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What are the chances of the UK abandoning Brexit?

If the EU begins on a path of reform, and withdrawal looks unattractive, Britain could pull back.

Theresa May’s interest is served by keeping Brexit to a series of binary questions in which the alternative to acceding to her will means abandoning withdrawal. Will Parliament treat the referendum result as binding though it was technically advisory? Will it approve the triggering of Article 50? Will it legislate to end the primacy of EU law (the Great Repeal Bill)? The moral force of the referendum result, and the self-preservation instincts of the majority of MPs whose constituencies voted Leave, mean the answer to such questions is always likely to be yes.

But more awkward questions, such as what kind of Brexit the British people voted for; whether Brexit implies withdrawal from the Single Market; and whether the UK should remain a part of the Customs Union, are to be avoided at all costs, because there is no coherent position on which a majority in Parliament, or more importantly for May, her own Conservative Party, agrees. Most MPs want full, unimpeded access to the Single Market, the re-establishment of border controls and freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). In other words, they want the benefits of EU membership without the responsibilities.

But the EU 27 is unwilling to compromise the integrity of the four freedoms (free movement of goods, capital, services and people), and the authority of the ECJ is required to ensure that the rules of the Single Market are adhered to. So the positions of the UK and the EU 27 are in inherent contradiction, a non-overlapping Venn diagram, which, as long as it persists, will make efforts to find a compromise futile.

This is our central view. It is a story which ends with the UK falling back on WTO rules, cross-Channel supply chains being disrupted, and non-tariff barriers being re-erected to the cost of UK-based firms. All the available evidence suggests the two key premises on which this narrative is based (that the EU will not compromise on the four freedoms and that the UK will insist on ‘taking back control’ of its borders and laws) are sound. But if they are not, there may be a different story to tell.

Why this scenario is more plausible than generally perceived

We don’t adhere to the view that the EU is ‘bluffing’, or that their repeatedly-stated position is an opening bid in negotiations. A ‘sweetheart deal’, in which the UK enjoys better terms as a non-member than it could as a member is not possible in our view – the stability of the project for the remaining EU 27 is the top priority. But we also believe that the quest to ensure the stability of the EU could ultimately undermine the case for Brexit itself.

Key EU countries are facing similar populist pressures that have led the UK to Brexit and the US to Donald Trump. Disillusionment with the EU and its strictures is finding an outlet in the domestic politics of countries typically thought to make up the ‘core’ of the eurozone and the EU. Of the three major EU elections next year, eurosceptic parties lead in the Netherlands, lie second in France and in third place in Germany. Angela Merkel’s announcement that she intends to ban the wearing of the burkha “wherever possible” was a striking indication that Alternative für Deutschland, Germany’s right-wing eurosceptic party, is influencing her policy platform.

Francois Fillon, favourite to win the French presidency next year, has also spoken of the need to reform the EU and tighten the controls on Schengen’s external border to reduce immigration. The need to reconnect with the voters who object to the change that has accompanied globalisation and mass immigration, the kind of voters who chose Brexit, appears to have reached the top echelons of European politics.

So could the EU embark on a path of reform? Potentially yes. Could that involve changes to free movement rules? That is more of a stretch, the key stumbling block being that any substantive changes would require treaty change, which in turn requires unanimity among member states. Eastern European states, many of whose citizens work abroad and whose economies benefit from remittances they send home, would be likely to object.

In all likelihood next year will see Merkel re-elected and Marine Le Pen defeated, but eurosceptic, anti-system parties may not have to take power in those countries to convince their leaders that the EU’s current path is unsustainable.

The potential consequences

If, for the sake of argument an EU reform process looks to be in the offing, and, as the UK edges nearer to the precipice of a hard Brexit, with negotiations yielding little to cushion the blow (as we expect will be the case) the urge to pull back from the edge may start to grow stronger. What, if suggested now, would be dismissed as denying the referendum result, could start to look more a credible option as the realities of a hard Brexit and its potential impact are explored by the media.

Until that point is reached, public opinion seems unlikely to turn, meaning the UK will have to be well on the path to Brexit before it can consider changing course. "Pulling back from the edge" will likely require the withdrawal of the UK’s Article 50 notification. Whether this is possible is a legal question, which may ultimately be decided by the ECJ, assuming the European Council does not agree an interpretative guideline. For the ECJ to rule, a reference must be sought by a lower court. Reports indicate a case may be brought in Ireland within weeks with a view to inducing such a reference. In our non-learned opinion, based on the publicly stated views of various politicians and lawyers, and more cynically on the basic interest that the EU would serve by allowing those countries that wish to stay to do so rather than forcing them out, the ECJ is likely to rule that notification can be withdrawn.

The final binary question served up by May seems likely to be: deal or no deal? If in two or so years the EU has started on a path to reform, the possibility of withdrawing an Article 50 notification has been confirmed, and the exit terms look singularly unattractive, will the answer be an inevitable yes? Perhaps not.

Richard Mylles is a political analyst at Absolute Strategy Research, an independent consultancy based in London.

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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.