(Photo Courtesy – BBC.com)
The mother of all the modern parliaments of the world is itself suffering from mother of all the constitutional crises ever imagined.
With just 10 weeks remaining before the scheduled exit (March 31st ) from the European Union, the British Parliament has rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal. The deal, hurriedly formed with the help of few chosen advisors to please the Conservatives, has been the centerpiece of May’s prime ministerialship. She had spent two years to draft a deal to come out of the European Union. The deal was overwhelmingly rejected by Parliament after five days of extensive and chaotic debate by a count of 432 to 202 votes. Even her own party members voted against her. Immediately after the vote in Parliament, a motion of no-confidence against her government was moved by the Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Although she prevailed the no-confidence motion, the onus of taking the country out of the EU will remain on her and thus numerous challenges ahead.
The most remarkable thing that happened post Brexit deal vote in Parliament was that the demonstrators from both camps Leave and Remain were utterly calm and peaceful. Some argue that there can be other alternatives such as leaving the EU but not totally. Like Norway, the UK too can stay in the Customs Union and still not be part of the EU. This would require some negotiations but cannot be ruled out. But as of now, PM May has to come up with a deal which can facilitate majority in the House of Commons.
With time running out, May has little options in her hand; first, to ask the European Union for more time and second, to work with the opposition to draft a deal that satisfies the will of the people. If May fails to resolve the deadlock, Britain will fall out with no deal at all. This will be bad for the EU and might be disastrous for Britain.
This defeat was the result of last two years of political misjudgment. The Brexit referendum of 2016 was won by 52% to 48%. With the verdict of referendum in their favour, the Conservative Party did not consult the defeated side for drafting a deal to make exit from the EU acceptable to all the parliamentarians. The promise of working with the opposition after the crushing defeat comes too late. This not only shows the poor leadership of Theresa May in Parliament but also exposed some deeper problems associated with Brexit. One is that if any country tries to leave the Union, it can no longer dictate terms even if it is a major economy. If a country takes back the right to set their own rules and standards for conducting business transaction, it will end up following the rules of a union it has parted ways with. Second concern is with the democracy in Britain, having a long history of representative democracy where members of Parliament are elected by the voters to take decisions on their behalf. The Brexit referendum was a rare event of direct democracy where the public was asked to decide on the issue of leaving the EU. The referendum gave a clear mandate and legitimate command to leave the EU. It would be subverting the will of the people if the government is unable to reach a deal that could benefit and satisfy the populace.
The first and foremost task is to stop the ticking clock. May’s Brexit deal is dead and drafting a new one, with only 10 weeks remaining before the scheduled exit from the EU, seems a herculean task. The priority for her should be to avoid failing without any deal in hand. Asking for extension can perhaps lead to drafting of a deal acceptable to both the EU and Parliament. The path to any deal reached should involve the voters. The question arises that what if the deal was not reached. What is the possible solution then ? a second Referendum? And if so, wouldn’t that referendum be a problematic one.
Holding a second referendum raises questions that need to be answered first. When will it take place? To hold a referendum in the UK, Parliament must legislate it first. Then, the Election Commission will look for the need to hold a referendum on a particular issue for its clarity and impartiality. A model code of conduct is issued where campaign groups are formed with a lead campaigner on both sides ? for and against the proposed issue. Second, what would be the options available to the voters? Leaving the EU without a deal, remaining in the EU or leaving with some sort of arrangement in place i.e., a deal. Having a deal is likable option while no-deal option is most likely to be excluded. Another Brexit referendum is totally feasible, but to conduct it would not be easy. It would require legitimacy from across the political spectrum for heralding a stable outcome.
The problems and challenges of holding another referendum are manifolds. It would take around 20 weeks to organize a vote for referendum and the EU would be granting an extension to that effect means that there should be unanimous consensus of all the EU leaders before the scheduled time. Calling for a new referendum and hoping that new one will be better than old one is imprudence. If the result of the first referendum is ignored what are the chances that second will deliver and be accepted by winning the trust of the House of the Commons. This would result in return of promises that cannot be kept. The debate will go on over the merits and demerits of the same. It would not be suffice to say that new or second referendum would be better than the first one reached in terms of quality. The old one was conceived after a lot of negotiations and deliberations with the leaders of the EU that spanned over 18 months. The new one might have little to resolve in terms of substance or a way forward.
The UK faces the maximum risk of recession in whole of the EU as suggested by the Conference Board that tracks the Business Cycles in London. Their recent report suggests that British economy may shrink in the coming decade. With clouds of Brexit looming, the possibility of recession occurring in near future increases. The unemployment rate that currently stands at its lowest in the last few decades and the GDP also show that the economy is in good shape. The no-deal situation can witness a rise in tariffs on exports to the EU. A no-deal scenario could plunge the UK economy into financial crisis thereby leading to prospects for recession. The real estate prices would fall, unemployment would increase and value of Pound would fall in the international market. The UK banking sector would have to access whether it is resilient to withstand such a crisis.
Financial experts have predicted that plunge in Pound may result in strengthening of Indian Rupee vis-a-vis Pound in the international market. This means low exchange rate, thereby making travel and study in the UK less expensive. The cheaper real estate options will be open for Indians to exploit. Brexit means London to look for market other than the EU; India currently suits the best for any sort of economic engagement. India can exploit better deals with London during this time of crisis. A free trade agreement or lower tariffs for Indian goods in the UK can be discussed and reached. Foreign direct investments in India from the UK may increase. On the other hand, several issues have been highlighted by the countries in the EU with respect of Brexit such as the UK’s access to single market of the EU, access to merchandise ships and other boats in the UK waters. The status of and access to Gibraltar is in doldrums. The concerns over the fishing rights are raised by France, Netherlands and Denmark. The Scandinavian nations are concerned whether the UK will follow the strict norms of environmental regulations once it leaves the EU. It is up now to the political elites of the UK whether they are ready to take such a risk again or not while they have to deal with the issues mentioned above.