On Tuesday, British lawmakers voted, for the first time in history, to hold the government in contempt of Parliament. The move came after ministers failed to comply with a motion passed last month requiring the publication of the attorney general’s full legal advice on the Withdrawal Agreement, which details how Britain intends to leave the European Union.
The contempt vote forced the release of the attorney general’s advice Wednesday, and the document did little to reassure members of Parliament of the merits of Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal with Brussels. At stake in these maneuvers is Britain’s relationship with the EU post-Brexit: Will Britons be a truly self-governing nation once more, free to enter into trade agreements that benefit us — or will we continue to have Brussels mandarins making our rules and setting our economic agenda?
The EU has never been a mere free-trade bloc like the newly renegotiated NAFTA. Over the decades, the EU has evolved into a quasi-government. The integration process has always moved in one, centralized direction, with power concentrating in Brussels.
As recently as the 1990s, many senior European politicians would publicly express their desire to create a United States of Europe. The phrase became less fashionable, as voters across Europe turned against the project, but the process continued apace even so.
The British people, however, had had enough, and in 2016 they voted to leave the EU. That was a significant blow to the European project — the greatest challenge it has ever faced. Brexit marked the loss of one of the EU’s most powerful and wealthy member states.
While it isn’t quite analogous to California or Texas leaving the United States — the EU is still some way off from being a United States of Europe — Brexit is nevertheless a much more significant development than a country leaving the United Nations or NATO. EU rules, after all, cover virtually all aspects of domestic policy and can be binding on the UK without our approval.
But even after 2016’s referendum, we aren’t quite out of this arrangement. Which is why this week’s debate in Parliament over the terms of withdrawal is crucial.
If Parliament approves the deal in a “meaningful vote” set for Dec. 11, then Britain will move into the transition period to Brexit in March.
But many members of Parliament worry that the transition period is a bridge to nowhere. They fear we will be stuck in a perpetual limbo, having to implement all the rules and regulations of the EU, but without having a say in the decision-making process in Brussels.
This is why many predict that the deal will be rejected by Parliament. But even that outcome won’t be the end of the process.
Later this month, all EU states meet at their pre-Christmas European Council meeting, and many predict that Theresa May will be able to negotiate improvements to the deal, allowing MPs to support it in a second vote.
Those of us on the Leave side hope the prime minister will be able to strengthen our ability to strike trade deals with countries outside the European Union.
Under the current arrangements, unless a free-trade agreement with the EU is negotiated during the transition period, Britain could be locked in a perpetual customs union with Brussels, being subject to the same tariffs and regulations as EU countries, thus stifling an independent trade policy.
As President Trump pointed out at the end of last month, the current agreement looks “great” for the EU. “Right now,” the president said, “if you look at the deal, they may not be able to trade with us. And that wouldn’t be a good thing.”
An independent country should clearly have the right to negotiate trade deals with other countries across the world, so if there is any ambiguity on this point, Parliament is unlikely to approve the deal.
Unless May negotiates a stronger agreement, the outcome for Britain will be grim: We will have some autonomy, we will still have a distinct history and our own language, but our destiny will be in the hands of the Brussels mandarins.
In June 2016, the British people voted to take back control, and it is their democratic right to expect this from the negotiations.
Matthew Elliott was CEO of the official Vote Leave campaign.
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