Time left to stop Brexit and secure a People’s Vote

Brexit’s flight from reason and facts

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Geraint Talfan Davies

Geraint Talfan Davies, Chair of Wales For Europe

In the saga of Britain’s stuttering negotiations over Brexit, one senses that we are coming to another crunch point. M. Barnier, and the 27 EU countries he represents, want clarity from the UK on a number of issues within the next two weeks. He is not the only one. The British public need and deserve clarity too. But don’t hold your breath.

This is a government of fractious children playing with a toy set that came with no set of careful instructions. They cannot even refer to a handy drawing on the cover of the box. There is a prevailing sense that David Davis’ meaningless repetitions at EU press conferences, far from being elements in the strategy of a brilliant poker player, are simply a sign that that he himself and the Government as a whole have no idea where they are heading.

By now it is a government clearly overwhelmed by the complexity of it all – the boxful of conundrums that it faces – and the knowledge that it lacks any political force or authority sharp enough – if I may change the metaphor – to slice through this daunting row of Gordian knots.

Even if intent on leaving the EU, the rational thing to have done nine months ago would have been to confess to the scale of the task, to have sought more time to think and to develop a considered position, and not to have triggered Article 50 when it did. Instead the government started the clock running on a time period that was not open ended.

As the former foreign secretary, David Miliband, said in an interview at the weekend: “The triggering of Article 50 was so monstrously premature. We’re sitting on a grenade with the pin pulled out. I don’t see any rainbow at the end of this.”

As if to compound the mistake, still with no solution in sight, the government now seeks to set in statute a time and date for our departure from the EU – 1100 GMT, 29 March 2019 – with nothing short of farcical precision.

Given the current pace of negotiations it beggars belief that we will, by that chime of the clock and on that day, have negotiated a deal, had it approved in “a meaningful vote” in Parliament, and had it ratified by the Governments and legislatures of 27 other countries as well as by the European Parliament.

It is obvious to all who have eyes to see that Mrs May has had to set this legislative alarm clock, at the behest of those in her government who are running scared lest an utterly essential transition period become sensibly prolonged and, particularly, lest the British electorate should begin to change its collective mind.

This is what comes of having a core of Ministers who, believing that the UK has a set a magic wings, would be perfectly happy to see no deal at all, at which point we would launch ourselves from the cliff edge. These are people of such tested sagacity as Priti Patel and Boris Johnson, to name but two.

And yet we are asked to believe such people when they tell us that having departed the EU fold, we can put our faith in the benign altruism of President Xi and President Trump. Liam Fox, clad in Britannia’s shining breastplate, tells us he will see off all-comers.

In Mr Fox’s personal interest there should be an early appeal to the British Boxing Board of Control. If you want to judge in which weight category we should be placed don’t look at forecasts, look at the most recent statistics, since the past is usually a fair guide to the future.

In 2016 total EU exports to China amounted to €169 billion. Of that Germany accounted for €77 billion, while the UK managed only €16 billion. In the same year total EU exports to the United States amounted to €362 billion, of which Germany accounted for €107 billion, and the UK €54 billion.

To set out these figures is not to do Britain down, it is simply to describe the world as it is. If nothing else, do these figures not tell us, pretty accurately, and putting all personalities aside, where the priorities of the world’s two economic giants will lie?

What is at stake here is not national pride, but the jobs of people at Airbus and Tata and Ford, just to name three of the 500 companies from other EU countries that have operations in Wales.

The other issue that is concerning the EU, and particularly the Irish Government is the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the republic – what would be, post Brexit, the UK’s only land border with the EU.

What is it that this government does not understand about the dangers for Northern Ireland, and for the unity of the UK? The EU has been a framework in which the nations of the UK could finesse their differences and in which 30 years of terrorism was defeated: a government context that helped dismantle economic and military barriers around Ulster, and allowed devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland an enabling breadth that might not survive the centralist restrictions of the EU Withdrawal Bill.

In the case of Ireland no-one on either side of the current negotiation has come up with a realistic way of squaring this circle: how can the UK leave the customs union without recreating a border that has caused generations of grief? Ideas proffered by British negotiators have ranged from the constitutionally problematic to the technically fanciful. God forbid that British carelessness should fan any lingering embers of violence back into life.

One of several architects of peace in Northern Ireland was John Major. It was Norman Lamont that said of his government, “it gives the impression of being in office but not in power.” John Major now seems a towering figure when compared to a tottering Theresa May.