Kishwer Falkner, Baroness Falkner of Margravine, is the Chairman of the EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee in the House of Lords and a distinguished fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. In this blog post, she discusses British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal ahead of next week’s parliamentary vote.

Over the last few years, British people have taken a crash course in geography. Apparently, the day after the EU referendum in June 2016, the most frequent search on Google UK was ‘what is the EU?’. Bear in mind that 33.6 million people, on a turnout of 72.2 per cent, voted on the question. In the two years since, MPs have been Googling ‘Canada ++’ and ‘Norway +’, they even discovered the Irish Border problem – all driven by a search for an alternative to the Brexit on offer.

We are days from the definitive vote on the UK’s journey out of the EU, the Withdrawal Agreement. Theresa May’s government is set to lose this vote on December 11. Amid speculation that it might be postponed (presumably until either a better deal could be put, or Tory rebel numbers could be reduced), Downing Street has confirmed there will be no delay. They see an opportunity for a badly bruised Mrs. May, once defeated, to seek a better deal when she attends an EU meeting on December 13-14. She could ask for a change to the most objectionable proposal which provides different treatment for Northern Ireland with indefinite EU oversight – effectively an EU veto.

But in any event, defeat or no defeat, the alternatives are all worse, in my view, than Mrs. May’s compromise deal. The most obvious one is the campaign for a ‘people’s vote’. The greatest defect with this comes with its timing and the uncertainty of outcome. Had there been a second vote before the legislation to leave the EU (as has been the case in most other EU countries where a second referendum has corrected the ‘wrong’ result) with a simple reversal question, it might have worked for Remainers.

Leaving it until the 11th hour not only involves repealing/passing legislation but also encounters the problem that this 585-page legal text is incapable of being put in a referendum question.  Additionally, there is no agreement in parliament on how many questions there would be or how they would be worded. Needless to say, the Brexiteers see a second referendum as a betrayal, and the Government is unpersuaded for the same reason.

Alternatively, the UK could join EFTA/EEA – the so-called Norway Plus option. This is the brainchild of former Tory Minister Nick Boles and is touted as Plan B. The problem is that it would keep the UK in the Single Market for goods and services but would not be enough to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland. Hence the ‘plus’, which means joining the Customs Union too.  This would result in the free movement of people, no trade deals, no seat or vote, significant ‘taxation without representation’ and the need for regulatory alignment with EU law. Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England pointed out it would make the UK financial services sector, which is 20 times that of Norway, a complete rule-taker, with negative implications for financial stability. I spoke on this in parliament yesterday.

Finally, we could have ‘No Deal’ – the preferred Brexiteer solution of walking away next March. Mrs. May says that parliament either votes for her deal, no deal, or no Brexit – the latter presumably resulting from an impasse next week or after a second vote.  As parliament will not wear ‘no deal’ due to the ensuing economic damage and the lack of even a transition period after March 29th, it is unlikely to settle for that.

For me, the only choice is Mrs May’s deal – although there is much to dislike about it. It is the incompatibility of Brexit with the priority of keeping Northern Ireland together that has brought us here. Such is the state of UK leadership that sadly the whole country will pay the price of what is to come.  There are no good options here.

December 7, 2018