Time is master over all, and reminds us of it often. As March 29 approaches (the date the UK leaves the EU), and the impossible negotiating position Brexit entails sharpens into view, it becomes clear this moment in European politics is one of those reminders.
"The ball is rolling towards the ravine and everyone is watching it without putting their foot in the way," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte deplored in his weekly press conference.
Theresa May, on realising the deal she spent the previous twenty months negotiating with the EU would suffer an enormous defeat if put to a vote in parliament, delayed proceedings. Originally scheduled for December 11, she pushed the big vote back to January 15.
Time flies. The new deadline is now afoot, and little has changed for May and her deal. The king hell point of contention, prompting a group of rebel conservative MPs and all DUP MPs to reject it outright, centres on the Irish border.
After the UK leaves the EU, the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland ceases to be a border between EU member states, which don't require physical border checkpoints. Instead, it becomes a land border between the EU and the UK. In the lack of a separate agreement that says otherwise, border checks become a legal requirement.
No parties involved want a hard border to be re-established in Ireland, but avoiding one means either the EU or UK giving up some ground on the integrity of their internal market and territorial borders, which both see as sacrosanct.
How the ROI/NI border can remain open in a post-Brexit world has appeared from the start of Brexit discussions to be an unsolvable problem, and the terms of May's deal go some way towards verifying this.
Instead of outlining the shape of a solution, the deal gives us a "backstop" arrangement that says if the UK and EU can't strike a trade deal allowing an open Irish border by the end of the transition phase, the backstop kicks into effect. This keeps the UK in the single market and customs union, despite it not being an EU member at that point, allowing the Irish border to remain open.
The backstop appears to have no clear expiration date, and both the EU and UK would need to jointly agree to its termination. This would put the UK – at that point still held to EU laws, including freedom of movement – in an incredibly weak negotiating position to strike a trade deal with the EU. Until the UK agreed to a deal with the EU, it could not move forward into its post-Brexit future.
The prospect of the EU keeping the UK in the backstop indefinitely is objectionable across the divides of UK parliament, for many reasons. High amongst them is that under single market and customs union rules, the UK could negotiate trade deals with third countries, but not implement them.
It's a fair criticism of a deal that appears would be otherwise well received amongst Conservative and DUP MPs (who together form a slim majority in parliament), and May is now scrambling to secure legally binding clarification from the EU to assure MPs the backstop will be temporary in nature.
With the final vote on May's deal taking place about 48 hours from the time of writing, May has yet to deliver such a clarification.
"Laissez-moi faire," ("Let me do it") Jean-Claude Juncker has implored at the 11th hour, asking for a bit of space as he searches for the right words to clarify the nature of the backstop, within the bounds the EU27 have confined him ("No re-negotiation, only clarification!").
Juncker's clarification is now expected to arrive in the form of a letter Monday, hours before the vote. Reportedly, he remains doubtful May will succeed in getting her deal through parliament.
This brings us back to the problem of time being master over all.
Twenty months of negotiations, over a period of two years from the invocation of Article 50 to the formal exit of Britain from the EU on March 29, resulted in little more than a deal agreeing the terms of a further negotiation period. During this period the UK should, theoretically, actually work out its post-Brexit relationship with the EU.
This period will terminate at the end of 2020, or the end of 2021 if either party requires an extension, and maybe into 2022. But no longer, unless the backstop is activated. In that case, a further negotiating period after the negotiated negotiating period will commence, and negotiations can begin in earnest.
Even within the confines of negotiating a transition period, twenty months has not been enough time to reach terms acceptable to UK parliament. Such is its fractured state, and such is the divisive nature of Brexit.
May is now running around like a headless chicken, warning of the dangers of reversing Brexit at this late stage (an option which has been gaining support, and the UK parliament could enable by calling a second Brexit referendum if May's deal fails). The Transport Secretary is issuing public warnings about a surge in far-right extremism if such a reversal were to happen.
At the same time over 100 MEPs have signed a letter pleading with the UK to reverse Brexit while they can and stay in the Union.
Farrage is out riling crowds up again, talking about mobilising a "people's army" in preparation for a potential second referendum.
There is a frantic, confused, conflicting range of opinions and advice, coming from all directions, none really striking the bell of truth cleanly, indicating that an omnishambles of gigantic dimensions is in play.
Let's assume for the sake of argument May gets her deal through parliament. Juncker delivers his letter Monday, it gives sufficient assurances on the backstop, convincing a majority of MPs to vote in favour of the deal.
The thing about Brexit is whenever you zoom out a little, bigger problems come into view. The resolution of the deal before the Article 50 deadline does not represent a resolution of the political nightmare of Brexit. The issues surrounding this deal are merely a nightmare that formed inside the nightmare. Though the issues revolve around the Irish border problem, their resolution doesn't even suggest a solution to that problem.
Now let's say, as the BBC is forecasting, and politicians appear to anticipate, that MPs will shoot down May's deal in parliament on Tuesday. Does May have a Plan B?
Likely not, and for good reason: May should understand that if her deal does not pass through parliament, it's the end of the road for her as the steward of Brexit. No need for a Plan B — at least, not from her.
Conservative leadership would change, surely, and the opposition would pursue a general election. Either a Corbyn-led Labour or a most-likely-Boris Johnson-led Conservative party will take over Brexit negotiations, attempting to refashion a deal under their new leadership tout suite.
With a Boris Johnson-led Conservative Party, we could expect him to first attempt to amend May's deal to remove the backstop, based on what he has wrote behind the paywall of The Telegraph:
We need to excise the current backstop and replace it with a simple statement of what is agreed in London, Dublin and Brussels – that under no circumstances should there be a “hard border” in Northern Ireland.
Failing that, he might attempt to negotiate a deal based on what he calls the "Super‑Canada" model, which he again expounds on from behind The Telegraph's paywall:
We have not even tried to negotiate a Super‑Canada option – even though the EU Commission made such an offer in March; and that is because we are so paralysed with nerves that we have been effectively conspiring to remain both in the customs union and the single market.
In summary, the pitch for the "Super-Canada" model is: no single market or customs union, meaning limited access to the EU market, but more control over immigration policy; supposedly limited needs for Irish border checks, promised through the "use of technology"; and the resolution of UK/EU trading issues through a Joint Committee, like what the EU has in place with Canada. In short, the UK would be about as far out of the EU as possible, while still having a trade deal with them.
Failing that, Johnson advocates driving forward over the cliff edge, and marching proudly into the abyss of a "no deal" Brexit.
Johnson on the no deal scenario:
We on this side of the Channel have it in our power simply to continue with the current arrangements – zero tariffs and quotas, and no checks – until the new deal is done. And so do our friends on the other side, and if they are sensible they will.
It might be that some other World Trade Organisation member might complain. But that would take years to get before a panel in Geneva. Again, we have time on our side.
Alternatively, if a Corbyn-led Labour party took charge following the failure of May's deal, we could expect that deal to lean in the opposite direction — as close towards, rather than as far away from, EU membership as possible.
It would include keeping the UK in the customs union permanently, and with as much access to the single market as possible. Labour have been clear on the basic outline of their preferred deal since publishing their "six tests" — tests that any Brexit deal would have to pass for Labour to support it — in 2017.
In moving the deal close to EU membership, Labour would resolve the Irish border problem, which only exists on the presumption that the mandate to leave the EU entails — as the Conservative party and likely most Leave voters understand it to — leaving the customs union and single market.
Broadly, a Labour deal would probably resemble the arrangements Norway and Switzerland have in place with the EU. Both have no policy-making powers in the EU, are members of the customs union, and have varying levels of access to the single market. Norway is bound to implement about 75% of all EU legislation, and pays about 95% of what it would as a full member. Switzerland is bound to less EU laws, and pays less, but has less access to the single market than Norway.
Such "alternative deals" assume renegotiating based on a different model is still an option at this late hour. Time, they say, is master over all — and the UK has already run the negotiating clock of Article 50 down to its final movements.
If May's deal fails and negotiating a new deal is not an option, two paths remain: a "no deal" Brexit, or a second referendum with the hope the Remain vote wins this time (which polls have indicated it would), and reversing course on Brexit at the last moment.
Both options are rather desperate, last resort manoeuvres that could prove perilous both economically and in their potential to provoke civil unrest.
The UK leaving without a deal means they become a third country with no formal relationship with the EU after March 29. Trade resorts to WTO terms, the open Irish border moves into violation of EU law, the residency status of UK citizens in EU states falls back on the generosity of each individual EU state (each with varyingly friendly relations with the UK), and countless services and transactions between the UK & EU states are thrown into uncertainty, hampered by new legal obstacles, and in some cases grinding to a halt
A major economic and political crisis would ensue, with no clear end in sight.
The other "last resort" option, to hold a second referendum on Brexit (a "People's Vote"), may be the least obviously destructive course of action.
If a second vote ends in a second Leave result, see the "no deal" scenario above — with the added humiliation of having attempted to get the public to reverse their decision.
If the outcome is a vote for Remain, Brexit as a legal process suddenly disappears. The UK remains a member of the EU after all the fuss.
The UK's international reputation would suffer further damage — the world watching it botch a referendum, then sending its public to the voting booths again to get a different result. British democracy would have been undermined.
Of more concern is the potential for civil unrest following such an enormous about-turn. Primarily within the UK, where the failure of the 2016 vote to take effect would inflame large segments of the public, especially among those who voted "Leave" twice, then saw Brexit reversed as the UK and EU were scheduled to part ways.
Further afield, right-wing movements across the EU would be set up perfectly to rally against the EU and the political order of its member states, likely joining forces with Brexiteers to stir up pan-European protest movements, pointing to Brexit as proof that our current form of democracy is a sham. Here lies dragons.
Mitigating this threat is the fact scarcely any of these embittered UK voters would be from younger demographics, who voted overwhelmingly for Remain in the 2016 referendum. In fact, allowing for a course that democratically reverses Brexit would be as if to amplify and empower the voice of the younger voters, on an issue that will most affect them.
It's not the generation next in line, able to fight and attempt to overthrow the political order for decades, who would feel cheated by a second referendum. The real threat of civil unrest would be of a more short term nature.
Still, the UK would find itself in uncharted territory after reversing Brexit — if not sailing into waters as dark or unexplored as a "no deal" Brexit, still sailing off the map of known politics in Britain. It would be wise to expect unpredictable and damaging consequences.
A Corbyn-led Labour government, renegotiating the EU withdrawal deal to be closer to EU membership, likely leads to the most positive outcome. The least harmful of the bunch, all-round.
The story in that case would end up roughly as follows: the UK votes to leave the EU, and in doing so ends up wedding itself to the customs union and single market, while giving up its seat at the table as a policy maker, in exchange for a slight reduction in the number of EU laws it must implement and an slighter reduction in the contributions it makes towards the EU budget.
In normal circumstances such a manoeuvre would be labelled an act of national insanity. In the circumstances of Brexit, it looks tremendously sensible.
Setting this course depends on Labour achieving multiple non-trivial feats, namely: winning a no confidence vote, winning a general election, finding the EU open to extending the Article 50 deadline, then successfully renegotiating May's deal from the ground up in a short space of time.
While I calculate this to be the least damaging option available, I am not remotely convinced it's one the UK will have the opportunity to pursue.
A "no deal" Brexit should be considered a strong possibility — it may now be the most likely one. It is the default outcome, after all. The one already set in motion. Only broad agreement forming between the UK and EU can stop it from happening. Within the omnishambles of Brexit, I would not hold my breath awaiting such agreement.
Time is master over all.