The howls of outrage provoked by Theresa May’s deal with the European Union converge around one idea – that it formalises and possibly even eternalises the UK’s subservience to Brussels. In the popular phrase, it turns the UK into a vassal state. Remainers use this as a reason to stay in the EU, where at least the UK has a vote alongside the 27 other member states and some capacity for blocking ideas it dislikes. Brexiteers think the UK should be bolder and break free from the EU’s orbit entirely. The current agreement, they fear, sinks the dream of a Global Britain.
The Withdrawal Agreement is about as far from perfect as you could possibly imagine. But both sides exaggerate its downsides to serve their cause. More importantly, they miss what is really at stake in ensuring that the UK leaves the EU. Brexit has become fundamentally about where power lies in Britain today. Does it lie with the majority that voted to leave the EU in June 2016? Or does it lie with MPs and the judgement they make about the merits of that decision?
It is common to see in the withdrawal agreement a secret plot hatched by Brussels to keep the UK in the EU. Exhibit One in this view of the deal is “the backstop”. As things stand, this backstop would keep the UK within an EU customs union indefinitely, so long as there is no other way of avoiding the return of a hard border in Northern Ireland. For the critics of Theresa May’s deal, the EU has won a humiliating victory over Britain’s attempt to strike its own trade deals at the global level.
This reads far too much into the agreement. The current agreement simply reflects the fact that no one in Brussels, nor in London, was able to come up with another way of avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland. Those arguing for technological solutions lost the argument. As did those, such as myself, who argued there was no way of doing Brexit without the return of some kind of border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
A permanent backstop would not be particularly attractive to the EU. The EU has always said that there should be no cherry picking and no division of the single market’s four freedoms. And yet the backstop arrangement does just that: it applies to trade in goods only, making it possible for the UK to distance itself significantly from EU-wide arrangements in other areas, such as trade in services and labour mobility. The EU’s preferred position was for a Northern Ireland-only backstop but when it was clear London would never accept this, a UK-wide backstop was introduced instead.
No one within the EU has ever tried to prevent the UK from leaving. The EU27 have safeguarded their interests, of course, but the UK’s right to leave has not been contested in Paris, Berlin or any other national capital within the EU. Where it has been contested – on a daily basis, in an interminable assault upon the motivations and capacities of Leave voters – has been here in the UK. It is ardent Remainers in Britain who refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the 23 June 2016 vote, not the European Union.
This is why Brexit is now essentially a struggle over where power lies in Britain today. The idea that rejecting the current deal will create the conditions for negotiating something different is pure fantasy. Good deals can only negotiated when one side is willing to walk away from negotiations and there is no such will in either of the main political parties in Britain. Moreover, the Article 50 clock is ticking. The time it allows can be extended but only for a strictly limited period. We are left with the conclusion that rejecting the deal will embolden immeasurably those who want to stop Brexit from happening altogether. And that means it is also bound up with the belief that the result on 23 June was for some reason illegitimate.
Entering into this terrain would fundamentally question the democratic foundations of British politics. It would pit parliamentary sovereignty against popular sovereignty. And it would set a precedent for thinking that the will of a majority of voters is no longer the ultimate expression of legitimate power. Its critics have vilified this Brexit deal as a giving up of British sovereignty. In fact, it may turn out to be the opposite. It may be the only guarantor of sovereignty that we have left.
Chris Bickerton teaches at the University of Cambridge and is the author of the European Union: A Citizens’ Guide