“Trick or treat?” might be the classic Halloween question but on October 31, 2019 the festivities are expected to take a different turn at least in one place in the world - in the United Kingdom the big question this Halloween is “Deal or no deal?” as Brexit, the 3-year-long process of leaving the EU is officially set to happen on that day.
Or so it is said in the papers. In reality, Brexit of today is a political mess which too many people find rather difficult to follow. After digging through many headlines concerning the latest developments, I sat down with Imad Ahmed from the Lib Dems and Paddy Ashdown Forum hoping to bring some clarity into the situation.
“A lot has happened but a lot has not happened,'' he warned me with a laugh as I started recording our conversation.
“The story begins on.. Well it depends on where you want to begin, but there are several key dates.”
The question of whether the UK wanted to be part of the European Union has been dividing both Conservative and Labour parties since the 1970’s.
But it was in 2015 that Prime Minister David Cameron put the promise of a referendum into his election manifesto.
On the 23rd of June 2016, 52% of the overall 72% who could turn out to vote decided that they wanted to leave the European Union.
In March 2017, the new Prime Minister Theresa May signed Article 50 of the Treaty of European Union, officially kick-starting the two-year countdown to the country’s exiting the EU. According to the article, the UK should have left Europe by the end of March this year.
In September 2019 the parliament passed what is colloquially known as the Benn act, which prevents the UK leaving the EU without a deal. And this act is where all the trouble lays, because the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson finds it difficult to please both his opponents and members of his own party.
“On Saturday Boris Johnson sent a letter to the EU, although he deliberately did not sign it and that was a bit childish of him,” Mr. Ahmed told me, “But anyway, he sent the letter requesting to again extend the deadline of leaving.”
Actually, Boris Johnson sent a total of three letters to the EU: an unsigned photocopy of the request he was obliged to send, an explanatory letter from the UK’s ambassador to the EU and a personal letter explaining why he did not want an extension, citing the “corrosive impact” of the delay as one of the reasons. At the end of the letter he assured his partners he would still be able to pass the negotiated deal.
“Now from what I'm hearing, that's very optimistic,” Mr. Ahmed reasoned. In his opinion, the UK is set for yet another extension of the process. One of the main reasons for that is the rift within the Conservative party.
The useful way of looking at the Conservative Party is that it's broken into three sorts of constituencies: the super wealthy, who own a lot of assets whether through inheritance or through good luck and some hard work; pro-business conservatives, high earners who don't want a high income tax and prefer fewer regulations; those trying to reach the broader electorate through appealing to people’s nationalism and the nostalgic sense of the glorious past.
“As the EU tried to create a level playing field for all the countries, the super wealthy preferred to exit the single market and avoid high taxation, whereas the pro-business conservatives pushed to remain in the EU and continue trading with the bloc. This rift is what prompted David Cameron to try and end this debate once and for all.”
But the debate seems to be far from resolved as there is still no deal in sight. I asked Mr. Ahmed if a no-deal outcome would be possible.
“We have our mechanisms to ask for a national extension and the EU is expected to grant it.” He reasoned, “Either way, one thing we are going to have is the general elections.”
This is where the game gets tough - Johnson’s Conservative Party seems to be facing an existential crisis as it is expected to lose more seats in the upcoming elections. With enough pressure from the remain side there is still a possibility of a second referendum - Dr. Ahmed thinks that pro-business conservatives are likely to join the remain side together with Liberal Democrats and somewhat reluctant Labour Party.
But what if the history repeats itself?
“Well, if the polls are anything to go by, then the country has become increasingly pro-remain. But if you lose two referendums on one issue in quick succession, then I think it becomes evident that people really do want Brexit.
If you've asked the question a second time, then you probably need to accept it.
In the midst of the debate, there is the unresolved question of Northern Ireland and Scotland. I asked Mr. Ahmed to break down each case.
“Theresa May just kept repeating her mantra of “Brexit means Brexit” and she was absolutely right. It is something for people - especially within the Conservative Party as nationalists - to bear in mind - Brexit does mean Brexit, the breakup of Great Britain.”
He reasons that with some time, Northern Ireland is likely to become part of Ireland, as Brexit envisions a free flow of people and goods between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland but not between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
“That is the natural evolution, especially under this arrangement.”
The Scots also feel betrayed by the Westminster following their own referendum.
“As they decided to stay in the UK, they were promised by England that “We're better together.” Now where are we on that stance?”
The Scottish National Party is going to run on a campaign of yet another Shottish referendum because circumstances have changed - leaving the EU scraps a lot of benefits for Scotland.
Once the UK is out of the EU, Scotland will be able to reach out to them.
It still remains to be seen whether Boris Johnson’s letter-writing pays off. Dr. Ahmed thinks there is not much the EU can do at the moment - it is up to the British government to sort the situation out. With another extension in sight, a joke I saw recently comes to mind:
“The year is 2192. The British Prime Minister visits Brussels to ask for an extension of the Brexit deadline. No one remembers where this tradition originated, but every year it attracts many tourists from all over the world.”
For now the year is 2019 but time seems to be running out.
*Illustarations: qrius.com and behance.net