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The Nation: Professor Anand Menon

On Newshub Nation: Europe Correspondent Lloyd Burr interviews Professor Anand Menon


Britain avoided crashing out of Europe this week, after the EU granted the UK another extension. It now has until October 31 - Halloween - to come up with a plan. Europe Correspondent Lloyd Burr asked Professor Anand Menon from Kings College London why Europe agreed to extend the deadline.

Anand Menon: Well, they need it, because we haven’t come to a decision about what we want, quite simply. Parliament has passed a series of votes rejecting every single option on the table — May’s deal, no deal, a referendum, a customs union, a single market — and if we hadn’t had that delay yesterday, we would be hurtling towards a cliff edge tomorrow and leaving with no deal at all, and neither we nor the European Union wanted that.

Lloyd Burr: Is there a particular sticking point — for example, the idea of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland?

There are lots of sticking points. That’s the problem. And in a sense, the difficulty facing the Prime Minister is if she makes a compromise one way — so if she says to the Labour Party, ‘Look, we’ll have a customs union, which is what you want; that should be fine,’ she risks losing as many votes from her own side as she gains from the Labour side. It’s a bit like a political Rubik’s cube that the Prime Minister’s going to have to struggle with, and it is very, very hard getting all the sides aligned at the same time. In fact, I’m starting to wonder whether it’s a Rubik’s cube with some pieces missing, because actually, a solution is proving very, very hard to find.

Do you think the British voters, when they voted to leave, do you think they thought it would be this hard?

No, because I think, for several reasons. One, because the Brits have never really got what the European Union is; two, because the Leave campaign made it sound simple — as, indeed, they would; and three, because it has been more difficult than it needed to be, if only because we’ve had a weak Prime Minister with no majority since 2017, and that has made the process a lot messier than it otherwise would have been.

So, the EU has elections in May, and under this new time frame, this new extension, it means that Britain’s going to have to contest those elections even though they don’t want to be in Europe. Do you think Britain would agree to that?

Well, the bottom line is the European Union has made it very clear — either you participate in those elections if you’re still a member on the 23rd of March, or you’ll leave with no deal. The fear on the EU side is if we remain in and we don’t have those elections, and then we decide at the last minute, ‘Actually, we’ve changed our minds; we’re not leaving,’ it casts into doubt the legality of the European parliament, because we Brits won’t have voted for our MEPs. So they’re saying, ‘If you’re staying in after the 23rd of May, you have to have those elections.’

Prime Minister Theresa May, she’s failed to get her deal through three times.

Yeah.

Do you think she’s going to be able to get it through a fourth time, or at least get a deal through?

Well, look, this is where it gets messy. There are two bits to her deal. There’s something called a withdrawal agreement, which deals with the loose ends of the past of membership; and then there’s a political declaration, which is about the future. Whatever deal we strike with the European Union, we have to sign the first one, so that’s a constant in all of this. What she’s talking to the Labour party about is whether she can change the second one to try and make the future relationship look a bit different to how it looks now. A lot will hinge on how those negotiations go. If they can come to a compromise, that compromise will come back to parliament and will probably pass. If they can’t come to a compromise, then I suspect that she’ll still try and bring her deal back to parliament and say to the Brexiters in her party, ‘Look, I warned you — Brexit is slipping out of your grasp. If you don’t vote for this now, there’s a danger that the October extension gets extended again, we have a referendum and we stay in, so it’s now or never if you want Brexit.’

Now, Theresa May as Prime Minister — she’s survived so many coups, and so many people have tried to oust her, but she’s still hanging on. How long do you think she can hang on for?

Well, I think the one thing that has become abundantly clear about Theresa May is she’s not a quitter. She will hang on against the odds, she will defy the pundits, and, you know, most people thought she would have been gone long before now. If a large part of her Cabinet were to turn round to her — which is quite possible in the next few weeks — and say, ‘Look, Prime Minister, it’s been great; we don’t think you should lead us any more,’ I don’t see how she possibly stays on. So it is quite possible we will be in Tory leadership territory over the next few weeks.

Are you surprised she’s hung on this long?

I’m surprised in the sense that it shows an enormous amount of doggedness, because there have been several moments during the last three or four years where I’ve thought, ‘God, if I were in your shoes, I’d just give up. This is a miserable job that you’ve got.’ And, you know, we shouldn’t forget that one of the reasons, at least, why she’s doing this is she has a real sense of duty about her. She wants to get this over the line because she believes that is her duty to the country.

Is there Brexit fatigue with the general public? Are they sick of this?

It’s interesting. Yes, there is a real sense of Brexit fatigue. There’s also a sense of Brexit obsession. If you talk to people who work for the newspapers here, they’ll say their postbags are full of letters saying, ‘Oh, God, stop writing about Brexit,’ and yet if you put Brexit in a headline, it’s the most clicked-on article of the day. So there’s that— It’s almost like an addiction in that sense. But I think what Brexit has done to the British people is twofold. One — the division, Leave/Remain, has become the new tribal division in our politics. More people identify as Leave or Remain than identify as Labour or Conservative, and there’s some scary polling out there showing that both sides are immensely hostile towards the other, so Britain is divided. On the other hand — and ironically and rather sadly — the one thing that the Brits now agree on is that their politicians are letting them down. Eighty-plus per cent of British people think parliament is failing them, politicians aren’t up to the task. So that is one of the sad consequences of this sorry saga.

So, finally, in your opinion, will Brexit ever happen?

There’s a question. I simply do not know at this point whether Brexit will happen or not. I usually end an interview like this by saying, ‘If you forced me to bet, I would probably say it would,’ but I think that’s slightly changed as a result of the summit. Now I think it’s 50/50.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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