The fog is lifting. The plot is thickening. Minds are being concentrated. Brexit has turned out to be a national nightmare.
The UK-EU negotiations are clarifying the choices. Per now, August 2018, the British people and their Parliament have in front of them a menu with three options.
- Alternative 1: There will be a deal along the lines of the government’s Chequers agreement.
- Alternative 2: Britain leaves the EU without a comprehensive future trade deal and on World Trade Organisation terms.
- Alternative 3: Brexit is suspended and Britain remains a member of the EU.
These are the only available options. A deal may be struck along the lines now under discussion. The government has concluded that this is the only kind of deal that is available, and a deal of this kind might be acceptable to the EU. Britain leaving on WTO terms is undesirable, but could happen. The government is making contingency plans for this eventuality. Britain remaining in the EU could happen if there were a change of mind.
The problem, however, is that all three available outcomes are impossible, not one or two of them but all three.
- Alternative 1 is impossible because it implies Britain making itself a rule-taker of rules it has had no say in making. That is impossible for one of Europe’s big powers. A small country like Norway can live as a rule-taker, but not a big power. A vote ostensibly to take back sovereignty cannot result in the country diminishing itself to obeying other people’s rules.
- Alternative 2 is impossible because it would risk the disintegration of the United Kingdom and come with other costs. It would give the Scottish nationalists the arguments they need to enforce and win another independence referendum, and put Irish unification back on the agenda. The economic costs, and costs to other forms of European collaboration, would be unacceptable.
- Alternative 3 is impossible because Parliament has put the question of EU membership to a referendum and the referendum has decided that Britain will end its membership.
There are no good options available. In the end, Parliament must decide. Somehow, Parliament must cut through and choose between outcomes that all have their own impossibilities.
The ongoing negotiations will reduce the menu from three to two choices. If there is a deal, the choice will be between Alternatives 1 and 3. If there is not deal, it will be between Alternatives 2 and 3. In the first case, will Parliament reduce Britain to the status of rule-taker? Impossible. In the second case, will Parliament put the Union itself at risk? Impossible.
These matters will come to a head in Parliament later this year, or early next year. Neither Alternative 1 nor Alternative 2 will command a majority. The government will fall. There will have to be either another government, possibly a broad coalition under fresh leadership, or a new election, or a second referendum, or some combination of these.