By PETER YOUNG
For many people in Britain it is mind-boggling that with so little time remaining before the nation is due to leave the European Union on March 29 the terms of its departure have still not secured parliamentary approval. This date was set when Prime Minister Theresa May’s government in 2017 invoked Article 50 of the EU Lisbon Treaty – the mechanism for a member state to withdraw – and it was later enshrined in British law.
With the continuing harmful divisions that have sown much discord in the country, not least in the Westminster Parliament itself, the government’s failure to finalise the so-called divorce bill and arrangements is now being judged to have precipitated a political and constitutional crisis that has become perhaps the most important national challenge since the Second World War.
There is widespread consternation that more than two and a half years after the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum which resulted in a narrow majority voting to leave the EU – 52 percent to 48 percent in a high voter turnout – the House of Commons in London has voted on two separate occasions to reject the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU by the Prime Minister. However, the evidence shows the general public simply wants the government to press on with implementing the outcome of the referendum and ensure the UK’s departure on March 29, not least because of a commitment to do so in the 2017 General Election manifestos of both the Conservative and Labour Parties.
There is insufficient space here to rehearse the familiar arguments for and against Britain’s departure, but it is generally accepted the whole Brexit exercise has been a hugely difficult and complicated endeavour. Nonetheless, many are critical of the efforts of Mrs May’s government to extricate the nation from the EU and they regard the protracted negotiations as being nothing short of messy and humiliating.
The endless ebb and flow of partial agreement followed by counter argument and changed negotiating posture on both sides has now finally boiled down to the need for the House of Commons to accept Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement as the only deal available and which the EU is not prepared to reopen. MPs rejected it for the second time last week and also voted against a no-deal which has now, in effect, been taken off the table. If they vote it down for a third time this week, they will face the only remaining option of an extension of the Article 50 process beyond March 29, which they also voted for last week. However, all 27 EU member states have to agree to this for it to take effect. That could entail a delay in Brexit of up to two years and then perhaps a second referendum or even no Brexit at all, so there is a danger of killing it off altogether.
After last week’s unprecedented drama in Parliament of a succession of votes with some Cabinet ministers openly defying the Prime Minister – to the extent that collective responsibility has almost disintegrated -- all eyes will now be on the House of Commons again as MPs have a final chance to retrieve Brexit, though at the time of writing there is some doubt about whether the agreement will be put to the vote this week at all. The main objection of Leavers or Brexiteers to Mrs May’s deal is the backstop provision which is designed to ensure the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland remains open by keeping the latter in the customs union in the absence of a post-Brexit trade arrangement between the EU and Britain.
They fear this could keep the whole of the UK in the customs union ad infinitum -- despite Mrs May’s claim of legally binding assurances that that will not happen -- and prevent the nation striking trade deals with the rest of the world. They are also concerned about the size of the divorce bill at some 50 billion dollars.
The most recent polls suggest that, with time running out, a majority of the public now supports the agreement and MPs are being accused of openly defying the will of the people. Moreover, reportedly the latest signs are that the hard-line Tory Brexiteers in the European Research Group, who have maintained that ‘leave means leave’ and Britain must quit the single market and the customs union, may now come around and back the Prime Minister. It is also possible that the Democratic Unionist Party, who zealously guard Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK and upon whose support on other issues Mrs May, pictured left, has depended because she does not have an overall majority in Parliament, may do likewise.
According to some observers, one of the reasons for the Brexit negotiations being so difficult and prolonged is the EU has been stalling because it does not want Britain to leave for fear of other member states following suit. It is also the case a majority of MPs are Remainers and admit to following their consciences and their own judgment over Brexit rather than representing the views of their constituents.
The extreme Brexiteers want a complete break and so far they have refused to budge. But, given the dire warnings about Brexit never happening, many people hope they will eventually accept perfection is sometimes the enemy of the good. In the face of EU intransigence, even though Mrs May’s deal may not be the best it is the only one available and at this late stage it is probably the least bad option.
For MPs at Westminster, this week could be the moment of truth.
Winning ways with words
It was a joy last Friday to attend the prize-giving ceremony at C C Sweeting Senior High School for the winners of the 3rd Annual National Essay Competition held in February and organised by the Ministry of Education in collaboration with the think tank The Nassau Institute.
My fellow director of the Institute, Leandra Esfakis, and I watched 76 students and their teachers from 14 different schools receive special certificates for participating in the competition. The winners in each school were given trophies and the overall winners also earned separate trophies and cash prizes for their efforts, while the overall winner will attend a three-day economics seminar organised by the Foundation for Economic Education in Atlanta during the summer.
In 2016, the Nassau Institute put forward the idea of an annual economics essay competition and secured the blessing of the Ministry of Education. While the Templeton Religion Trust is the main sponsor, we also contribute to the funding of the project. Students enrolled in Business Studies programmes are asked to write an essay in their own words on a subject based on the book ‘Economics in One Lesson’ by the renowned American economist Henry Hazlitt.
What was notable at last week’s ceremony was not only the enthusiasm, commitment and motivation of the students but also the level of knowledge they displayed in their essays together with, in most cases, a high standard of writing. Working with the Ministry of Education, we hope to repeat the essay competition next year and develop other related projects in the coming months.
• Peter Young is a retired career diplomat and former British High Commissioner to The Bahamas where he is now a permanent resident.