EVERY schoolchild should now learn to recite Article 50 by heart. It may not be engraved on Theresa May’s heart as Calais was on Queen Mary’s but it’s certainly about to play as big a part in our lives as Magna Carta once did.
Article 50 is the provision in the Lisbon Treaty (aka the EU constitution) which authorises nations to leave the EU. It’s not simply or beautifully expressed like the American constitution but consists of 11 clauses, with several sub-clauses, which is as important for what it doesn’t say as much as for what it does.
Implementing the decision of the people in the light of this has led to confusion. Some, in the EU and in Tony Blair’s resistance movement, claim that once notice is given, there’s no turning back.
It is two years – then out – with no option to stay once notice is given. The Chair of the EU Parliament’s constitutional committee announces that it is only about withdrawal and new arrangements can’t be negotiated until we’re out. Unreconciled Remainers claim that the EU will be absolutely inflexible and won’t give ground on anything, and particularly not on migration. All this is confidently proclaimed before we’ve even given notice of withdrawal.
This makes all the bluffing total rubbish. The EU Commission asserts that its terms will be so tough that Britain will be ruined by departure. Remainers demand a soft Brexit. Business wants compensation for a hard one and The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee wants compensation for everyone. Gloomy pundits warn of disaster for a Britain so stupid as to forsake its manifest destiny. It’s all hot air. Nothing can be clear before notice is given.
The decision of the High Court that Parliament must agree to giving notice doesn’t change much. Parliament is unlikely to block the negotiations necessary to fulfil the nation’s will. Even if it does, Mrs May can always make it an issue of confidence and call an election if defeated. No one would want that, certainly not Labour in its present state. Blair’s urging that his old party should stand firm on the front line would only ensure that it is shot down.
Parliament can’t tie government to a hard or a soft Brexit and the judgement doesn’t require it to control Britain’s negotiating position. Parliament can’t weaken it before we even start and interfering in a process of bluff and counter bluff, starting with maximum demands to end with compromise, is impossible.
Whatever the Supreme Court now decides, notice of withdrawal will be given. This will produce a two-year game of bluff on both sides as each maximises its claims before reaching a compromise which both sides must then accept or reject.
At home, final ratification provides the point (and the only practical one) at which Parliament can take a decision to accept or reject. That will be late in 2019. By then, the world will have changed. France and Germany will have had their elections and can stop posturing. Europe will have endured two more years of deflation, low growth and high unemployment thanks to the euro so it will look less attractive and face more internal discontents. The British economy and exports will be in better shape because of the stimulus of devaluation.
We’ll have succeeded (or failed) in building up our trade outside failing Euroland and the world will have moved further down the path of freer trade and open markets which will make it difficult to refuse either to Britain. The spite and anger in Brussels at anyone brave enough to leave a defensive, self-serving and failing Euroclub which can’t even solve its own problems will probably be less.
At that point Parliament can decide – and Britain can think clearly – rather than refighting the referendum. The people can see whether their demand for departure has been adequately fulfilled and Parliament will have to listen to them or face the consequences of in an election in May 2020. Those for whom Europe is a matter of religion, rather than a rational part of Britain’s national interest, will know whether or not their God is still worth the adulation they shower on it.
That will be the real decision day. Until we reach it, both sides in the referendum argument should shut up and let the Government do its best to implement the decision of the people to pull out of a European experiment that has failed us. Only then can Parliament take a rational decision in the light of known facts and consequences rather than emotive spasms. To get there is the duty we owe to a nation which has made its decision but left it to Government to implement in a way that best serves Britain.
• Austin Mitchell is the former Labour MP for Grimsby.