Fifty years ago man landed on the moon. Why then, for the love of democracy, can we, in 2019, not figure out a solution to the Irish Backstop?
Turning to the familiar adage, ‘means, motive, and opportunity‘, typically used to prove a defendant’s guilt in a court of law, and appropriating its context for our own purposes, we can expose the very obvious reason for why landing on the moon was a success and Brexit, thus far, is not.
In 1969, the USA was the richest nation on Earth with a GDP nearing one trillion dollars. Over 2% of this was set aside exclusively for NASA, to assist them in their ambition for space expedition. America certainly had the means to get Neil Armstrong and the rest of the Apollo 11 crew to the moon, however risky the operation. They had a clear motive: in 1969, the USA was engaged in a tense period of diplomatic breakdown with the USSR, and one consequence of this was the international Space Race. President Nixon knew that a successful moon landing would generate international acclaim that would, in turn, embarrass the Soviets. The Americans were keen to plant their flag on the surface of the moon first in an attempt to win a war defined by prestige-hunting and soft global power. Finally, the opportunity was there. Space exploration, though still precarious, was safer than ever, and advances like lighter ascent engine and greater thermal protections on the landing gear provided the perfect opportunity for man to land on the moon. Thus sufficient ‘means, motive, and opportunity‘ meant that Apollo 11 was a success, and man walked on the surface of the moon in the early hours of 21 July 1969.
Which of these three crucial components was missing from the Brexit process which rendered it such a miserable failure? There were certainly the means to exit the EU. It is set out clearly on the government’s website: ‘[i]n the event of a no-deal Brexit, EU trade agreements will cease to apply to the UK when it leaves the EU […] trade will take place on World Trade Organization terms‘. This means that tariffs will be introduced on products passing between the UK and EU unless both sides agree not to. It is likely that the EU will agree to the terms of Article XXIV of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which allows tariff-free trade for up to ten years. It is worth noting that 311 Free Trade Agreements have been successfully negotiated under its terms. This law will not come into force unless there is some sort of agreement between the UK and EU, but it seems unlikely that the EU would punish its member states so severely by refusing to engage and allow Ireland, which sends 14% of its exports directly to Britain, to be economically pulverised, all in the name of vengeance. The UK, whether it trades with the EU with temporary tariffs or it doesn’t, has the means to leave the EU.
It also has the opportunity. It has already had two very clear opportunities. It has twice been the legal default for the UK to leave the EU with or without a deal. The British government, however, turned down these chances and decided instead to return to Europe in an attempt to revive the so-called Withdrawal Agreement. Since 2016, no-deal preparations have been in force, and in 2018 the government ‘publish[ed]a series of ‘technical notices’ on how public bodies, businesses and individuals needed to prepare for no-deal‘. The opportunity was there.
It is, therefore, the motive that is missing. Ever since the 2017 Miller case which ruled that the government cannot initiate Brexit proceedings without support from Parliament, divisions between the people and their politicians became ever more apparent. 486 of our MPs voted Remain while only 160 voted Leave. In April, Remain MPs forced Theresa May to request a second extension to Article 50. Before that, opposition party MPs were criticising her negotiating stance prior to her even making it public knowledge. The EU has remained united for three years, at times openly admitting their intention to punish the UK to set an example against leaving the EU bloc. But during the negotiations, as EU Chief Negotiator has revealed, nobody on the UK’s side ever threatened to walk away, leaving us stripped of our most valuable negotiating card, guaranteeing a negative outcome for the UK. Liberal Democrats and People’s Vote fanatics kept the flame of hope alive for the EU, insisting that the democratic result of 2016 could be overturned by simply revoking Article 50. European politicians like Guy Verhofstadt grabbed this opportunity to undermine British democracy and encourage a second referendum, distracting negotiations and diverting resources away from no-deal preparations. In the last general election, over 80% of people voted for parties promising to take the UK out of the EU, single market, and customs union on the 29th March. Now, the Labour Party has U-turned, endorsing Remain, and rebel Conservatives are threatening to bring down their own government to avoid a no-deal situation. Our Remain Parliament does not care to deliver Brexit; they cannot find the motive to deliver something that the people want and they do not.
The people of the UK have told their politicians not once, but five times in successive elections that they want to leave the EU. Yet, the political class refuse to implement the people’s will. There has been endless huffing and puffing from dejected Remain MPs for three years. Losing hurts, but their feelings do not justify overturning the will of 17.4 million voters.
Fifty years ago, man landed on the moon because means, motive, and opportunity were there. To the British politicians who are still refusing to get their act together on Brexit, I say: you have your means, you have your opportunity, now for the love of democracy, identify your duty, find your motive, and deliver Brexit!