hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 14 December 2018

A Brexit Briefing Note

To:      A Senior Italian

From: Professor Dr Julian Lindley-French

Date:   14 December 2018


In the wake of last night’s dinner at the European Council and the suspension by Her Majesty’s Government of the Parliamentary vote on the Withdrawal Agreement Britain’s exiting of the European Union is at an impasse.

·       If permitted to endure this impasse will further damage relations between the United Kingdom (UK), the European Union (EU) and its member states, and threaten to impact upon NATO.

·       The specific cause of friction is the so-called Irish Backstop which will be triggered in the event of no agreement on the future political and trading relationship between the EU and the UK.

·       In such circumstances, a part of the UK, Northern Ireland, would remain effectively part of the EU single market and customs union to prevent a so-called hard border on the island of Ireland. The fear is that a hard border could threaten the standing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended twenty-five years of armed struggle between Irish Nationalist and Republican groups and Loyalist and Protestant groups.

·       The failure to reach an agreement over the future political and trading relationship would see a de facto customs ‘border’ established in the Irish Sea between two parts of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

·       A significant section of the ruling Conservative and Unionist Party see such an infringement of national sovereignty as too high a price for an agreement with the EU and thus seek what they term a ‘clean Brexit’, i.e. no deal.

·       Last night the French and Irish governments respectively took a very hard line over any possible adjustment to, or indeed possible reassurances over, the temporary nature of the Backstop. This markedly increased the likelihood that on 29 March 2019 Britain will leave the EU without a deal, immediately become a so-called Third Country, and thus be excluded from both the single market and the customs union with profound implications for trade and the wider British and European economies.       


There are several background and more immediate political factors that have led to this situation. It is also fair to say that the seeds of Brexit were set back in 1972 when then Prime Minister Edward Heath suppressed the legal advice that confirmed the then European Economic Community had ambitions for political integration that went far beyond what was called by the British the ‘Common Market’. The causes of the current crisis can be thus summarised: 

·       The British Parliament formally, and overwhelmingly, contracted out the decision on Britain’s future membership of the EU to the British people in the form of the June 2016 referendum. However, much of Parliament and their Remainer followers in the country have refused to accept the result.    

·       In March 2017 the British Parliament also overwhelmingly agreed to invoke Article 50 and formally set in motion the formal two-year process of withdrawal from the treaties of the European Union.

·       In June 2017 Prime Minister May called a snap general election in an attempt to increase her majority in the House of Commons and thus strengthen her Brexit Parliamentary and negotiating positions. She achieved neither and since that failure has been forced to backtrack on the firm statements of British policy objectives she made in her January 2017 Lancaster House speech.

·       As her position became progressively weaker Prime Minister May side-lined her pro-Brexit ministers in the Cabinet and handed over the detailed negotiation of both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on a Future Partnership to senior civil servants. Whilst professional the civil service has seen the negotiations as an exercise in damage limitation and thus further reduced Britain’s negotiating ambition.

·       The political weakness of Prime Minister May and the lack of certainty over Britain’s negotiating objectives enabled the European Commission to adopt a very hard-line negotiating position which has prevailed.

·       The forced disclosure last week to Parliament of the legal advice to the Prime Minister made it clear that the Withdrawal Agreement as envisaged would force Britain into a form of legal subservience to the EU and possibly in perpetuity. This led, in turn, this week to a triggering of a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister May. She won that vote but her political position has been further weakened.                    


Britain is suffering a humiliation at the hands of the EU and its member-states that is akin to a strategic defeat. If forced into a form of subservience to Brussels by becoming a so-called ‘rule-taker’ rather than a ‘rule-maker’ the implications for the EU, UK and possibly NATO are profound and can be thus summarised:

·       Possible break-up of the UK: with the humbling of London by Brussels Scottish Nationalists will increase efforts to secure Scottish independence. They will claim the real power in Scotland is Brussels, not London and that after some 415 years since the Union of Crowns in 1603 England and Scotland should separate.

·       Hatred of the EU: Across large swathes of so-called Middle England, the most powerful political constituency in the UK, the EU has traditionally been seen as an irritant. In the wake of such a defeat, the EU could well come to be hated and seen as a coercive power imposing a form of virtual occupation upon the UK.  

·       De facto loss of the UK to NATO: In such circumstances, the UK could well finally lose any will to play the role it has traditionally played as Europe’s strongest military power. Worse, a growing constituency in England is likely to question Britain’s security and defence commitment to Europe.

Possible ways forward:

·       No deal: under the terms of Article 50 this is the default position if the current situation pertains unless either A50 is suspended under the terms of this week’s European Court of Justice ruling, or extended in agreement with the EU in an attempt to find and/or finesse a politically-acceptable solution. As of last night, the latter option is unlikely as the European Council is unwilling to either renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement or even offer meaningful assurances on the temporary nature of the Backstop.

·       Another general election: this is the preferred option for the opposition Labour Party which if successful would see Jeremy Corbyn returned as Prime Minister. A Corbyn government, under pressure from its mainly young activists, would undoubtedly seek full membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union in what would in effect be a de facto renunciation of the Referendum. He would claim that his electoral mandate provided the legitimacy for such a reversal. However, Corbyn is to the far left of the political spectrum and holds life-long pacifist and Euro-sceptic views. He would likely move quickly to reduce defence expenditure and end Britain’s role as a strategic actor of any weight. He would also demand the EU suspend rules on state aid so he could begin a programme of renationalisation across swathes of British industry and transport. Corbyn is unlikely to get his way even if he triggers a vote of no confidence in the May government in the New Year (as he is threatening) because under the Fixed Term Parliament Act the next national vote is scheduled for no later than May 2022.  
·       Second referendum: There is a growing demand amongst Remainer campaign groups for a second referendum or ‘People’s Vote’ to reverse the June 2016 decision to leave.  Such a referendum is replete with dangers. It would be seen by many of the 17.4 million who voted to leave in 2016, in what was the biggest vote in British democratic history, as an attempt to simply deny them what they were promised when they voted – that Government would act on their decision. Such a vote would also be seen as the natural heir to the 2005 votes in Denmark, France and the Netherlands over the draft Constitutional Treaty and thus little more than an exercise in elite manipulation and betrayal. This would undoubtedly open the door to more populism and hatred of the EU. Such a vote would also take time to organise and hold. Finally, the incumbent Government would also need to legislate which Prime Minister May has said she will not do under any circumstances.

·       Adjusted Withdrawal Agreement: the most likely option at present is some adjustment to the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration to assuage the fears of those MPs who oppose the current deal. The so-called ‘meaningful vote’ must now take place prior to 21 January 2019. Downing Street is hoping that with 29 March fast approaching, and when faced with what hard-line Remainers call ‘crashing out’ of the EU, MPs will finally accept the current proposal. Without some adjustment, this hope is unlikely to be fulfilled unless there was a Damascene conversion on the part of large numbers of MPs publicly and implacably opposed to the Withdrawal Agreement.  Critically, the small Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (or DUP) currently props up May’s minority agreement and they are implacably opposed to any deal that treats Northern Ireland as separate from the rest of the UK. However, the French and Irish effectively blocked that possible route last night and in so doing tipped Anglo-Irish and Franco-British relations into crisis, thus confirming and reinforcing the impasse.

A Creative Way Forward?

One thing that has been apparent throughout this entire tragic process has been the lack of negotiating creativity on either side. All Europeans face emerging political and security challenges and to lose cohesion so profoundly at such a critical juncture is disastrous. That analysis was the main reason I actively campaigned to remain in the 2016 referendum. It may well be that the deadlock in Parliament will require some form of a referendum. However, such a vote could not, and should not, be seen as simply a ‘now get it right this time you morons’ vote for that would undoubtedly backfire. Therefore, any such vote would need to be the first vote on a new arrangement between the UK and the EU with the options on the voting slip leave or remain within the framework of the EU under new terms.

However, for such an idea to work the UK would need to accept that the writ of the European Court of Justice would endure across large swathes of British jurisprudence. Equally, for such an idea to have any chance of working the EU would also have to accept adjustments to the so-called four freedoms, most notably freedom of movement.  If successful Britain would become a Senior Associate Member of the EU and be exempted from further economic, monetary or political union unless it so chose. Such a status would befit Britain’s status as a top five world power and limit the reputational damage now being inflicted on the EU as the intransigent bureaucratic destroyer of democracy. A central concern of many Britons (this one included) is echoed across Europe – that the EU is morphing into some form of empire run by an unaccountable, distant elite with the gap between voting and power growing inexorably. The danger is that the EU is coming to be seen by millions as the Nemesis of democracy in Europe rather than its upholder.


My position is clear: I am an Englishman, a Briton and a European.  There is a danger now that those three identities will become mutually exclusive.  It has always been my belief that Europeans should seek to work ever closer together and that is still my position. However, that belief also contains within it implacable opposition to the gutting of the nation-state and the concentration of too much distant power in too few elite Brussels hands. Whilst I regret this situation profoundly my country is now under attack from hard-liners in Brussels and elsewhere and I will defend it whatever it takes, whether the attacks come from Dublin, Paris or wherever. 

This is because the stakes are so high for the Britain that I love. Britain was born as a strategic project and it will die if it is humiliated. Intended or not that humiliation is now underway from institutions in which I have believed for much of my life and from people I have long regarded as friends. Please be aware that these are the stakes if we fail to find an amicable solution to the Brexit imbroglio as friends. If not, along with many of my fellow Britons, I will join the Resistance.

Julian Lindley-French,

14 December 2018

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