“Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” Words attributed to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu which, while obviously true when applied to water’s ability to erode rocks over time, bespeak of a flexibility largely absent – perhaps understandably so – from the Brexit negotiations. With the constant talk of red lines, non-negotiable principles, respecting the will of the people, and the like, it was never going to be straight forward to reconcile the irreconcilable: all the advantages of membership of the European Union with all the advantages of non-membership. Nevertheless, as the Brexit journey reaches a critical point, the Polish foreign minister has urged the EU to take a flexible approach.
Speaking in Brussels on Monday, Jacek Czaputowicz told reporters that Poland was advocating “a certain measure of flexibility” since a no-deal Brexit – so beloved of some in the UK – would be the “worst solution”, not just for the UK but for the almost one million Poles who work and live in the UK. This comes as British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday postponed a parliamentary vote on the Brexit withdrawal agreement she had negotiated with the EU since, as May herself told the House of Commons, she wished to avoid a situation where “the deal would be rejected by a significant margin.”
May told the Commons that she would return to Brussels to seek more concessions while the European Commission said it did not intend to renegotiate the agreement, albeit that it might explore ways of helping Parliament to ratify the deal, whatever that means. The simple fact of the matter is that May has managed to come up with a withdrawal agreement that satisfies nobody except, perhaps, the EU. While all rational thinkers might have expected the deal to offer worse terms than membership, the withdrawal agreement, all 585 pages of it, seems not only to reduce the benefits available to the UK, but also to impose additional restrictions and, potentially, financial commitments. And as a binding international treaty, it commits the UK neither to heaven nor hell but perpetual purgatory, the escape from which would be wholly in the gift of the EU. No wonder everybody from ardent leavers to committed remainers is against it.
So where next? That depends on whether common sense prevails. While it is noble that Parliament does indeed feel the need – against its better judgement – to respect the will of the people as manifest in the result of the referendum in 2016, as circumstances change, so must one’s opinions. For anybody brought up in the British parliamentary tradition with its emphasis on genuine democratic accountability, something seemingly absent from most continental European systems, the EU has always been problematic. And it is no answer to say economic well-being should always trump democratic considerations, or you end up with some totalitarian system: rampant crony capitalism with little real freedom – China perhaps.
Be that as it may, one has to start from where one actually is rather than from where one would like to be. And, after 45 years in the EU and its predecessor manifestations, leaving was always going to be a complex task with questionable immediate benefits for either side. Of course, the Germans will continue to wish to sell us their cars and the French their wine, but the relationship is more complicated than finished good. Supply chains and just in time manufacturing mean that parts cross borders many times before the finished goods do. Interrupt that and the Germans will continue to sell us their cars, but they may simply decide not to build them in the UK. Which has an impact on the livelihoods of many folk, for whom the realisation that a no-deal Brexit, however attractive in economic laboratory conditions, may take a generation from which to recover is cold comfort, however they voted.
No wonder that over 61 per cent of Poles, according to a survey by IBRiS, believe that Brexit will have a negative impact on Poland. According to the survey, 10 per cent of respondents said Brexit could be beneficial for Poland, over 15 per cent said it would have no effect on Poland, while 13 per cent were undecided. This despite that fact that the withdrawal agreement includes, according to Polish Radio’s IAR news agency the two most important points for Poland: guarantees of EU citizens’ rights in the UK after Brexit, and a pledge that the UK will continue to contribute to the EU budget after Britain leaves.
So, to answer my question: tear up the withdrawal agreement and start again. The European Court of Justice helpfully ruled on Monday that the UK is free to withdraw the article 50 notice unilaterally before 29thMarch 2019. There is a better deal to be done for the long-term advantage of UK than those who advocate either a scorched earth Brexit or perpetual vassalage, a false dichotomy if ever there were one.