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Theresa May Serious Edited

Explaining May's Brexit betrayal in 1,000 words

Bruce Oliver Newsome
December 7, 2018

Theresa May increasingly looks like a demagogue who treats democracy like a naïve lover whom she can alternatively abuse or flatter.

She flattered with her determination to fulfil the popular will for Brexit that was expressed in June 2016, but in the following two years she remained evasive, unclear, or contradictory about what Brexit means. (Her commonest mantra that "Brexit meansBrexit" is circular and thus means nothing.)

In the process, she enabled the myth that Brexiteers didn't know what they were voting for. Now, all the options that are sold as Brexit look more like Remain, with the only true Brexit option mischaracterized as "no deal," "crashing out," and "falling off a cliff."

Back in 2016, everybody was quite clear that leaving the EU meant leaving the single market, customs union, European Court of Justice, and every extenuation and entanglement. The then prime minister (David Cameron) made clear that a vote for leave was a vote to leave the EU entirely (on the day after the vote, he added). He kept making this clear as part of his government's appeal to our natural averseness to change.

May too campaigned to Remain, until, after succeeding Cameron, she promised to leave the single market, customs union, EU jurisdiction, and everything else, and to replace them with a free trade agreement and similar bilateral agreements in our national interest, such as reciprocal extradition of criminals. These commitments were added to the Conservative Party manifesto for the general election in 2017.

However, by 2018 May was planning to stay in the customs union, the defence and security unions, and the EU's environmental and labour regimes, with all associated fees and jurisdiction.

May sells her plan as a compromise, but a fake Brexit that looks more like Remain is a capitulation and a betrayal, not a compromise.

Since initiating Article 50 in March 2017, May has claimed that Britain will be leaving the EU in March 2019 (because Article 50 specifies leaving within two years after notification), but in practice Britain will be leaving only in the sense of losing its powers as a member. Britain will retain all responsibilities and obligations to the EU.

The period afterMarch 2019 is known variously as "interim" or "transition," but should be known as an indefinite extension of membership without authorities – or purgatory, for short.

This purgatory is indefinite until the EU says otherwise. It probably won't end until Britain attempts to re-join the EU. This is because the EU can veto our request. May's draft withdrawal agreement (now approved by all other member states) specifies that both Britain and the EU must agree when Britain can leave. If they dispute, the matter is referred ultimately to the ECJ (although May keeps pretending that it will be adjudicated by an "independent panel" – a term that doesn't appear in the agreement).   

The EU can force Britain into either indefinite extension of purgatory or separation of NorthernIreland. The latter is the mis-termed "backstop" – a term meant to distract us from the fact that a province would be left behind in the EU. May keeps reassuring us that nobody wants this to happen, but this is contradicted by the fact that the EU insisted on this provision before it would agree to "any deal".

The EU and Eire claim that they must be sure that the border between Eire and Northern Ireland never becomes a "hard border" – for the sake of trade and the peace agreement – but these are red herrings. The border was open before the EU, Britain and Ireland had free trade before the EU, and the peace agreement was agreed without the EU. The hysteria coming from Brussels and Dublin about "the threat of a hard border" smacks of Eire's intent to incorporate the province, and the EU'sintent to keep a painful grip on Britain's softest appendage.

May is right to take the rest of Britain out of the single market, but she has failed her promise to replace the single market with a free trade agreement. A customs union is not a free trade agreement. A customs union, in fact, is worse than a free trade agreement, because the customs union is controlled entirely by the EU, without any British vote on EU customs, or any EU incorporation of British customs.

May is right to leave the single market in order to end free movement, but she guaranteed equivalency to resident non-British EU citizens (more than 3 million) before the EU offered anything. Moreover, our borders are not fully under our control so long as she keeps us in the customs union for material goods.

May'sproposal would take us out of the customs union for services, but financial services (Britain's wealthiest service sector) are not specified in her draft withdrawal agreement, which suggests that the EU will emasculate them too in post-withdrawal negotiations. (May and the EU have signed a "political declaration", which does refer to financial services, but the declaration is non-binding.) In any case, a customs union for some things but not others is slippery, because the EU can always conflate of this-or-that service with this-or-that good, without Britain'ssay-so.

May abuses our intelligence with her tiresome script about taking back control, putting an end to billions in fees per year, taking Britain out of the ECJ, fulfilling democracy, etc.

May abuses our democracy by hiding her dealings from everyone except a favourite civil servant, waiting until the last minute, presenting a fait accompli, then pretending that the only alternatives are her way, no Brexit, or a "crashing" no deal. The fact is that no deal was always the most certain option, but the government has procrastinated without preparing for it and has enabled every self-interested hysteric to tell us that no deal would leave Britain unable to do the things it did perfectly well before the EU, such as trade. Now, every irresponsible business or local authority can claim that their failures are due to uncertainties about Brexit, such as Kent's warning that it won't be able to collect rubbish or bury the dead.

She offers knighthoods and ennoblements to rebel Members of Parliament who might vote for her plan next week, she bypasses Parliament to appeal to you to lobby your representatives, and she uses party funds to lobby constituencies with dishonest propaganda (which party activists rightly refuse to distribute). She is failing. The latest survey shows that most constituencies would prefer to remain in the EU than her plan, and more Parliamentarians are declaring against her proposal.

So now she is returning to abuse of Parliament: Yesterday, in a surprise appearance on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, she offered to give Parliament a right to vote on whether Britain enters the "backstop" – an impossible offer, because she has already given this right to the EU, without any allowable role for Britain's legislature.

No wonder most Britons report confusion.

If you can't remember any of the 1,000 words above, just remember this: if you can't understand an offer, it's probably not a good offer.

Bruce Oliver Newsome, Ph.D. is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of San Diego
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