By Steve Bullock
On Tuesday, the UK minister for Brexit said that the UK government would be making plans to stockpile food to mitigate shortages that would be caused by a No Deal Brexit and ensure that “adequate food” was available. The minister of health also said that his department was working on plans to stockpile essential medicines, devices, and, ominously, “substances of human origin”. The UK government’s own economic projections predict appalling economic harm from a chaotic No Deal Brexit, with over two million jobs lost, and the poorest regions hit hardest. Over a million UK citizens in the EU would cease to have a legal status overnight. Government policy however remains that “No Deal is better than a bad deal”. It should be obvious to all now though that it isn’t.
There’s a very simple way for the UK government to avoid the utterly dreadful and demeaning effects and equally indignified and costly contingency plans for a No Deal Brexit. The UK government can take it off the table. Exclude it as a possibility, or at least as an option, right now.
No deal is not just one of several options for Brexit. It is a total false equivalence to put it, as many do, on an equal footing with a free trade agreement, an EEA+ type agreement, or with remaining in the EU. It’s possible to have a conversation about the pros and cons of each of those. I believe that remaining in the EU would be by far the best option, but I’m happy to admit that the others might at least be possible without having to resort to stockpiling medicines, blood and food.
The prime minister believes that threatening no deal is a show of strength, but it is the UK population that is being threatened here, not the EU27. It is not a show of strength. It is a show of weakness, irresponsibility, and, ultimately, failure. A policy that admits No Deal as a live option for the UK represents not just a failure in negotiations, but a failure as a government and as a parliament. It is central to the role of both to avoid a crisis such as this ever occurring, particularly when it would be entirely of their own making.
There is no mandate whatsoever for a No Deal Brexit. All discussion on both sides prior to the 2016 referendum was predicated on the basis that there would at least be an orderly, agreed exit, even if there was not a quick agreement on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. The push for No Deal (and it is a deliberate push from some) came only late, as an ill-conceived attempt to gain leverage, or at least the approval of the right wing press, from a government realising that it had very little elsewhere.
It was never a credible threat, and has never achieved a shred of additional leverage. Having put a menu of options on the table and asked the UK to choose which it prefers, the UK has chosen instead baskets of hand-picked cherries, endless cake and a big portion of burned trust. The EU27 now finds itself in the position of having to prepare itself for No Deal. That it is doing that through careful analysis and planning rather than concessions that would undermine the Single Market shows how little leverage the threat has created.
There are very few British MPs actually pushing for this. The 40 or 50 MPs in the hard-right Brexit Ultra European Research Group, and less than a handful of ministers, should not and cannot be all out to drive a country to the brink of disaster like this. Parliament should refuse to consider No Deal as an option, either in votes it holds, or in the referendum on the withdrawal agreement that many in the UK are now calling for. It should not be considered, anymore than the amputation of a leg should be considered to treat a cold.
It is the UK government’s responsibility to announce now that it would take every step possible to avoid what would now obviously be a catastrophe for the UK. These can include requesting an extension to Article 50, possible to call a referendum on the deal or a general election, or requesting a suspension or even revocation of Article 50. No amount of embarrassment, loss of face, or concessions in negotiations could be worse than the prospect of shortages of essentials and the civil unrest that could follow. Through either, lives could be ruined or lost.
If the government will not take it off the table, MPs, the media and the UK population must. They must make it clear that, even as a possibility, it is unacceptable. The UK media has to stop covering this as just another story, and get over the seriousness of what’s at stake. MPs must show real honesty and fortitude.
Extreme Brexiters will howl that this is appeasement. It isn’t. There’s nobody to appease. Negotiations are with the UK’s closest allies, friends, partners and neighbours. This is not an external threat, foisted onto the UK government against its will. The threat of no deal is an internal threat, caused by its own decisions and willingness to drag the country it governs over a cliff.
This is not a question of Leave vs. Remain, hard vs. soft Brexit, or europhile vs. eurosceptic. It is responsibility vs. Irresponsibility; security vs. insecurity; public safety vs. harm to a population; a future vs. a disaster. It should be nixed now.
In addition to repeated signals from the leaders of EU institutions and several Member States that the UK can decide to stop Brexit if it wishes, there are now signals that EU27 would be prepared to consider an extension to Article 50 for the UK to complete democratic processes. The Irish Tánaiste Simon Coveney has said Ireland would support a UK request for an extension. The Government should begin discussions on this immediately.
The government can then do its job and negotiate an agreement and a framework for a future relationship. Parliament, and if needs be the people, can then decide whether they prefer that agreement, or its only real alternative, which is to stay a member of the EU. This is the only remotely responsible route for our political leaders to take. Anything else is irresponsible madness.
Steve Bullock is a former negotiator for the UK in the EU, and has also worked in the European Commission and Whitehall. He is now a commentator and writer on Brexit, and an advisor to Alyn Smith MEP. He tweets on Brexit as @guitarmoog.
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