Anti-Brexit demonstrators wave European Union (EU) flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

Brexit No-Dealers Are Down, But They’re Not Out

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One salutary thing about endgames is that the strengths and weaknesses of both sides become impossible to hide. As the U.K. parliament heads toward its vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal Tuesday, it might look as if nothing has changed. But that’s not quite true: The founding myth of the hardline Brexiters has been debunked. The worry is that they still manage to drag the rest of the country down with them.

The campaign to “take back control” from the EU captured a national moment of frustration. The Leave campaign tapped into a combination of unhappiness after years of austerity and the fear that mass migration from Europe would threaten Britain’s way of life and its cash-starved public services. Together, they created a powerful argument for building walls. But the pitch rested on a clever deceit too: that the walls would come cheap.

Ultimately, Brexit cheerleaders like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg argued, the EU had too great a financial interest – from Ireland’s U.K.-tied economy to Germany’s export-dependent car manufacturers — not to play nice at the negotiating table. That argument changed very little after the referendum was won. When concessions didn’t materialize, Brexiters blamed 10 Downing Street. If only Prime Minister May had a stiffer backbone; if only she would just insist.

The claim was always an egregious misreading of how the EU looks after its own interests. As the head of the German business federation told the BBC after the vote, just because 7.5 percent of German exports go to the U.K. doesn’t mean Germany will ignore where the other 92.5 percent goes.

Monday’s letter to May from the European Council President Donald Tusk and the Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker ought to dash once and for all the “have-your-cake-and-eat-it” argument. Any hopes that Brussels would change the negotiated deal were put to rest: “As you know, we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement,” the leaders stated. But even if there was little in the letter for the hardcore Brexiters to swallow, there were a few crumbs for May.

While the missive largely repeats the undertakings in the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement, there were some subtle changes on the all-important “backstop” — the post-Brexit guarantee of “no hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that so infuriates the hardliners in May’s Conservative Party and their allies in the Democratic Unionist Party.

According to the Withdrawal Agreement, the backstop would come into play in the event that the U.K. and the EU failed to strike a trade agreement by 2022 that kept an open border. Yet in the letter, Tusk and Juncker express their ambition to do a deal quickly and, more important, say they would provisionally implement any negotiated EU-U.K. trade deal without waiting for approval from the 27 member states (something that might take a long time.) 

Second, the letter states that any future trade deal wouldn’t need to “build on” the backstop arrangements in the Withdrawal Agreement, a stipulation that led to fears that Brussels would try to lock Britain into a permanent customs union or bind its hands on regulations. Third, Tusk and Juncker were more explicit about wanting to find “facilitative arrangements and technologies” to replace the backstop.

May seized on the letter as having genuine legal weight, telling Parliament that any Brexit other than a “no deal” (which happens automatically should agreement not be reached by the end of March) would need a backstop. Still, while the letter might persuade a few of May’s wavering MPs, it was dismissed by the DUP, the Northern Ireland Party on which she depends for her parliamentary majority. The DUP still insists that the backstop violates the constitutional integrity of the U.K., a view shared by Conservative hardliners.

So, even though the delusions of Johnson and his chums have been shattered, that doesn’t mean they’ve been disarmed quite yet — even if many moderate lawmakers believe that’s the case. The more obvious it has become that the EU won’t really budge, the more extreme the Brexiters’ position has grown. Hardliners, who never dreamed of leaving the EU without a negotiated deal during the referendum, now say “this is not Dunkirk” and that the country would cope. While their claims fly in the face of expert opinion, many Conservative voters agree.

If May’s government isn’t willing to rule out a no-deal Brexit — and it’s still to be hoped that she does — then Parliament will certainly try. So long as hardline Brexiters can keep the standoff going, their threat still has some bite.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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