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Vassalage or Power? Thoughts for Would-Be Prime Ministers

Written by Caroline Bell

Tory leadership contenders (some of whom one is hard put even to identify) can spout as much nonsense as they like about renegotiating Theresa May’s ‘deal’ with the EU. But absolutely nothing has changed since she announced her departure and pulled publication of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

VASSALAGE OR POWER? THOUGHTS FOR WOULD-BE PRIME MINISTERS

It is still Groundhog May, as our soon-to-be retired Prime Minister pronounces the same old lines from Brussels about trying her best to deliver Brexit and Jean-Claude Juncker makes it plain – yet again – that the Withdrawal Agreement she signed (which, as Eurocrats helpfully explained in a revealing BBC4 documentary, turns us into an EU colony) is non-renegotiable.

The EU has got exactly what it wants and has washed its hands of Brexit. The European Council held on 28 May could not have more glaringly illustrated that fact. With the Prime Minister’s help, the EU27 have now relegated the UK to what one might call ‘pre-vassalage’ status, as a fully paid up associate member state, which cannot exercise any influence or power, let alone disagree with any legislative proposals the EU may choose to impose.

By accepting a long extension on the condition that the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified, Theresa May committed the UK to paying a full year’s budget contribution (some £18 billion) to Brussels. The legality of doing so by a negative statutory instrument is highly questionable, but that is the current position. The money has now been committed, whether we leave tomorrow, next week or on 31 October. Brussels has already scoped out grounds for a claim under Article 70 of the Vienna Convention on Treaties (regarding continuing rights and obligations) should we refuse to pay up in a no-deal Brexit . This is why the EU insisted we hold European elections, so nominally we could be said to be exercising the rights that give rise to the financial obligation. Except that we aren’t exercising our rights at all. Under the terms of the Article 50 extension, we may do nothing to impede or interfere with the business of the EU:

“The European Council takes note of the commitment by the United Kingdom to act in a constructive and responsible manner throughout the extension period in accordance with the duty of sincere cooperation, and expects the United Kingdom to fulfil this commitment and Treaty obligation in a manner that reflects its situation as a withdrawing Member State. To this effect, the United Kingdom shall facilitate the achievement of the Union’s tasks and shall refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives, in particular when participating in the decision-making processes of the Union.”

So we have no say and no veto on matters which could be of key concern to us for many years to come, which is exactly what our position would be under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. Indeed, the discussion about the top jobs in the EU could be brought swiftly to a close to ensure that France and Germany get their people in place for the next five years in the (unlikely) event that we revoke Article 50 and return to mix things up a little.

The European press today is full of the power struggle between President Macron and Angela Merkel over the allocation of top jobs in the next Commission. Will Mr Juncker be replaced by Germany’s preferred candidate Manfred Weber, or will Dutchman Frans Timmerman take over as a compromise candidate? Will France slip in Michel Barnier at the last minute and allow Germany to nominate one of their own as the next governor of the European Central Bank? Who is Macron courting to form a blocking alliance against Merkel, who is sitting on the fence? The horse trading is blatant and brutal. And the UK isn’t even on the fence. It is in the wilderness, an irrelevant but very profitable cash cow.

Mrs May’s role as a silent onlooker in a debate that will have a major impact on us, should we remain attached to the EU through her toxic colony agreement, is painful to observe. But it presents a very timely and salutary lesson to those who are clinging to the ridiculous notion that her ‘deal’ is in any way salvageable.

This Council meeting demonstrates unequivocally that in EU calculations, the UK now counts for nothing. We have been neutralised as a competitor and demoted politically. They still get our cash, free access to our markets, our waters, regulatory control of our industry and business, including our globally dominant financial services, as well as legal supremacy, but they no longer have British representatives wielding any kind of say in Council meetings where the backroom deals are made and policy initiatives are agreed – policies which we will be legally obliged to implement and enforce unless we make a clean Brexit on WTO rules. This is our permanent future status under the Withdrawal Agreement.

Such a dispiriting sight should serve as a grave warning to anyone basing their pitch to be prime minister on railroading through some version of May’s execrable ‘deal’. No amount of tweaking of the Political Declaration or ‘legally binding exchange of letters’ will make this pig of a treaty fly. It would lock us into a cage with our hands handcuffed behind our backs in a Brussels jail known as ‘the deepest circle of hell’.

The Withdrawal Agreement is, by any definition, dead. It has been resoundingly rejected three times by Parliament. It will not pass. Promising to tinker with it in order to get a second referendum may be the game plan for Remainer contenders for the Tory leadership, but the timetable and the politics make such a strategy extremely unlikely to succeed. The vote for a clean Brexit last Thursday was resounding. The legal default position is still a WTO Brexit on 31 October (or sooner if the EU concludes in June that the Withdrawal Agreement will never be ratified and decides to take the money and run, in order not to have rambunctious Brexit Party MEPs taking up their seats).

The results of the European elections should remind all Conservative Party leadership candidates that they can no longer bully MPs into supporting May’s deal by threatening an election that would see a Marxist Labour government. It’s not Jeremy Corbyn they need to worry about, but Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party, which topped the poll not only in the Labour-leaving North, but in Tory heartlands in the South, including the Prime Minister’s constituency. Under first-past-the-post, there is no longer a single Tory seat that can be regarded as safe.

So which is it to be, vassalage or power?

 

‘Caroline Bell’ is a civil servant.

About the author

Caroline Bell