Brexit: deal or no deal?

Sunday 14 October, 14:0015:30, Free StageContemporary Controversies

With the UK due to leave the EU on 29 March next year, the negotiations on a withdrawal agreement and future relations are reaching crunch time. The Article 50 departure process was triggered over 18 months ago, yet a fully fledged UK negotiating position, the so-called Chequers plan, was only agreed in July. The proposal led to the resignations of two leading Leavers, Boris Johnson and David Davis, who both regard the plan as a sellout. Nor have the compromises contained in the plan helped with the negotiations either, having been treated with barely disguised contempt by the EU’s lead negotiator, Michel Barnier. At an EU meeting in Salzburg in September, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, announced that the UK proposal ‘would not work’ and even appeared to ridicule Theresa May on Instagram.

Conundrums abound. The EU has demanded that some kind of ‘backstop’ is required to prevent a ‘hard’ border in Ireland. There are fears of disrupted supply chains if there are any new delays at borders, leading to demands to remain in the Single Market and some form of customs union or ‘partnership’. Fears have been floated about disastrous consequences in the event of ‘no deal’ for medical isotopes, mobile phone bills, international flights and even horse racing. Remainers are pushing hard for a second referendum – a ‘People’s Vote’ – on any final deal, with the implication that the UK might not leave the EU at all.

Where do we stand today? The mantra that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ may have made something of a comeback in government rhetoric, but in truth it is widely seen as an absolute last resort – though one that looks more likely after Salzburg. The media routinely refer to such a situation as ‘crashing out’ of the EU. Are we really facing the prospect of disaster with gridlock at Channel ports, medicines running out and fresh vegetables disappearing from supermarket shelves?

In all the discussion of practical difficulties, the key question of the referendum campaign – taking back control – seems to have been lost in the noise. Might it be better to accept that no deal is possible at the moment, given the fixed positions of all involved, and leave without one in the name of sovereignty and democracy? Does democracy demand another vote? Is it beyond our capacities as a nation to survive and thrive outside the EU, or would such a scenario be a disaster?