November 29, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads: May's Brexit Deal Might Bring Another Referendum


The European Union and United Kingdom have agreed to the terms of their divorce. The only remaining question is whether the British people, in the form of their Parliament, will accept those terms.

Though it took nearly 18 months of negotiations to reach a deal with the European Union, the British withdrawal agreement faces an even tougher test in Westminster. So far, vote counters suggest that a vote now would be defeated.

Theresa May’s Conservative Party does not have a parliamentary majority, and relies instead on the 10 votes of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland to stay in power. The DUP has declared its opposition to May's deal, since it foresees a different treatment for Northern Ireland than for the rest of the United Kingdom in the years before a new trade agreement between the United Kingdom and European Union has been reached.

The opposition Labour, Liberal Democratic, and Scottish Nationalist parties have all said they will vote against the deal. And no less than 90 Tory Members of Parliament (MPs) have publicly expressed their intention to vote against it.

May needs to build up sufficient pressure on her party for its MPs to vote for the deal. She plans to campaign around the country and marshal public support in the hope that it will put pressure on Tory MPs to vote her way. Her argument is that her deal is the only deal to be had—the European Union has said as much. The only alternative is a no-deal Brexit, which means the United Kingdom would crash out of the European Union on March 29, 2019, with none of the protections the deal currently offers.

Her campaign might not be enough, though. The deal satisfies few people—not the Brexiteers, who don’t want to be tied to the European Union in any way once the transition period ends in December 2020; and not the Remainers, who believe the continuing ties to the European Union are insufficient for the strong, continued relationship they want to have with the continent.

May’s best hope is that while no one likes her deal, everyone dislikes the possible alternatives even more. Remainers fear that the alternative to a deal is Britain crashing out of the European Union in four months' time. Brexiteers fear that if the deal fails, a new majority may emerge in favor of a second referendum, one that could result in a new vote to remain in the European Union after all.

So, it’s possible, if still unlikely, that such considerations will lead a sufficient number of MPs to vote for the deal. But even in that case, Brexit is far from done.

Passage of the deal will start the clock to Britain’s formal leaving of the European Union in March 2019. That will be followed by a transition period through December 2020 (which can be extended for another two years), during which time Britain remains functionally in the European Union but has no voice in Brussels. If London and Brussels fail to negotiate the trading and other terms of their future relationship during this transition period, Britain has committed to staying in a customs union with the European Union until a final deal is reached.

It is this long road ahead, full of uncertainties about the future EU-UK relationship, which makes majority support for the deal so unlikely. People everywhere are tired of Brexit, not least in the United Kingdom, where the issue has dominated politics and public debate for nearly three years—at great cost to almost everyone.

That is why, now that the costs and complexities of Brexit have become patently clear—in a way they were not in June 2016 when Britons voted 52-48 percent to leave the European Union—that support for a second referendum has markedly increased. For many, on both sides of the argument in Britain, the shortcomings of May’s deal suggest that the only plausible alternative is another popular vote, pitting the deal against the two real alternatives: a no-deal Brexit and remaining in the European Union.

The case against a second referendum is that the people have spoken and their votes and voices must be respected. But people also have a right to change their mind; that’s why we have regular elections in a democracy. Brexit has already been costly, but a new referendum would spare even more, guaranteed damage. On as momentous an issue as this, the future of the UK-EU relationship, surely the people should have the right to change their minds.

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Theresa May’s Letter to the Nation: Settle This and We Can Start to Build a Better Britain

Theresa May / The Times (UK)

“We will take back control of our borders . . . We will take back control of our money . . . And we will take back control of our laws . . . ,” writes British Prime Minister Theresa May in the Times about her draft Brexit deal. The United Kingdom is slated to leave the European Union on March 29, 2019, and the draft deal the prime minister is bringing to Parliament for a vote may be one of the last, best hopes to avoid a so-called “hard Brexit,” in which her country exits the European Union without any agreement on retaining access to the European market. “I will be campaigning with my heart and soul to win that vote and to deliver this Brexit deal, for the good of our United Kingdom and all of our people,” May writes.


This Brexit Deal Is the Best Available

Wolfgang Münchau / Financial Times

A good way to judge whether Prime Minister Theresa May’s draft Brexit deal is good or not is to consider how the European Union views the agreement, Wolfgang Münchau writes in the Financial Times. In short, the EU negotiators are not thrilled. After all, they have made many notable concessions to the United Kingdom. “This is the ‘Canada-plus’ option the European Union at one point said it would never agree to,” Münchau explains, “a free trade deal inside a wider association agreement; it will keep the UK closely aligned to the European Union, but with no jurisdiction of Europeans courts; and it allows the United Kingdom to set up an independent immigration policy.” It’s one thing to disagree with the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, Münchau concludes, but quite another to dismiss out of hand what is actually a robust deal by Prime Minister May.


The Brexit Road to Britain’s Collapse

Philip Stephens / Financial Times

“Gradually and suddenly is the story of Brexit,” writes Philip Stephens in the Financial Times. The 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union has been gradually draining Britain of “energy, purpose and international influence,” Stephens explains. Now, suddenly, exiting the European Union in early 2019 without a deal would be disastrous for the United Kingdom, threatening everything from the National Health Service and supermarkets to bank trading rooms. The deal Theresa May is currently shepherding through Parliament is no panacea. Stephens explains, “the accord sacrifices the big advantages of EU membership in a vain attempt to ‘take back control.’ If it means anything, ‘control’ is a capacity to advance the national interest. That will be weakened by Brexit.”


Federal Climate Change Report Paints Grim Picture for Midwest

Tony Briscoe / Chicago Tribune

“Midwest farmers will be increasingly challenged by warmer, wetter and more humid conditions from climate change, which also will lead to greater incidence of crop disease and more pests and will diminish the quality of stored grain,” reports Tony Briscoe in the Chicago Tribune. The 1,600-page federal report released Friday is “perhaps the most authoritative and comprehensive statement on the risks of climate change,” Briscoe writes. As the report makes clear, it is not just temperatures rising a bit that will cause problems. More moisture in the air can lead to more severe storms, stressing stormwater systems, for example. Diminished air quality and the increased prevalence of smog are also problems likely to get worse.


The World Needs to Quit Coal. Why Is It So Hard?

Somini Sengupta / The New York Times

“Cheap, plentiful, and the most polluting of fossil fuels, coal remains the single largest source of energy to generate electricity worldwide,” writes Somini Sengupta in the New York Times. But if the world is to prevent the worst effects of climate change, countries must end their overreliance on coal sooner rather than later, Sengupta adds. It is Asia, which accounts for three-quarters of global coal consumption, where much of the work of shifting to less polluting sources of energy needs to be done. China alone consumes more than half of the world’s coal, for example, and Vietnam, India, and Japan lean all too heavily on the hydrocarbon as well.


Trump’s Tariffs Haven’t Really Transformed Trade. Yet.

Justin Wolfers / The New York Times

“Give me a one-handed economist,” President Harry S. Truman famously quipped. “All my economists say, ‘on the one hand . . . on the other.’” Economist Justin Wolfers keeps up that important tradition in a smart, nuanced commentary in the New York Times. On one hand, the tariffs the Trump administration has put in place so far are small, especially by historical standards for the United States and when compared to other countries today. On the other hand, further escalation could be disastrous for the US economy and consumers, especially if tariffs edge higher still and President Trump follows through on his musings about withdrawing the United States from the World Trade Organization.


Mexico: AMLO’s ‘People Power’ Rattles the Markets

Jude Webber / Financial Times

In late October, Mexico’s president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or “AMLO” as he is known, announced he was cancelling construction of a $13 billion airport near Mexico City. It was an unusual move, since he had not yet become president. Yet the markets reacted as if he was, with stocks falling and bond yields rising. It was an early test case for AMLO’s so-called “people’s polls,” an attempt at participatory democracy that informally surveys the electorate on specific issues. So far, Obrador has shown little inclination to change course on his plans, even as the markets signaled their concern. After all, the election earlier this year, Webber explains, “gave him the strongest presidential mandate in a generation.”


The Website That Shows How a Free Press Can Die

Patrick Kingsley and Benjamin Novak / The New York Times

The Hungarian news website Origo was once a vibrant source of independent reporting, Patrick Kingsley and Benjamin Novak write in the New York Times. It has since become little more than a government cheerleader, trumpeting Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s agenda and attacking his opponents. It is a story not of a sudden, blatant power grab, but rather of more subtle backroom dealings that brought control of the website under Orban backers, and then brought the editorial stance of reporters firmly behind Orban. As a result, the once independent but financially strapped company is now awash in money from the government in the form of advertising revenue. In all, Origo has become, as Kingsley and Novak explain, “a cautionary tale for an age in which democratic norms and freedom of expression are being challenged globally.”


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