With just three months to go before the UK leaves the European Union, the politics of Brexit have heated up. Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement was to have been voted on by the House of Commons earlier in December, but the vote was instead delayed to the end of January. While May defeated a no confidence motion from Brexiteer MPs within her own party, she still faces a Labour Party-tabled confidence vote in the House of Commons – which she will almost certainly win.
Theresa May and her closest advisors are now playing a game of poker. They are hoping that by almost running out of time, MPs in the House of Commons will support her withdrawal agreement – because the only other realistic option by then might be a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Meanwhile, preparations by the UK, Ireland and the European Commission are being stepped up in case of a ‘no deal’ outcome.
Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt has spoken of a ‘managed no deal’ result, which might involve separate agreements to resolve specific areas of concern, despite the lack of a formal overall divorce settlement. Business leaders have responded that this is fanciful and it is impossible to manage a ‘no deal’ result, especially so close to the deadline. Despite the continuing fall in unemployment, the reality is that many businesses have already announced they will cut employment because of Brexit, while thousands of financial services jobs are being transferred from London to Dublin.
Three options are still possible – the Theresa May withdrawal agreement; crashing out without a deal; or a second referendum, the so-called ‘People’s Vote’, to potentially reverse the decision to leave the UK. But May’s poker-type strategy of leaving the final decision as late as possible makes a second referendum much less likely. This is despite a ruling from the European Court of Justice that the UK can still halt Brexit by unilaterally revoking Article 50. Time is running out on that option, though. My expectation is still, on balance, that May will succeed in pushing through her withdrawal agreement, with the backing of a number of Labour MPs whose priority is not to leave the EU without a deal.
Even the withdrawal agreement leaves holes, though. Despite earlier predictions, there are not as yet arrangements in place for UK citizens living in the UK to be able to use European Health Insurance Cards (EHICs, formerly known as E111s) in the EU beyond the transition period, which ends at the close of 2020. Nor, at present, would Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland be able to use EHICs under the current negotiated exit terms, though Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said that he hopes to have this agreed. We also now know that it is likely that UK citizens will have to pay £7 to obtain a visa to be able to visit continental EU countries.
Ironically, the whole purpose of Brexit has been thrown into doubt by a new government announcement. It is generally accepted that immigration concerns were a major factor, and probably the single most significant factor, behind the Brexit vote. The government has now announced that it is dropping its existing target to reduce immigration. It is likely that Brexit will not reduce immigration at all, though it may lead to greater levels of global migration into the UK, in place of EU migration. The details, like much else, are unclear at present.
The difficulties in planning for Brexit have damaged local investment. There is perhaps no business more challenged by Brexit than Foyle Port, which is literally a cross-border business both in terms of its location and its customer base, which comes from both jurisdictions. Brian McGrath, who is chief executive of the port and the new president of Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, explains how the port is dealing with this in the latest Holywell Trust Brexit podcast.
We also have interviews with three of the sharpest Brexit analyists. Dr Katy Hayward of Queen’s University has written extensively on the impact of Brexit on the border and community relations. Professor Kevin O’Rourke of Oxford University is perhaps the most perceptive writer to have documented Ireland’s economic transformation over recent decades and is author of the soon to be published ‘A Short History of Brexit’. And David McWilliams is Ireland’s most entertaining, and arguably most accurate, economist, who provides a pithy analysis of Brexit.
The latest Holywell Trust Brexit podcast is available now at https://soundcloud.com/holywelltrust/holywell-podcast-brexit-focus-ep-13