporting him.

Jokes aside, Boris Johnson has sworn to get Brexit done, even if it is with ‘no deal’. Unsurprisingly, the opposition was less than enthused. Johnson was unimpressed with how unimpressed the opposition was, and decided he would prorogue the British parliament starting September ninth. That means the parliamentary session is suspended or discontinued without dissolving it. According to a report in that guardian of all things left of centre, The Guardian, “The government will move a prorogation motion at the close of parliamentary business on Monday, meaning MPs will not return to the House of Commons until 14 October...Boris Johnson will formally suspend parliament for five weeks, after the bill forcing him to ask for a three-month extension to Brexit if the UK is heading for no deal becomes law.”

The report adds, “Before parliament is suspended, the Benn bill is expected to receive royal assent, which means Johnson should be forced to request an extension to the Brexit deadline until January 2020 if there is no deal agreed by 19 October. However, Downing Street is still insisting neither Johnson nor any member of his government will under any circumstances ask the EU for an extension to article 50.”

Such obduracy from the Prime Minister has been met with scathing criticism. It has also led to more comedy. Check this out - a former supreme court judge Jonathan Sumption said it would be in contempt of court if Johnson applied for an article 50 extension while simultaneously trying to get the EU to reject it. Nigel Evans, a Conservative backbencher and supporter of the PM, said Johnson is more likely to call for a vote of no confidence in his own government or try to force an election via other means than go to Brussels to ask for an article 50 extension. The Guardian claims opposition parties are united in refusing an election until a no-deal Brexit is avoided. The other big name in British politics, Jeremy Corbyn, said, “I think it is disgraceful. Parliament should be sitting. Parliament should be holding the government to account. And the prime minister appears to want to run away from questions.”

Alex Cunningham, a shadow housing minister, wrote, “I am appalled that Johnson is shutting down parliament at a time of national crisis, but it’s not just Brexit – it’s the NHS starved of cash, increasing crime, education with schools desperate for more resources, housing, poverty, poor wages, cuts in council services and much more.”

Johnson, not one to be cowed down, responded eloquently, saying he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit.

Status Quo, and machinations

Bluster aside, matters are still pretty much where they were a year ago. The truth, as an analysis in Vox explained, is that “The only Brexit deal on offer is the deeply unpopular one negotiated by former Prime Minister Theresa May. Parliament repeatedly rejected it, along with all other Brexit options. The only thing Parliament does agree on is that it wants to avoid leaving the EU without a deal. That leaves exiting the EU without a plan on the October 31 deadline as the default option. But because Parliament doesn’t want a no-deal departure - or the potential economic consequences that go with it - and because Parliament can’t figure out what it does want in a Brexit plan, it is trying to stall for more time.”

The difference this time around, as compared to the preceding three years, is Boris Johnson. Like it or not, there’s now a prime minister who, as the article stated, “staked his political fortune on the promise of delivering Brexit, ‘do or die,’ by October 31.” He doesn’t like Theresa May’s deal because he thinks it essentially keeps his country beholden to the European Union. A Brexit without the exit. His main point of contention is the “Irish backstop’ - a plan to guarantee that no matter the future EU-UK relationship, there will be no border checks or physical infrastructure on the politically sensitive border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, a separate country that will remain part of the EU. This has more than a little to do with the conflict in Northern Ireland - the IRA and all that - which ended after a peace agreement in 1998. An open border was a critical part of that truce.

Now, that bit about the EU saying it will not bend its rules unless the UK has a viable alternative - that includes the ‘backstop’ or open borders between the two Irelands. The UK has put forth no viable alternative. According to Vox, Johnson’s argument - to the British Parliament and the public - is that he can get a better deal, if only Parliament will quit blocking him. He claims that as long as the EU knows the UK is desperate to avoid a no-deal Brexit, the bloc has no incentive to budge. But British MPs are equally adamant about not encouraging this ‘no-deal’ solution.

So now, with this proroguing business, Britain’s parliament, which resumes on October 14, will have a couple of weeks before the deadline. But, as CNN reported, that did not satisfy members of parliament who dealt Johnson six defeats in six days, blocking a no-deal Brexit and then rejecting a government motion for snap elections, in what was the final vote of the parliamentary session.

Is the prorogation valid? Well, yes. Proroguing is not usually controversial. It is used to mark the end of one parliamentary session and the start of the other, and is often a thing that happens when a new government takes over, giving it time to set a new agenda. But Johnson suspended parliament for as many as five weeks, an unprecedented duration that appeared like an attempt to limit the time parliament had to plot against him and block a no-deal Brexit.

In response to Johnson’s move, some of his own party MPs - I guess we’d call them rebel MPs in India - banded with the opposition to introduce that no-deal Brexit bill and vote on it last Wednesday. In response, Johnson’s party expelled the 21 rebels for their disloyalty.

That brings in the funny though - kicking the 21 rebels out of the party tanked Johnson’s majority in parliament. So the opposition nearly stopped a no-deal brexit, right?

Well, no. The bill they passed requires Johnson to request another extension on Brexit from the EU until January 31, 2020. So the opposition can’t stop a no-deal brexit but they can force their PM to go seek an extension on the deadline. But Boris Johnson says he’s not going to do it, even if that bill becomes a law which says he has to. That circles back to a point I mentioned earlier - a former supreme court judge said it would be contempt of court if Johnson applied for an article 50 extension while simultaneously trying to get the EU to reject it. Instead, Johnson wants to have elections so as to avoid any such confrontations. Problem is, he needs two-thirds of Parliament (around 434 MPs) to go along with his plan. But he didn’t get the required support.

All things considered, experts say elections look like an inevitability. The issue is the timing: Boris Johnson wants elections before the October 31 deadline, and believes he can defeat his main challenger Jeremy Corbyn. Then, a Scottish court ruled that his government's advice to the Queen, which led to the five-week prorogation, was "unlawful" and motivated by the "improper purpose of stymying Parliament." Today, the Prime Minister denied lying to the British Queen regarding the suspension, saying, “The High Court in England plainly agrees with us but the Supreme Court will have to decide...We need a Queen's Speech, we need to get on and do all sorts of things at a national level.” Today, the President of the European Parliament also said he was open to extending the October 31 deadline if it were done to avoid a no deal exit, for a general election or to extend Article 50.

So that’s where Brexit stands as of now. It is dragging on, and on, and on…on the upside, watching the Speaker of the British parliament scream “Ordaaaaa...ordaaaaaa” is easily one of the highlights of 2019.

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First Published on Sep 13, 2019 07:35 pm
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