LONDON — To fudge or not to fudge? Thats the question on the menu as EU leaders turn their attention to the problematic issue of Brexit in Salzburg today.
The leaders of the other 27 countries seem split on the issue. France wants a “political declaration” clearly spelling out the U.K.s future relationship with the bloc after it leaves.
Some other countries, however, think accepting a lack of clarity — a so-called blindfold Brexit that kicks some of the hardest decisions about the future relationship until after the U.K. has already departed — may be necessary to get a deal done.
This is the wrong conclusion. A fudged deal would be dishonest and store up trouble. It would be against the EUs values and interests.
Those who advocate fudge worry that if the EU insists on the final details of an agreement now, British Prime Minister Theresa May will not be able to sell a deal to the British Parliament. She could be kicked out by hardline Brexiters in her party and replaced by somebody like Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary — and then the U.K. might then crash out of the EU without a deal.
It is easy to see why a blindfold Brexit is tempting.
At the heart of the trouble is the prime ministers current proposal — the so-called Chequers plan — which suggests that the U.K. keep its borders with the EU open while pulling out of the blocs single market and customs union. To try to square the circle, May has come up with a fantastically bureaucratic scheme based on yet-to-be-developed technology.
The European Commission and the other EU countries know Mays idea is unworkable. They also dont like that the U.K. should have free movement for goods while abandoning free movement for people and services. The Commission believes the U.K. should either stay completely in the single market and customs union — or pull out of them properly and cut a free-trade deal a bit like the one Canada has with the EU.
It is easy to see why a blindfold Brexit is tempting. The EU doesnt have to be honest about what it wants, the thinking goes, because the political declaration on the future relationship will not be legally binding — unlike the U.K.s Withdrawal Agreement itself, which will spell out the divorce deal in detail. It should therefore be possible to come up with some waffly language that different people can interpret in different ways.
Call it “Chequada.” May will claim she managed to push through her Chequers plan. Others will be argue that the U.K. was only given a Canada-style free-trade deal.
By helping British Prime Minister Theresa May push through a deal few Brits want, a blindfold Brexit would cut the chance of stopping Brexit entirely | Jack Taylor/Getty Images
It might look as if the fudge-makers are looking after the EUs interests. After all, while an acrimonious divorce would be disastrous for the U.K., it would not be good for the EU either.
But conniving in this way would be a deliberate attempt to hide from the British people what Brexit really meant until it is too late. As such, it would be anti-democratic — and against the EUs professed values, one of which is democracy. These principles are vital for holding the bloc together.
Nor is it just a matter of values. Helping May dupe the British people would not be in the EUs interests.
The other countries may think they dont need to worry about clarity now, because they will have the whip-hand in the negotiations over a trade deal post-Brexit. While thats true — the U.K. needs the EU more than the EU needs the U.K. — there will be trouble if expectations are not properly set now.
Remember that the U.K. and the rest of the EU are struggling to thrash out a political declaration because the government has failed to be straight with the British people about what Brexit means. It still wants, as Johnson used to say, to “have its cake and eat it.”
A vague declaration will be a green light for hard-liners in the Tory party to rip up whatever deal May does and push for a harder form of Brexit. Michael Gove, a Cabinet minister who led the Leave campaign alongside Johnson two years ago, suggested precisely that last weekend.
Fudge is therefore a recipe for bitterness all round. That would be bad for the EUs future relations with what will still be an important power on its doorstep.
Even more important, by helping May push through a deal few Brits want, a blindfold Brexit would cut the chance of stopping Brexit entirely.
If there were only two scenarios — the U.K. quitting the EU with a deal or leaving without one — a cynic might still say it is best to fudge things. But the campaign for a new referendum at the end of the Brexit talks, a so-called Peoples Vote, is gathering steam. Meanwhile, May is struggling to convince the people or MPs that Chequers is a good idea — and Johnson is struggling to persuade MPs that he has a viable alternative.
Think of this in terms of an analogy. When you die, you can go to heaven, hell or purgatory. If there was only a choice between hell (what Johnson wants) or purgatory (what May wants), it might make sense for the EU to push for purgatory. But since heaven (no Brexit at all) is an increasingly realistic destination, the EU shouldnt do anything to undermine the chances of ending up there.
Hugo Dixon is chair of InFacts and one of the founders of the Peoples Vote campaign.
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