As the tick-tock of the Brexit clock moves toward a deadline of 29 March, the ramifications are fast unfolding. The UK parliament has now comprehensively rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed deal for British withdrawal from the European Union. There is a demand to see Plan B within days and a no-confidence motion in the parliament has been tabled by Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn, that, if successful, would see a snap general election.
And always there is the backdrop of calls that have followed the 2016 referendum shock of bringing the issue back to the people.
I asked Philomena Murray, one of Australia’s leading EU observers and Professor in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne, to help make sense of the moment.
Theresa May’s Brexit deal has been rejected. Would another referendum offer an escape to the impasse?
Murray has doubts as to whether this ‘People’s Vote’ could result in a victory for those who advocate that the UK should remain in the EU.
“It would depend on what a referendum would be asking. There is a need to resolve the current impasse in parliament about the Withdrawal Agreement, as it has been rejected. There is now the question as to whether Brexit should take place or not,” Murray said.
The point Murray makes is what question would be put in a referendum to the British people, if one were to be held. Should it be about the type of withdrawal deal? Or whether Brexit should even occur?
“Remain” supporters (allowing there is great diversity of views within the Remain camp) have sought a fresh vote, following complaints about misinformation in the 2016 vote and even “outright lies.” An estimated 700,000 people marched in the streets of London in October calling for a new ballot.
But Murray has doubts as to whether this “People’s Vote” could result in a victory for those who advocate that the UK should remain in the EU.
“I’m not confident that Remain would win, second time around.” She points to arguments that suggest people don’t want to admit that voting Leave was a mistake. There are plenty of questions over whether a sufficient number of younger voters could sway the result. “Brexit fatigue,” as Murray put it, is a factor that has increasingly taken hold.
And there are awkward questions about what kind of society the UK wants to be, having never fully committed to the European project, especially defined as a project for peace among its member states as much as an entity than focused on economic ties.
The so-called Northern Ireland “backstop,” if May could wave the proverbial magic wand to make a major sticking point disappear, is this the big issue she would choose, and why does it matter so much?
“In the referendum campaign, Northern Ireland did not feature,” said Murray, “it was pretty much ignored by all sides.”
But now this specific question has come to capture many of the key issues in the Brexit debate about customs controls with an overlay of security fears and a vexed history.
Tellingly, in 2016, the British government did not even have a contingency plan ready for Northern Ireland in case the Leave campaign was victorious, but Ireland did release a plan for its response to Brexit within days of the vote. The sensitive questions around the Good Friday peace agreement, which saw an end of years of violence, depended on open borders and close cooperation of the Irish and British governments with the communities of Northern Ireland.
Murray said the more than 200 border crossings between Northern Ireland and Ireland needed agreement on customs and security.
“People have farms and businesses on both sides of the border, that’s the logistical challenge,” Murray said. An agreement was crucial for customs, but also for security, as the Northern Ireland tensions “had been dealt with up to a point, but some still simmer”.
But even though some saw an arrangement for Northern Ireland as warranted given the peace agreement in place, the perception of special treatment rankled others.
“Some in Scotland regard this as potentially placing them at a disadvantage,” Murray said. And Scotland voted overwhelmingly to Remain, and after the defeat for May’s plan in parliament, leading politicians are again calling for another referendum.
Is this debate damaging Britain internationally, or could the argument be made the issue has raised Britain’s profile, and despite the angst, pushed the idea of “Global Britain”? It certainly has captured attention in Australia.
Murray doesn’t see an advantage, at least, not for Britain. “Australia is in an advantageous position,” she said (you can read more, here).
Australia and the UK are currently deepening ties that could lead to talks about a potential free trade agreement. Officials are making a steady procession between capitals under the auspices of AUKMIN, Murray said, although no deal would be signed off until, and if, Brexit is formalised. Australia has a strong record of trade negotiations, whereas Britain has not negotiated any deals alone since 1973, having delegated this responsibility to Brussels.
Australia also has separate free trade talks underway with the EU. Murray described these negotiations as fruitful and already quite advanced, having completed the second stage of negotiations in Brussels and Canberra, with few sticking points, especially given the past history of Australian complaints about market access.
But in the meantime, whatever unfolds in London in the next few weeks will dominate.