May’s Brexit Plan Found at the Bottom of a Glass

Friday, 15 February, 2019 - 07:45 Issue Number [14689]

Olly Robbins has become the one thing a British civil servant must never be: the news.

The government’s most senior Brexit negotiator, the ultimate safe pair of hands, was overheard by an ITV journalist in a Brussels bar this week openly contradicting Theresa May’s policy on at least three fronts. He may, though, have done everyone a favor by bringing some long-overdue clarity about the prime minister’s actual thinking on Brexit.

May has publicly refused to rule out the possibility that Britain will leave the European Union without a deal; Robbins effectively said that won’t happen. The prime minister has said the government won’t seek to extend the process under Article 50; Robbins revealed that a “long” extension is indeed the plan if lawmakers turn down her deal.

May has insisted that the Irish backstop — which would keep Britain inside the customs union unless other arrangements are found to keep the Irish border open — was an insurance policy unlikely ever to be used. She has promised that the UK will leave the customs union so it can negotiate its own trade deals in future. According to Robbins, the backstop was envisaged as a bridge to a future trading relationship with the EU, something that that will enrage Brexiters.

Anyone who has watched Robbins over the past 18 months will find all this curious. Brexiters have made him out to be May’s Svengali, bent on frustrating Britain’s exit. But he has fastidiously remained above the fray, the model apolitical civil servant. Blabbing in a Brussels bar seems so out of character, and the incredibly thorough run-down of the government’s strategy so, well, thorough, that one is tempted to wonder whether Robbins knew he had an audience.

If his comments are a true reflection of May’s position, he will have brought valuable clarity. Politicians spin; and they sometimes have to reverse themselves and pay a price. But there is a fine line between walking back from past pledges and leaving the impression of either extreme disorganization or dishonesty. May has, throughout Brexit, made contradictory promises to all sides.

She has insisted that a no-deal exit remains an option; indeed it is the default under UK law if no deal is reached. That posturing is tactical, intended to coax remainers toward her deal. But it isn’t a credible threat; Britain isn’t ready for a no-deal exit and any government that owned that policy would likely be disowned by voters for a generation.

If May fails to get her deal agreed, her best alternative is whatever avoids a no-deal exit. An extension to the March 29 deadline wouldn’t in itself solve any problems — but it would allow time for a second referendum or another election, both of which May has rejected. The drawbacks to both are, by now, well-rehearsed — just what question would voters be asked? — but either would still be better than a no-deal Brexit.

Robbins’s revelations help to dismiss another piece of wishful thinking often heard from Brexiters: that the EU always gives in at the last possible minute and therefore will, in the end, relent on the Irish backstop. Didn’t the EU cave in to overcome Danish objections to the Maastricht Treaty, the Irish no to the Lisbon Treaty and a threat of a Belgian regional veto to the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada?

In each of these cases, as Matthew Bevington notes in a recent paper for The UK in a Changing Europe (highly recommended for all aspects of the backstop), the original text of the treaty wasn’t reopened and the solutions found were entirely compatible with it. Each compromise (for example, a clarification showing that the Lisbon treaty didn’t affect Ireland’s military neutrality or relate to taxation) simply drew clear boundaries, limiting the scope of the agreement. The treaties in question had also already been widely ratified by other countries, lending momentum in that direction. Brexit is different on all counts.

Nothing that Robbins said suggests he believes Brexiters will get their wish to have a time limit put on the backstop; nothing suggests the government is even asking for that.

Britain needs to avoid a no-deal exit. It can choose between different imperfect deals, or it can try to extend and pretend other solutions exist, or ultimately try kick the question — if it can decide the question — to voters. Robbins performed a service by spelling it all out so elegantly; it would have been better had this straight talking come from May herself.

Bloomberg View