Current British Brexit-May "crisis" explained for dummies

As much as I try to disseminate this issue via the media I have to wave my hands in the air and give up!

Here is what I think I know plus questions. Please keep in mind I am an American that has a skittish at best understanding of the British parliament system:

-Seems to me PM May is trying to pass a negotiated package between the EU and UK for a “Brexit”, but can’t get enough votes from Parliament to make it happen because of bickering from various political factions; her last move has been to say she will resign from office if her Brexit proposal is passed making me think the entire objection was to get her out of office?

-Lets say Parliament doesn’t approve the Brexit: what’s the worst that can possibly happen? Is there really a “crisis”?

Not quite as simplistic as that (nothing about this issue ever is). There has been a persistent groundswell of opposition to what is perceived by its opponents as a pre-determined process of creating a European superstate. Back in the 1970s this was more visible from a leftwing point of view within the Labour Party. That strand of opinion is still there in Labour (to some extent with Corbyn, and also now with those of their MPs who represent constituencies that voted to leave, even if the MP would have preferred them not to). But the more visible and influential strain has been within the Conservatives, ever since Margaret Thatcher took against the proposals from the then head of the European Commission for further integration through the creation of the euro and the extension of social protection legislation across the EU. This tendency’s power is necessarily greater when the Tories are in office but with a small (or no) majority, as with John Major’s struggles to get the Maastricht Treaty approved in 1992, and now.

There are indeed opportunists whose manoeuvres on the Leave side have clearly involved calculations as to their personal chances of getting the top job (beats me why they would want it, but there’s nowt so queer as folk). Remainers/“soft” Brexiteers and “hard” Brexiteers alike don’t like the agreement or the way she handled it, for different reasons, but the opposition to her deal has been coloured by a perception that she has bungled the whole thing from the outset. Moreover, the agreement is the conclusion of the existing membership arrangement: if it passed, there would still be two years’ of detailed negotiation to conclude an agreement on the new relationship. Those who think she’s bungled this far don’t want her to handle the next stage: the “hard” Brexiteers think it should be someone who, in their imagination, can do a Thatcher on the EU, the “soft” Brexiteers think it requires someone less rigid and secretive.

So it’s more than just ambition and low skullduggery,

It depends how you estimate the economic and fiscal consequences of suddenly losing the international legal framework within which business and government has been operating - if tariffs are suddenly imposed on our exports to the EU, and bearing in mind that parts and supplies are passing backwards and forwards all the time within the same production chain, and that stopping lorries for even a couple of minutes to check documents can rapidly lead to massive backlogs at the ports, which could play havoc with just-in-time production. Then there’s the loss of EU funding for many and various projects and activities, in agriculture, infrastructure and scientific and academic research, and all the possible personal and individual inconveniences for people who’ve moved freely between countries, and now find themselves subject to different documentation/immigration regimes, to put it mildly. All those elderly people who retired to France, Spain and Portugal, or go there on extended winter holidays, might find themselves no longer properly covered for medical care. People who’ve moved for a job, married and had children, may now find that they’re in some different status from their spouse and children , or at least that complex and expensive documentation and other procedures are now required. There has been frantic preparation of emergency plans, but nobody can be quite sure how it would all work out. It is, after all, an unprecedented situation.

Mmm. Your question supposes that there is one, or one primary, objection to May’s deal. But no; different people or different factions object to it for different reasons.

It’s important to understand that the deal negotiated so for deals only with the terms and consquences of leaving, and with transitional matters which will be a bridge to the new, long-term, external relationship which the UK will have with the EU. The terms of the new long-term relationship are only sketched out so far, in very broad detail, in a short document which is not legally binding (the “Political Declaration”)

One faction which objects to the deal negotiated so far does so because they are unhappy with the Political Declaration, and the fairly wide scope it leaves for the shape and terms of the long-term relationship. They also don’t trust May’s instincts, or like May’s vision, for the long-term relationship. They therefore don’t want May to be Prime Minister when the long-term relationship is negotiated and agreed.

May’s offer to resign is intended to attract support from members of that faction.

Parliament has already approved Brexit. What they’re arguing about now is a propoposed agreement as to the terms and consequences of Brexit.

The thing is, the default is that the UK will leave the EU with no agreement at all as to the terms and consequences of Brexit. This can only be avoided if the UK:

  • decides not to leave at all, which seems very unlikely to happen, or

  • reaches agreement with the EU on the terms and consequences of Brexit, and at this stage of the game only one agreement is on offer; the one negotiated by May.

So, if Parliament fails or refuses to make any decision, they leaave the EU on 12 April with no agreement as to the terms and consequences.

Is this a crisis? You bet. 55-65% of the UK’s international trade is done either with the EU on very favourable terms which will come to an immediate end, or with other countries on favourable terms which the UK gets as an EU member, which will also come to an end. Tariffs and regulatory controls will be imposed where they do not currently exist, leading to the UK’s trading routes being gummed up with inspections, processes, paperwork requirement which do not currently apply. A large part of UK industry is integrated into supply chains which depend on seamless traffic across borders; those supply chains will quickly degrade or fail. UK airlines and trucking companies lose the right to operate into and within the EU; in the short term the EU has indicated it will continue to allow them to operate, but this is an interim measure; a stay of execution, and the EU will decide, in its own interests and without reference to the UK, when this forbearance will be withdrawn. Etc, etc.

In short, no-deal Brexit is a massive shock to the UK economy in the short term, and on most economic modelling a serious impediment to growth in the long term. Even with some pretty favourable assumptions about what the UK can do to replace lost trade deals, the UK government’s own modelling suggests that over a 15-year timeframe the UK GDP will be 9.3% lower in a no-deal situation than it would be if the UK remained in the EU. (With May’s deal that shortfall comes down to 3.9%.) Other models make different assumptions and look at different timeframes, but the pretty much all agree that the economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit are pretty dire. And economic stress, of course, has social and political consequences.

The likelihood being that the economic stress will fall hardest on those already sufficiently alienated by years of Government fiscal austerity, de-industrialisation and casualisation of employment to revolt by voting to leave in the referendum. Who knows what will happen when the full impact comes to bear? Who will get the blame, and who will be the political beneficiaries?

Jumping in to say Thank you to PatrickLondon and UDS. That helps a lot for another Yank too embroiled in our own god awful political mess to spare the time for an in-depth knowledge of yours!

Here are a few more questions, coming from an American perspective. I’ve heard that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is a huge part of why the Brexit problem hasn’t been solved. Is this correct?

I’ve also been hearing talk about a customs union. My understanding is that the reason the UK arrived at this point because the EU wouldn’t allow the UK to “pick and choose” which benefits of the EU they would keep (free trade) and which responsibilities they couldn’t avoid (issues with immigration). If this is the case, why would the EU now agree to some sort of deal to allow the UK to remain in some sort of customs union but leave from everything else?

In full agreement! I can’t understand our own fucking US government.

I’m still not getting the reasons why Brexit was even opined and considered. Was racism a factor? Job wages? I’m lost at the source.

Yes and no.

The fundamental problem is that, in real life, implementing Brexit involves making painful choices. The pro-Brexit movement is fractured. Some are not yet ready to make the painful choices; they still demand a fantasy pain-free have-your-cake-and-eat-it Brexit delivered in golden coach drawn by unicorns and attended by fairy godmothers. Those who are ready to make choices cannot agree on the choices they will make; e.g. for some the priority is ending freedom of movement and they will make economically disadvantageous decisions to enable this to happen, while others would make the reverse choice. The result is there is no majority for any deliverable course of action on Brexit.

Famously, in an ill-judged attempt to hold her party together May adopted a contradictory set of “red lines” around the Brexit that she would agree to. Because they are contradictory she literally cannot deliver any Brexit without compromising at least some of her red lines, but any attempt actually to compromise any particular line meets with howls of protext from pro-Brexit elements for whom that particular line is priority.

This has become manifest in relation to the Irish border mainly because resolving the border issue is an EU priority, and they have slated it as something that must be addressed in the first phase of the Brexit project. But the fudamental problem is that there is no agreement among Brexiters on what the point of Brexit is, and no shared basis for making the hard choices that must be made to deliver Brexit. This would have become manifest in relation to some other issue, if some other issue had been tackled first.

The EU is actually pretty flexible; it has entered into a variety of more close or less close arrangements with a variety of non-member states in which they participate in some aspects of the EU and not in others. (They have, for instance, a partial customs union with Turkey, which is not a member state.)

But non-member states don’t pick and choose which aspects of the EU they will participate in; they get to negotiate and agree with the EU. And the EU, while flexible and creative, is also a pretty hard-nosed negotiator. An external association of this kind won’t happen at all, except on terms that are advantageous to both parties. The EU is certainly open to agreeing a customs union with the UK, but it will come with meaningful conditions, which bind the UK to the same rules as other members of the customs union, and which don’t give the UK competitive avantages over other members of the customs union.

A variety of reasons. Basically the UK has had difficulty adjusting to the transition from being a signficant power to being not a signficant power. They joined the EU to try and ameliorate the consequences of their relative decline in the world, and in many ways that has helped. But the EU has also been a politically convenient whipping-boy on which to pin the blame for those consequences, to the extent that they have not been ameliorated. There’s a section of UK sentiment which - naturally enough, I suppose - is in denial about the UK’s relative decline, and is therefore made angry by manifestations of it, and seeks to assign blame for them elsewhere. The result is that there has always been pretty widespread ignorance in the UK about what the EU is, how it works and even what role the UK plays in it, what influence it has and what benefits it derives from membership. The EU has never been particularly popular, or particularly well-understood, in the UK.

Add to that the painful effects of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, and the decade of punitive austerity which ensued. This had led to massive dissatisfaction with the political system, and with the political establishment, in the UK. A lot of people were anxious to give the political establishment a good kicking in the kidneys; the Brexit movement provided an opportunity for them to do so.

Racism? Well, certainly widespread concern about the effects of immigration. A telling feature is that, in the UK, EU citizens coming to the UK in exercise of their free movement rights are widely considered to be “immigrants”. This isn’t generally true in other EU countries, where discourse about immigrants and immigration usually refers to people migrating from outside the EU. UK labour productivity is persistently low, and real wages have stagnated for over a decade. Unemployment figures are kept down only by encouraging low-quality “gig economy” jobs, and subsidising them through in-work benefits paid by the state. All of this makes for a pretty dispiriting experience for anyone entering the UK labour market, and it hasn’t been difficult to persuade those at the lower end of the market that their troubles are due to competition from incoming EU “immigrants”.

I wouldn’t characterise all Brexit supporters as racists, by any means, though it does have to be admitted that pretty much all the racists are Brexit supporters, and there are sometimes unpleasant manifesations of racism within the Brexit movement.

So I read on the BBC that some idiots tried to blow up train tracks, leaving notes that seem to suggest that they are mad about May meeting with Corbyn to try and find enough votes to avoid the hard Brexit.

Clearly, these people were dropped on their heads as children, but is domestic terrorism likely to spread in the next couple weeks, do you UK dopers think? Or is it just random nutters?

SFAIK they didn’t try to blow them up. They placed devices on them to create short circuits that would fool the automated signalling system into thinking there was a train on the line, and so change signals to red, and so stop real trains. The intention was to provoke delay, confusion, etc but no actual violence, injury or death.

Yes, random nutters. Doesn’t mean it couldn’t spread by imitation, though. There are quite a lot of random nutters out there. And doesn’t mean it couldn’t escalate into more dangerous or threatening stunts.

Thanks for the correction, UDS. I’m glad to hear that I was making a too big deal of it.

Britain’s relations with what used to be the Common Market have always been somewhat difficult. Britain’s Macmillan administration belatedly tried to join in 1961 but General de Gaulle vetoed the application. The same happened in 1966, and British membership had to wait until de Gaulle was off the political scene. Edward Heath’s government negotiated membership commencing in 1973, but had to use rebel votes from the minority Labour party to get the entry Bill passed. Broadly the Conservative party was in favour of joining, and Labour was against, but there were large minorities in both parties which took the opposite view.
When the Heath government fell, for domestic reasons that we won’t go into here, Harold Wilson’s Labour party returned to office pledged to renegotiate the terms of entry that Heath had secured. Wilson promised a referendum on approving the renegotiated terms, with the implication that if the people said No then we would leave. The vote, in 1975, approved the (slightly) revised terms by a large majority and that appeared to settle the question. But a minority in the Conservative party, and out of it, has never been reconciled to British membership of the EEC/EC/EU, and this faction has grown louder and more influential over the decades.
The present negotiation shows that Europe has intertwined itself so tightly around the British economy, trade and legal framework that it may already be almost too late to escape, even if the country was united in a determination to do so. A few more years, and degrees of integration, and it will be impossible.
One thing both sides will agree on is that May has bungled the negotiation at home and abroad, and this reflects her limitations as a politician - she has been promoted beyond her level of competence, which was always overestimated. She had no experience beyond the Home Office, graveyard of many a reputation, where she was seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’, probably wrongly. She lacks any of the social skills commonly part of any national-level politicio’s toolkit, has no small talk, is not much of a ‘House of Commons man’, and has failed to build alliances within her party or out of it.

Don’t disagree, but she’s hardly alone there - I couldn’t really name anyone in our current political landscape who comes close to the qualities needed to have driven brexit through to a satisfactory conclusion. Almost anyone would look incompetent in these circumstances, you’re talking top drawer, artiste of the possible required to pull this off. May would prob have been OK as PM in quieter times [although you’re dead right about her social ineptitude - rarely seen in a high profile politican these days].

Even our two strongest leaders of modern times, MT and AB, where strong on the back of crushing majorities. We don’t really have a tradition of the type of concensus-building Leaders needed for such a fragmented parliament.

May has also been put in a position to argue for leaving the EU even though she doesn’t actually believe it is a good thing. Still, May has made two massive errors. First of all, there was no need to trigger article 50. Second, calling that 2017 general election and running a horrible campaign. Telling an NHS nurse there is no Magic Money Tree is one of the worst political blunders I’ve seen in quite a while.

With regard to triggering Article 50, she had to. The Politico article on the whole sorry mess mentions that from the day of the results of the UK referendum, the EU said it would only negotiate after the UK gave notice under Article 50.

Sure but, the UK may have found the process less painful if May and Parliament had taken the time to have these indicative votes and hashing out of what compromises would and wouldn’t work before triggering A50. It’s always harder to negotiate when you’re not sure what you want.

Fair enough.

I’d refine that to clarify that the necessary compromises were those that the different groups in Parliament needed to make between themselves: no-one could know what would or wouldn’t work until A50 was triggered, but as you say, what was missing was a clear plan with as demonstrably wide breadth of support as possible.

Instead, she plumped for something close to the maximal Brexiteer position - and triggered A50 on that basis, starting negotiations on a hopelessly ill-prepared basis: and what’s more then called a general election that left her in a weaker position to assemble any sort of majority in Parliament for whatever the negotiations could eventually produce.

Basically, she got it arse about face from the outset, in order to placate the Brexiteers in her own party.

Yep, her entire mental track was ‘how to keep my party intact’.