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No on May’s Brexit Deal, No on May

(NRO Illustration: Elijah Smith; Toby Melville, Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

If Prime Minister Theresa May had not “deferred,” at the last minute, a “meaningful vote” on the Withdrawal Agreement she negotiated with the European Commission, the editors of National Review would have urged MPs to reject it. There are a number of good grounds for giving such advice. The Withdrawal Agreement does not implement Brexit, as she claims, because, among many other defects, it does not allow a post-Brexit Britain to reach free-trade deals with the U.S., Australia, or other countries, nor to deviate from the EU’s regulatory rulebook (which would magically become a “common rulebook”). The Withdrawal Agreement’s so-called backstop provision — stopping the U.K. from leaving the EU customs union without EU permission if both sides can’t agree on how to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland — would be an extraordinary restraint on British sovereignty. In a longer perspective, it would also threaten serious conflict with the EU because it gives the EU an incentive either to refuse such permission or to demand excessive concessions in return. And, finally, the Withdrawal Agreement’s provisions committing Britain to joining the EU defense-union structures, which the U.K. has traditionally opposed, would undermine the U.K.’s links with NATO, with the U.S., and with its other military partners around the world (of which more below).

These are not minor drawbacks.

Mrs. May deferred a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, however, not because she recognized its dangers but because she knew that it would be defeated by such a large majority in the House of Commons that her position as prime minister would likely be lost. Her present tactic is to postpone a vote, perhaps until as far away as the 21st of January, in the hope that she can persuade Brussels to qualify the provision requiring EU consent for Britain to rescind this Withdrawal Agreement. We shouldn’t dismiss that possibility outright. The tactic of concentrating Parliament’s attention on a single ground for opposition which, when overturned, becomes a reason for forgetting all the other grounds is an old one. It has worked before. Also in its favor is that May is something of a specialist in obtaining meaningless “declarations” and “politically binding” (i.e., not legally binding) deals that soften and obscure real commitments. And briefings since her parliamentary statement suggest she is now seeking such a toothless protection from Brussels that is unlikely to be enough.

Her chances of getting the Withdrawal Agreement through may also have been further weakened by an intervention of the European Court of Justice, delivered on the day before the expected vote, that was probably expected to assist her. This was a ruling that the U.K. can unilaterally withdraw its Article 50 notice that it is leaving the EU and reverse Brexit before it happens. It can, that is, decide to stay in the EU even after giving notice that it is leaving. The ruling itself is a radical rewriting of a treaty provision explicitly composed to make leaving the EU irreversible (and thus too dangerous to contemplate). It’s also a prime example of a political ruling designed to meet the court’s other unwritten duty of always interpreting laws to advance European integration. It should warn the Brits that even legally binding agreements with the EU are not to be relied upon. In the present British context, however, it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it greatly encourages Remainer MPs to continue plotting what might be called a “Hard Remain.” On the other, because it makes their maximum objective easier, it discourages them from supporting May’s Withdrawal Agreement, which would mean the U.K. ceases to have full legal status as an EU member.

All in all, May has now postponed a decision on her spavined agreement for another few weeks with little reason to think that she will get a concession from Brussels substantial enough to change enough minds among Tory MPs to get a majority for it. She has reached this impasse because she determined to pick — or was maneuvered by Remainer cabinet ministers and civil servants into picking — a fight over Brexit with the majority of her own party in and outside Parliament. It has proven a disaster for her government, the Tory party, and a sensible approach to Brexit. Her decision to continue this fight by delaying tactics is deeply irresponsible. It means that U.K. businesses will have no idea of what policy the U.K. government will be pursuing until after the vote is finally held. It also means that May and her ultra-Remainer finance minister, Philip Hammond, are likely to maintain their refusal to make serious preparations for a “No Deal Brexit” — if for no other reason than because it will make “No Deal” almost impossible and their own alternative harder to avoid. As a result, a deliberate campaign of Project Fear will falsely portray a Brexit under the rules of the World Trade Organization as a recipe for chaos and ensure that both Brexit and other policies will be made in an atmosphere of exaggerated hysteria.

Before the vote was canceled, it was widely accepted that a substantial defeat for May and the government would and should mean that May should resign. Withdrawing a vote in order to avoid a substantial defeat should carry the same penalty. Mrs. May can unite neither her party nor the country on a Brexit policy, and numerous opinion polls make plain that her own solution is the least popular of those canvassed. If she were to leave or be ousted by an internal Tory vote of confidence as a result, there would follow a contest for the leadership of the Conservative party. In addition to choosing a new leader, that contest would enable a serious discussion of how best — with what mix of policies — the Tories can achieve the Brexit that both the referendum and the 2017 election committed them to achieve. Conservative-party MPs should start that process tomorrow. There is no time to lose even if May is determined to keep losing it.

That is a matter for the Tory party, of course, just as Brexit is a matter for the British people. But some aspects are matters of state interest to Americans and the United States as well. Of the three reasons for rejecting May’s Withdrawal Agreement given in our first paragraph, the first is solely a matter for the Brits. But the other two reasons impinge on U.S. policy — the third in particular. On December 7, Sir Richard Dearlove, formerly the U.K.’s top spook, sent a letter to Downing Street reaffirming (contrary to what the Cabinet Office claimed) that the U.K.’s commitment to the EU’s growing defense-union structures amounted to a major danger to — among other important considerations — Britain’s relationships with the U.S. military, with NATO, and with its other non-EU military partners. His full statement can be read here, and it is worth noting that the May government has been deliberately concealing the extent of this additional surrender by May. Here is Dearlove on just one aspect of it:

These structural relationships threaten the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance that is the bedrock of western security. The Government has to choose between the anglosphere and wider world and structural subordination to Military EU. It has chosen Military EU which is absolutely the wrong choice. It is therefore an inescapeable fact that the Withdrawal documents pose a real and present threat to UK national security.

It would be sensible and right if U.S.-government officials such as Mike Pompeo and James Mattis were to speak out frankly on these questions — and on the almost inevitable U.S. response of reducing its intelligence cooperation with Britain. The Brits need to know what is at stake.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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