Price of divorce
Theresa May might have triggered article 50, writes Eddie Ford, but the future is uncertain for both Britain and Europe
Hardly inspiring faith in its future, the UK Independence Party’s only MP quit the party last week to sit as an independent. Explaining his decision, Douglas Carswell, who used to be the Tory MP for Clacton before his defection in 2014, said that now Brexit is “certain”, he can leave Ukip “amicably” and “in the knowledge that we won”. Carswell, a slightly eccentric right libertarian, also said there was no need for a by-election, as he is not switching parties this time nor crossing the floor to the Conservatives.
The mood music says something different, however, as in recent weeks the Tory whips - eager for a reverse defection to bolster Theresa May’s slim majority - have been actively courting Carswell at every opportunity. Adding to the suspicion about his intentions, Carswell told the Sunday politics show that he felt “pretty comfortable” sitting as an independent, but, when asked if he would fight as an independent at the next election, he replied: “Let’s wait and see.” Furthermore, in a separate interview on ITV’s Peston on Sunday, Carswell remarked that he wanted to support the government “as a critical friend”.
Of course, he had been involved in a long-running public feud with the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage - which earlier this month saw claims that the MP helped to block a peerage for Farage. Leaked emails showed Carswell joking that Farage should be given an OBE instead “for services to headline writers”, which for the easily hurt Nigel proved that the Clacton MP was “consumed with jealousy and a desire to hurt me”.
Similarly, though rather ungratefully in some respects, the current Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, declared that the party has not “benefited financially or organisationally” from Carswell - which is indeed true. However, some are saying that the party faces bankruptcy. Arron Banks, Ukip’s main donor, gave £1 million in the run-up to the last general election, but has now sent an invoice demanding £200,000 for services he gave the party - saying he wants to set up a “new political movement”, perhaps modelled on Italy’s Five Star Movement.
In the same interview for Sky News, Farage insisted that Ukip’s role in British politics was “not over by a long shot” despite Carswell’s resignation and the disappointing by-election performance last month in Stoke Central. In reality though, ever since the June 23 referendum, a large question mark has been hanging over Ukip - with Theresa May making a naked pitch for its voters, starting to talk about the “working class” (of all things), not to mention the “forgotten”, “left behind”, and so on. Hence it is not the Socialist Workers Party’s Stand Up To Ukip or Stand Up To Racism that can claim the credit for Ukip’s likely demise, but the Tory Party - and Ukip itself, with its self-destructive tendencies.
More generally, there is no real political space for an essentially ephemeral organisation like Ukip. It was never going to be a replacement for Labour, a mass party based on the trade unions. As Douglas Carswell perhaps realises, Ukip is domed to be an historical footnote, especially with the ‘first past the post’ electoral system.
In what should have been a moment of triumph for Ukip, Theresa May finally triggered article 50 on March 29. Sir Tim Barrow, the UK’s permanent representative in Brussels, personally handed over a six-page letter from the British government to the European council president, Donald Tusk, to provide formal notification of Britain’s intention to leave the European Union. The evening before, May called the German chancellor, Angel Merkel, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Tusk himself to update them ahead of the actual letter.
Tusk issued a short statement acknowledging receipt of the letter and the next day he circulated among the remaining 27 member-states a draft copy of the EU’s negotiating guidelines, which will provide a broad response. These guidelines will not be formally adopted by the 27 until a special summit on April 29 in Brussels, with the commission issuing more detailed directives on the EU’s negotiating stance shortly afterwards - but these will need to be adopted by a meeting of EU ministers in May, before negotiations with the UK can properly begin.
At the same time, the pompously labelled ‘great reform bill’ will be published on May 30, setting out how the government intends to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and transfer (or re-transfer) back into domestic law current legislation that has force only because of the UK’s membership of the EU - a far from simple task. It is widely expected that this will involve extensive use of ‘Henry VIII powers’: ie, laws allowing ministers to change acts of parliament using secondary legislation - which passes through parliament with little or no scrutiny. Ministers argue that they need such powers, because leaving the EU will require rewriting a vast body of law and, in any case, many of the changes that will be made to primary legislation using ‘Henry VIII’ powers will be purely or mainly technical.
Potentially acting as a fly in the ointment, Jeremy Corbyn said his party would oppose any plans to give ministers such sweeping powers: Labour is not going to just sit there and “hand over powers to this government to override parliament” and “set down a series of diktats on what’s going to happen in the future”. After all, quipped Corbyn, “I don’t think the record of Henry VIII on promoting democracy, inclusion and participation was a very good one”. Making the same sort of noises, Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit secretary, said the party will refuse to vote in the House of Commons for any deal struck between Theresa May and the EU that does not deliver the “exact same benefits” as the UK enjoys from being inside the single market and customs union - the very same phrase used in a parliamentary debate in January by the Brexit secretary, David Davis, when he tried to reassure the pro-EU Tory MP, Anna Soubry, that there was a clear plan for Brexit that would not harm the UK economy. Davis told her that a new “comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement” would deliver “the exact same benefits as we have [now]” after the UK leaves.
But, in a typical Corbynite fudge, the Labour leader on Peston on Sunday denied that the party was now “committed to voting against Brexit” - perish the thought. “No, we are not,” he replied. Rather, “we respect the result of the referendum” and are “not in a position of knowing what the deal is yet”: so this is a “pretty high level of speculation when we are two years away from that particular vote”. Yes, Jeremy, but when the time comes will you vote against a ‘hard’ Brexit or not?
One possible early sticking point for May is likely to be the status of EU citizens living in the UK and of British nationals living on the continent. However, predictably, she is already facing warnings that the European parliament will veto any Brexit deal that prevents EU citizens who move to the UK during the next two years from having the same rights to live and work in Britain as those already in the country. A five-page resolution detailing the European parliament’s ‘red lines’, which will be voted on next week, was subsequently amended specifically to rule out any “degradation” of the rights of EU nationals arriving in the UK over the next two years. It insisted on “equity, reciprocity, symmetry and non-discrimination” for all EU citizens as long as Britain remains a member-state.
Another big bone of contention will be about the ‘divorce bill’, which could see the UK paying €60 billion or more, depending on what assets and liabilities are included - driving Tory backbenchers and the rightwing press mad with indignation.1 Only when that is resolved, the European Commission seems to be saying, will the remaining EU countries be prepared to embark on substantive negotiations on a future trading relationship. Liam Fox, the UK trade secretary, has previously described the idea that Britain will be faced with a large bill at the start of article 50 negotiations as “absurd” - with some backbenchers urging May to walk out on talks rather than engage in discussions about heavy liabilities.
Instead, the British government argues that there should be parallel discussions on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal and the future trading relationship - a timeline key to May’s hopes of completing a free trade agreement by the end of the two years allowed for negotiations under the Lisbon treaty, even if most commentators think there is next to no chance of the prime minister keeping to this schedule. However, in recent days the French prime minister, the Italian minister for EU affairs and senior German diplomats have said this will not happen - echoing the EC’s position that the financial settlement must be dealt with first.
More discontent with Brexit was expressed at the Unite For Europe demonstration on March 25 - which also happens to be the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding.2 Organised by what you could call the anti-hard Brexit and anti-Brexit wing of the establishment, with the sponsorship of five affiliated organisations, the London march had 50,000 in attendance, according to police estimates.
Naturally enough, the demonstration itself was overwhelmingly middle class and respectable - exactly as intended. This was highlighted by a slightly amusing spat which saw the organisers of the march accused of peddling “watered-down pap” and “going mushy” - some were particularly annoyed that the original slogan, “Stop Brexit”, was changed almost at the last minute to the rather more ambiguous “Make your voice heard”.3
Speakers at the demonstration included the Green co-leader, Jonathan Bartley, Labour MP David Lammy, Alastair Campbell, Tim Farron and Nick Clegg. In effect it was the Blairites uniting with the Greens and Liberal Democrats. Obviously, it is hard - if not near impossible - to know exactly how things will pan out, but we should expect this anti-Brexit alliance (whether in the shape of Unite For Europe, Open Britain or whoever) to get louder and bigger. The negotiations will almost certainly last longer than two years, and May will not get the deal she wants - nor will supporters of UFE or OB get the deal they want.
However, irrespective of the June 23 referendum results, we should not expect the will of capital to be easily cheated in a country like Britain. Having said that though, the existence of the Donald Trump administration obviously makes things more complicated - the anti-Brexit fightback will not be smooth or straightforward. But the establishment has a battle on its hands. Theresa May might have triggered article 50, but the future is uncertain for both Britain and Europe.
Meanwhile, to mark the EU’s anniversary the member-states renewed their marriage vows. Unsurprisingly, there were pious declarations about how the bloc is “undivided and indivisible” - the EU would proceed at “different paces”, while “moving in the same direction”. (Apparently the Polish government was upset by suggestions from Angela Merkel and Juncker that Europe might accelerate moves to becoming a “multi-speed union”, which Warsaw feared would see richer, core EU states leaving newer members like Poland marginalised and out of pocket.4)
Of course, France and Germany - the two main drivers of the EU - have elections this year, and the spectre of a Le Pen presidency haunts proceedings, whatever the polls might be saying at this moment. As this paper has often pointed out, it was the US that insisted that Britain enter the European Economic Community - not to further unity or “ever closer union”, it goes without saying, but precisely to prevent it. Britain consistently championed expansion, through the accession of eastern European states, as a means to undermine Franco-German plans for a tighter and more effective EU. All part of the American plan for Europe, not the original intention of either France or Germany.