BRITISH PRIME MINISTER SEEKS TO BREAK BREXIT DEADLOCK
By Donnelly McCleland
British Prime Minister Theresa May sought to break the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit on Monday [21 January] by proposing to seek further concessions from the European Union on a plan to prevent customs checks on the Irish border. With little time left until the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union on 29 March, there is no agreement in London on how and even whether it should leave the world’s biggest trading bloc, and there is a growing chance of a dramatic ‘no-deal’ exit with no provisions to soften the economic shock. After her Brexit divorce deal with Brussels was rejected 432-202 by lawmakers last Tuesday, the biggest defeat in modern British history, May has been searching for a way to get a deal through. (Reuters)
What the UK doesn’t want, and possible alternatives
The crushing defeat in parliament last week seemed to demonstrate what the UK did not want, but almost a week later, there is still no clarity on what the UK does want. The EU has stated that the ball is now firmly in the UK parliament’s court, and it is up to them to make their intentions clear. Many British MPs were quite underwhelmed by Theresa May’s ‘Plan B’, with some commenting that it was no different from ‘Plan A’. The 650-seat parliament is deeply divided over Brexit, with different factions supporting a wide range of options including leaving without a deal, holding a second referendum and seeking a customs union with the EU. In the coming week, lawmakers can put forward amendments to Ms May’s proposal. Lawmakers will debate and vote on the next steps on 29 January. The opposition Labour Party put forward an amendment seeking to force the government to give parliament time to consider and vote on options to prevent a ‘no deal’ exit. It has been suggested that among such options should be a permanent customs union with the EU and a second referendum (public vote) on Brexit – both proposals that Ms May has previously ruled out.
What Europe wants
The European Union’s preferred option would be for the UK to remain as a member of the trading bloc. Failing that, however, Brussels would like the UK to remain as close as possible. The EU’s favoured ‘Plan B’ would be for the UK to become a member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), like Norway. Under such an arrangement, the UK would remain in the single market. It would have to accept freedom of movement, obey many EU rules and be obliged to make a financial contribution to the bloc while having no voting rights. Key to such an agreement would be the alteration of a number of the UK’s ‘red lines’, such as agreeing to membership of the Customs Union. Such relaxations of the ‘non-negotiables’ could lead to a softer Brexit than Theresa May’s current deal. Most of the EU member states tend to want a ‘soft’ Brexit, but not at the expense of compromising the EU by offering more favourable terms to non-members. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated on Sunday 20 January that she would work up to the last moment to ensure that the UK could agree an orderly exit from the EU. Member states would prefer to avoid a ‘hard’ Brexit, but have begun to make preparations for one. If the UK still wants to leave with something similar to Ms May’s unpopular Brexit agreement, Brussels has said it can clarify the terms but that it can’t change legal aspects.
The ‘backstop’ and ‘no-deal’ explained
Keeping the Irish border free-flowing has proved to be the toughest issue to resolve in negotiating the UK’s exit from the European Union. Key to all current discussions is the ‘backstop’ or guarantee regarding Ireland. The measure intends to ensure that whatever else happens, there will be no return to a visible border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic after the UK leaves the EU. The UK, Ireland and the EU have pledged to avoid any physical infrastructure, or ‘hard border’. Many fear it could upset the delicate peace process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. The ‘backstop’ would essentially mean that Northern Ireland will remain aligned to some rules of the EU single market and effectively keep the UK in the customs union until such time as the UK and EU reach a lasting trade agreement. The backstop is opposed by many Conservative MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) because there is concern it could become permanent and because it means different rules for different parts of the UK. Hard-line supporters of Brexit in Ms May’s Conservative party object above all to the fact that the UK cannot unilaterally end the backstop. Brussels says this provision is non-negotiable. Ireland also rejected a recent proposal by Poland’s foreign minister that the backstop be time-limited.
A ‘no-deal’ Brexit means all the EU rules and regulations would cease to apply after 29 March, if the two (the UK and the EU) do not agree upon a deal, known as a “Withdrawal Agreement”. With a withdrawal agreement in place, the UK and the EU would enter a transition period after March, which would last till December 2020, which will allow businesses, consumers and organisations more to time to adapt and respond to changes, post Brexit. However, with the ‘no-deal’ Brexit, there would be no transition period. Many have expressed concern that the ‘no-deal’ option would result in chaos and economic repercussions. Since this process has not been done before, the uncertainty of possible outcomes makes it incredibly difficult to negotiate and it also means that some politicians resort to fear tactics to bolster their position.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
The outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum was incredibly close (51.9%-48.1%), with the result that it has divided the nation. This polarisation can be found in almost every aspect of daily life – within families, political parties, among friends and in the Church. As time runs out for an agreement to be reached, so tensions also build.
Some Christians have chosen to avoid conflict and follow their conviction that prayer alone is required. However, there are Christian leaders who consider it their God-given responsibility to provide spiritual guidance during this very difficult period in their nation’s history. Dr Adrian Hilton, a conservative academic, theologian and author based at Oxford University, felt it was important to explain his perspective as a ‘Christian Brexiter’ (supportive of leaving the EU) since it appeared to him that there were many misconceptions. He explained: “No rational Christian Brexiter (or #BeLeaver) is talking about the UK ‘leaving Europe’: it is a lazy figure of speech, which plays to the seismic apocalypse of those who seek to induce terror into the debate. Nor is any Christian advocating that we cease working with our neighbours, or that we want the UK to become ‘detached and self-regarding’.”
The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, addressed the House of Lords recently, where he serves as bishop. In his address on 9 January, he said: “Our Christian heritage, and also the heritage of other faiths and non-faith traditions, calls for us to treat others as we would wish to be treated – the golden rule. Christ Himself went on to call for love for enemies. That does not mean the absence of passionate difference, but calls for respect for human dignity. And that requires active leadership now – not after 29th March – examples of reconciliation by public figures who have differed most profoundly during this painful process over the last two or three years. That is leadership.” He went on to address concerns regarding a ‘no-deal’ Brexit: “The decisions made over the next week will not be finalised for all eternity, but are a foundation for further discussion and negotiation down the line. There has to be an agreement in which all accept the need to deliver ‘the will of the people’, which was expressed in the referendum, while also recognising that when it was expressed in such a close result there is a duty to build in compromise: an inevitability, albeit unwelcome to some. If not there will be, by default, a no-deal Brexit. That outcome would be not only a political and practical failure, but a moral one equally as serious as ignoring the result of the referendum entirely.”
He ended his speech on a note of hope: “Parliamentarians must be able to look back at this time and say honestly to the people of this country that we put them, their choices, their welfare and their communities above the politics and ideology that can seem so all-consuming here in Westminster. As we embrace the challenge, that I believe is hope-filled and exciting, of reimagining our country and its structure over the months and years ahead, I hope politicians will take it upon themselves to make these crucial decisions not only with the grand vision, but also with ‘the small picture’ – the effect on local people, communities and businesses – in mind as well.”
On 17 January, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued the following statement supporting ‘Churches Together in Britain and Ireland’s’ call to prayer: “We echo the call of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to Christians and all those of faith and goodwill to give time for prayer beginning this Sunday in their local churches or as they choose – praying for wisdom, courage, integrity and compassion for our political leaders and all MPs; for reconciliation; and for fresh and uniting vision for all in our country.”
- For the Lord to work out His plan for both Britain and the European Union
- For wisdom for all leaders and lawmakers involved in the process
- For the Church in Britain to offer spiritual guidance in the midst of the current divisions