Pause to consider how to avoid Brexit disaster
In common with other political commentators, Jonathan Freedland (Disaster looms. Can MPs act quickly enough to save us?, 12 January) overlooks the one viable and constitutionally proper way out of the looming disaster: a free vote in the House of Commons on a bill to repeal as much of the Withdrawal Act as designates 29 March as “exit day”, and – now that the European court of justice has held it to be legally permissible – to revoke or at least extend the UK’s notice of withdrawal under article 50.
It is probable that a free vote of MPs would go in favour of remaining in the EU, whether indefinitely or for long enough to reconsider the wisdom of leaving. It’s also the case, despite the rhetoric about the will of the people, that MPs are at times prepared to vote according to conscience: witness the recent defeat of a private member’s bill to facilitate assisted dying, in the face of something approaching 80% public support for such a measure.
Parliament’s processes, however, are not free or democratic: they are in large part determined and manipulated by the government of the day and its whips. More potent even than the prospect of being branded an enemy of the people by the tabloids is the prospective loss of ministerial office, a full parliamentary pension or a peerage for long and unquestioning service.
It is nevertheless conceivable in the present crisis that the House of Commons, now hopelessly trapped in a web of its own, the EU’s and the prime minister’s making, could insist on giving its members an opportunity to vote according to conscience on an emergency bill to keep the UK for the present in the EU. Labour might do well to devote its energy to this rather than to seeking a general election which will put it in charge of a foreordained disaster. Stephen Sedley
Your editorial (9 January) argued that “Britain should pause the article 50 process and put Brexit on hold”. It is simply not an option that Britain could exercise itself as that wording implies. It is true that recent judgment of the European court of justice makes it clear that the UK can withdraw its intention to leave unilaterally and thus stay in the EU with all its opt-outs and membership rights. Yet this intention to leave has to be “unequivocal and unconditional”. It cannot be used to stop the clock and is quite different from asking for more time. This is explicitly covered by the article 50 procedure in the EU treaties and requires unanimous agreement from all EU27 member states. It is at least doubtful that such an agreement by all states would be forthcoming, especially if the main purpose is to allow Westminster more time to discuss among itself and thus prolong uncertainty and costs to others.
The patience of our EU partners is exhausted after what the government has put them through since the referendum – and indeed before. Article 50 does not mention any “pause” and it is unlikely that the EU27 would agree an unlimited extension of article 50. It is dangerous to create expectations that the EU27 will again bend over backwards because the withdrawal agreement negotiated with great effort does not get through the Commons and the government ran down the clock.
The editorial rightly complains about the lack of honesty of many MPs about what Brexit entails. I suggest it is time to be honest about what is actually possible at this late stage in the process and the risks each option involves. Professor Christoph Meyer
King’s College London
Timothy Garton Ash (Labour must back a people’s vote before the clock runs out, 11 January) points out that extension of the article 50 deadline requires the unanimous approval of the EU27. Any extension necessary to allow a people’s vote would have to go beyond 23 May, the start date of the European elections. Such an extension would mean that UK citizens would have the right to vote in those elections. Would the EU27 be likely to agree to that? Is this a littlenoticed problem for a people’s vote? Michael Freeman
In 1972 Tom Nairn effortlessly demolished “The strong leftwing case against the EU” (Letters, 10 January) in his seminal New
Left Review article, The Left Against Europe?
A national, patriotic, anti-Europe Britain, he argued, would end up with not a left government but a Powellite one. “And in that case the left would turn out to be have been no more than the sorcerer’s apprentice who had temporarily harnessed the unclean spirits, only to be overwhelmed by them.”
That remains valid to this day. Dr Stephen Dorril
Netherthong, West Yorkshire
While the authors of the letter headed “Universities needn’t fear a no-deal Brexit” (9 January) are correct in stating that it is possible for non-EU countries to access EU funding (eg Horizon 2020), they’ve missed a crucial point. They ignore the point that to be eligible as an associated country with full access to funding (as is the case with Norway, for example), strict criteria need to be met, including free movement of people. How likely do they think is this given that, following negotiations, the prime minister’s statement said that the Brexit deal would “end freedom of movement once and for all”? Professor Kirsty Park
University of Stirling
What a delight, on a page where every letter was about Brexit, to see the photo of an envelope with a commemorative stamp celebrating us joining the European Communities in 1973 (Stamp of approval?, 10 January). Did anyone else notice it was posted on Valentine’s Day? Have we really fallen out of love with Europe? Divorce imminent? Or could relationship counselling be an option? Sally Bunce
The patience of our European Union partners is exhausted after what the government has put them through Christoph Meyer