It is the morning of Saturday the 30th March 2019. The news headline reads: The UK crashes out of the EU with no deal. Images of rows of parked aircrafts emerge as EU-bound Flights have been grounded across the UK whilst helicopters capture tailbacks stretching for miles along the M20 with Dover gridlocked. Meanwhile reports break of NHS staff being forced to ration the use of certain medicine and a rush on supermarkets still stocked. At the same time, the value of the pound is plummeting and Parliament is in an emergency session.
Whilst theoretically and technically plausible, the above will never occur. This doomsday version of a no deal Brexit would be avoided at all costs by both the UK and the EU. The UK would be plunged into chaos whilst the EU would be vilified as an oppressive institution seeking unfair retribution amidst its own damaging disruption. Some form of temporary measure allowing for medicinal previsions and food imports would surely be reached. Nevertheless, just because an apocalyptic exit from the EU isn’t a serious threat doesn’t mean that a no-deal Brexit isn’t likely. Infighting amongst the Conservative Party threatens to derail the chances of any deal being reached and furthermore the UK is prepared to leave without an agreement as shown by Theresa May repeatedly stating that) no deal is better than a bad deal. Unsurprisingly, this could not be further from the truth.
To begin with, the political instability that would follow from a no deal Brexit would be devastating. A no deal Brexit would almost certainly lead to a fresh leadership challenge within the Conservative Party as Theresa May would lose the support of the half of her party who had been in favour of a soft Brexit. In addition, the structure of a leadership election where two candidates are selected by Conservative MP’s before the party members elect a leader would likely mean that one of the candidates would be a hard line Brexiter, such as Jacob Rees Mogg, and the other a staunch remainer e.g Sajid Javid. Therefore, whichever candidate were to win would immediately alienate half of the party and thus the Conservative Party would likely end up paralysing itself leaving the nation unable to cope with the shocks to the UK that would still result from a softer no deal Brexit. Alternatively, or even in addition, a general election would likely follow. Incomprehensibly this would be the third general election within the space of 4 years. Perhaps more frightening however is the high probability that the election would yield a hung parliament with Conservative support currently at 41% and Labour at 39% according to a recent YouGov survey meaning that even a relatively large swing in votes would probably still leave the victor short of an outright majority. Thus, once again the country would be left in an ineffective position to respond to the immediate challenges presented by a no-deal Brexit. Yet whilst a bad deal Brexit would certainly bring pressures upon the Prime Minister, it would be less likely to trigger a leadership challenge or a general election in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. This means that the UK would at least be in a position of relative stability from which it could navigate the inherent challenges it would encounter following its departure from the EU.
The reasons for choosing a bad deal over no deal however extends beyond Westminster to other parts of the UK. In the case of Northern Ireland for example, a no deal Brexit would severely threaten the good Friday agreement and would dramatically reduce the chances of devolved government returning from its already long absence. However, as much as the UK and EU would like to refrain from infrastructure at the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland some form of temporary measure would have to be installed at the border. This would be an inevitable consequence of a no-deal Brexit due to the fact that the UK is unwilling to accept the Northern Irish backstop proposal and as the EU needs to maintain the integrity of its single market. This new infrastructure would hamper cross border trade and create fresh divisions along which tensions could rise. Furthermore, a no-deal outcome would massively reduce the likelihood of Sinn Fein (the Northern Irish political party which represents the views of the Catholic proportion of the population who typically favour closer alignment with the Republic of Ireland) re-establishing the devolved government in Northern Ireland from which they walked away from in January 2017 as they would feel betrayed by the UK government over their inability to reach a settlement with the EU. Therefore, in the case of a no-deal Brexit, Northern Ireland could well end up with rising ethnic tensions and no local government.
Furthermore, a no-deal Brexit over a bad deal Brexit, which maintains some connections to the EU, would likely lead to increasing calls for Scottish independence and would help rejuvenate Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge of a second referendum on independence. Given that Scotland expressed a strong desire to remain a part of the EU shown by all 32 council areas voting remain it wouldn’t be unthinkable that Scottish nationalists might use a no-deal outcome deemed to be in the selfish interests of the central government over Scottish interests to promote independence as an alternative option. This would create yet more pressure on the UK government and would lead to an increasingly divided nation. All this at a moment in time where the UK needs to be united and present a strong image to the world so as to maximise the opportunities achieved from leaving the EU. Hence in order to remain a ‘United Kingdom’ it is imperative that the UK secures a deal with the European Union even if that means accepting a bad deal that may not at first seem amenable.
Finally, a bad deal Brexit at least leaves the UK with options that a no-deal Brexit simply doesn’t. Say for example that Britain enters into a transitional arrangement not too dissimilar from current conditions but with a few added restrictions on trade etc… and no presence within the law-making institutions of the EU. Whilst most would probably agree that this is not a particularly good deal, it would at least leave the UK room to manoeuvre until it decides what kind of long-term relationship with the EU it desires and added time to formulate solutions to common issues like the Irish border. However, if the UK left with no deal as is repeatedly threatened, then all the issues arising from the withdrawal from the EU would have to be dealt with once they’ve already begun to take place. Consequently, the additional stability in withdrawing from the EU facilitated by a bad deal over no deal would benefit business and would generally ease public concerns over Brexit. Hence solving the conundrums of withdrawing from the EU are surely better dealt with before a major shift from the status quo rather than after it, making a bad deal preferable to no deal.
Nevertheless, with each passing day the prospect of a no deal Brexit becomes slightly more likely. The opportunities for remaining disputes to be resolved are rapidly disappearing and the opportunities for ratification of any agreement by all 27 EU members along with the UK Parliament are diminishing as well. Because of this rising risk, it’s more important than ever that whilst the UK negotiates hard in order to try and achieve the best outcome possible, that it does not ultimately place pride over prudence. To do so would be to risk serious and long-lasting implications that nobody desired from Brexit. Therefore, if the negotiations culminate in a decision between a bad deal or no deal at all, the UK must choose to walk away with an agreement and not empty-handed.
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