The day is on our doorstep.
Tomorrow, Theresa May will trigger Article 50 and begin the formal process of taking the UK out of the European Union. And, perhaps not by accident, the government has seen calamity after calamity build up in time for the big Independence Day party.
Today, The Times reported on a leaked letter from David Davis, the Brexit secretary, to an SDLP MP. In the letter, Davis said Northern Ireland would be able to immediately rejoin the EU if it decided to leave the UK and become a part of the Republic.
This is huge news – it gives fuel to those who argue that Northern Ireland’s future lies within the EU rather than the UK. What is the alternative? The UK government doesn’t even have an answer for what the Irish-Northern Irish border will look like if one side is in the EU and the other isn’t.
The issues with Northern Ireland – a place where another political crisis independent of Brexit is going on – are emblematic of the nightmare situation the UK government has found itself in after last year’s vote. Every problem has 50 answers, and all of them are wrong. Admitting that, however, would mean admitting that this government is unable to control things at the precise moment it needs to convince the EU, and its own citizens, that it does.
At this point, it’s difficult to grasp what leaving the EU will actually achieve, beyond setting a flamethrower on the economy. The Guardian revealed today that the European Parliament will immediately veto any Brexit deal that aims to end free movement of people. So that either means no “taking back our borders”, or no deal with the EU. To end the two-year negotiations without a free trade deal would be wildly self-destructive.
It is becoming painfully clear that there is no way for the UK to emerge from Brexit as the shining beacon of dignity and self-reliance that Nigel Farage was apparently picturing during his smug speech in the early morning of June 24 last year.
And yet, here we are. Tomorrow, Theresa May will trigger Article 50, and there will be no going back. Even after the past few weeks have demonstrated the dire consequences such an action will probably have for the UK, she and her government remain convinced this is the best course of action.
Several other articles, including The Observer‘s fierce editorial from Sunday, have likened Brexit to a cliff, with Theresa May leading the charge over the edge. I don’t think this metaphor tells the full story; it suggests that the government is merely embracing their fate.
Instead, I see the government at the bottom of the cliff, digging deeper and spreading gravel so the fall hurts a little bit more. Things were always going to be bad, but they never had to be this bad. The incompetence and arrogance of this government has condemned the country.
Nicola Sturgeon made it clear that a second Scottish independence referendum was not always inevitable after the Brexit vote. If Scotland’s voice was taken into account, she said, it would continue to accept its place in the Union. You can believe that or not, but it’s difficult to argue that May has made any concessions or guarantees to Scotland with regard to the fact that the country as a whole voted to remain in the EU.
The government’s treatment of Northern Ireland is even more shameful. Despite its position as the region most affected by Brexit, given its border, it still seems to be treated like an afterthought. Northern Ireland’s future doesn’t seem to be included in the government’s main talking points, when it should be forefront. This reflects a long tradition of the UK government preferring to let Northern Ireland sort its own problems out.
At Stirling’s Community Open Doors Day earlier this month, Professor Gavin Little gave a lecture on the impact of Brexit on the Scottish Parliament.
During the Q&A session that closed the talk, he was asked about the effects Brexit would have on higher education in Scotland and the rest of the UK. His answer, with a shrug, was that he didn’t know, but neither did anyone else.
This seems to be the common theme with most Brexit issues: We don’t know what’s going to happen, but it doesn’t look good. The government has worked hard to ensure that just about everything that may be affected by Brexit – including people’s jobs, livelihoods, and even the right of some to live and work in this country – is completely up in the air.
It’s not difficult to see why people are so concerned about it. Nobody knows what the UK will walk away with in two years’ time. If the UK government had issued a statement along the lines of Nicola Sturgeon’s, when she assured EU nationals living in Scotland that they are not “bargaining chips”, perhaps those people would be less nervous.
By pandering to Daily Mail readers and UKIP voters and seeking the most extreme possible version of what the country voted for in June last year, the UK government has fomented the panic that grips the UK. They show no signs of changing their minds.
When Article 50 is triggered tomorrow, and for two years afterwards, May and her ministers will be at the bottom of the cliff, digging.