It was Karl Marx who observed that “history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Clearly we are reaching the farcical stages of the Brexit Greek tragedy.
Just yesterday the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, gave the official closing oration urging the House to support a government motion and saying it was in the national interest, and then voted against it. The Government’s Chief Whip, Julian Smith, charged with whipping it’s members to support the motion abstained. Eight cabinet ministers voted against the government, and still did not resign or face dismissal.
A government motion seeking support for May’s deal is defeated by 149 votes – the fourth largest margin of defeat for a government in history – and yet the government proposes to bring the same motion before the house again next week. The House of Commons votes decisively against a “no deal” Brexit and for a delay in Brexit itself, and yet has no idea what it will do with that extra time.
Those voting in favour of a “no deal” Brexit claim they are doing so to put pressure on the EU in the negotiations, seemly unaware that those negotiations are over. There hasn’t been a serious negotiation since November and even all attempts at “clarifications” in accompanying documents are at an end.
The Attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, no doubt having examined the contents of his codpiece, seeks to add three paragraphs to his earlier, decisive, legal advice claiming that under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties the UK could cancel the Irish Backstop if “unforeseen circumstances arise” and drawing derision and scorn from experts in the field. How can you trust a country as a negotiating counterparty if they are proposing breaking it before the ink has dried on their signature?
And yet all the while EU leaders are unfailingly courteous and helpful: would you like more time? How much more time would you like? Is there anything else we can help you with? Barnier greets Theresa May with a kiss and warm hug. Juncker doesn’t even pinch her bottom. It must be bloody infuriating to be a Brexiteer at times. Just when you need a good bogeyman, he refuses to turn up.
But could it be a case of the spider welcoming a fly into its web?
For one thing, any extension beyond 22nd. May would require the UK to take part in European Parliament Elections – neatly undercutting the Brexiteer “the EU is undemocratic” mantra and providing Remainers with a platform to make their case and show their numbers on favourable terrain. Surprisingly both Nigel Farage, at the head of an imaginary party, and UKIP are both planning to contest those elections undercutting any “the elections are irrelevant” meme. Perhaps he just loves the EP and the attention it provides too much.
For another, what can be a more delicious irony than watching the British elite make a complete mess of everything having lectured the EU for 45 years on their superior pedigree, traditions, leadership and negotiating skills. Brexit has become a sitcom that could continue for years casting the EU as the adult in the room while the children in Britain squabbled. Brexit is the ideal distraction from the EU elite’s own shortcomings.
So is it time for the people of Europe to call for an end to the charade, put Britain out of its misery, accept the reality of a no deal Brexit, refuse an A. 50 extension, and get back to the challenges of fixing the many real problems facing the EU and its citizens? No deal may not be in anyone’s economic self-interest, but are we getting to the stage where it is in the collective political self interest of the EU27 to put an end to this farce? Indeed is that now the only remaining realistic political option available to the EU?
Strangely, I would argue, no, not now. The Brexit debacle can act as a cautionary tale for voters contemplating voting for eurosceptic parties throughout Europe. Having something to unite around is no bad thing for the morale and functioning of the institutions of Europe as well. But most crucially, the EU must avoid becoming labelled as the culprit if and when all of this goes horribly wrong. “We gave you every opportunity to change your minds” will be the refrain.
If anyone thinks the current negotiations have been difficult, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. It will not be long after a “no deal” Brexit when the UK comes screaming for deals on everything from aviation to medicines, security cooperation to food standards – and all the while insisting on no immigration, no trading barriers, no contribution to the EU budget, and no recognition of the rights of EU citizens in Britain or of the jurisdiction of the ECJ. Responsibility for this mess will have to be clearly seen to be the UK’s, and the UK’s alone.
Brexiteers keep insisting that they want a “clean break” from the EU while maintaining all their current privileges. The Sunday Telegraph even headlined a poll claiming that 44% of Britons support a no-deal Brexit. Buried in the small print was the fact that the same respondents backed Remain over Leave by 46% to 39%.
So what the EU is actually doing is preparing for a long and difficult trade war. If a no deal Brexit actually happens, all hell will break loose, and it will be important to have maximum cohesion and unity on your side. Brexiteers have always mistaken EU “reasonableness” for weakness. Many are still expecting the EU to “cave” at the last minute, as if the negotiations were ongoing. But that reasonableness is actually a sign of confidence and strength. There has been no need for lies on the EU side.