Approval of the Brexit withdrawal agreement at the EU’s special Brussels summit on Sunday was a historic moment, heralding the end of the UK’s membership of the EU next March after 46 years. But the rubber-stamping of a deal sealed after long, complex negotiations is unlikely to be the end of the tortuous divorce process.
Inevitably, EU leaders ruled out any renegotiation of the package to make it more palatable for the UK parliament. For once, their carefully choreographed statements – “this is the only deal possible” – suited Theresa May. But the 27 national leaders know full well that, with about 90 Conservative MPs opposing the agreement, it has little chance of being approved by the House of Commons in the crucial vote in two weeks.
Under Downing Street’s original thinking, the EU’s unanimous approval of the deal was supposed to add to a sense of momentum that would carry the package over the finishing line in the Commons. But there is no sign of such momentum; indeed, Ms May is battling political headwinds pushing her backwards.
She now has very little time to sell an agreement which has united both pro- and anti-EU MPs in saying it is worse than the UK’s current EU membership terms – not least because the UK would stick to EU regulations without enjoying any say over them. Pro-European MPs rightly ask what is the point of leaving, while Brexiteers say the deal does not respect the 2016 referendum decision.
Uncomfortably, ministers claim the deal is better than EU membership by arguing that it implements the referendum. But they cannot say the UK will be better off economically, as government analysis of the impact of Brexit is expected to confirm later this week.
Characteristically, the prime minister is not going down without a fight. Her opponents should know by now not to underestimate her determination and resilience. Her strategy is to appeal over the heads of the Commons to the people, in the hope that they and the business world pressurise MPs into voting for the deal, however reluctantly.
Ms May’s “letter to the nation” insists she has produced “a deal for a brighter future”, but again stops short of saying the UK economy will be better off than if it remained in the EU. She wants the UK’s departure in March to be “a moment of renewal and reconciliation for our whole country”. She adds: “It must mark the point when we put aside the labels of ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ for good and we come together again as one people.” Similarly, she told her post-summit press conference in Brussels that it is “time for the UK to move on”.
This is a bit rich from someone who, on becoming prime minister after the referendum, was too anxious to prove her credentials to Tory Eurosceptics that, as a Remainer, she was now fully committed to Brexit. In doing so, she ignored the 48 per cent who voted Remain and missed an opportunity to bring the country together, allowing divisions to fester and deepen in the past two and a half years. She also raised great expectations among Eurosceptics for a hard Brexit that she could not fulfil without inflicting huge damage on UK companies.
Whatever happens in parliament, there is little chance of the country coming together as a result of Ms May’s deal. The political declaration on future UK-EU relations which accompanies the withdrawal agreement is a vague statement designed to mean all things to all people.
This guarantees that leaving the EU next March will not draw a line under the divisive domestic debate over Europe, and will merely mark the start of another phase as talks get underway on a trade agreement that could easily take three or four years.
Ms May is right to take her case to the public. She should now take her exercise to its ultimate destination by asking the people whether they support her deal in a Final Say referendum.
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