Politics

‘No appetite’ for no-deal Brexit

The United Kingdom’s representative in New Zealand has tried to ease fears of a no-deal Brexit as the deadline approaches, saying all sides will do everything they can to avoid it - even if it means extending the country’s departure date.

However, UK High Commissioner Laura Clarke has refused to rule out the possibility of the UK leaving the European Union without a deal, saying the “unprecedented” situation means all options are possible.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is scheduled to hold the second parliamentary vote on the UK-EU withdrawal agreement on Wednesday morning (NZT), having lost the first vote in January by a historic 230-vote margin.

On Tuesday, May secured what she described as “legally binding changes” to avoid the UK becoming trapped in a backstop to protect the Irish border, although both UK Labour and the pro-Brexit European Research Group have suggested the changes fall short of what is needed.

If a deal cannot be agreed soon, the UK may crash out of the EU on March 29 in the worst-case scenario of a so-called "hard Brexit".

Speaking to Newsroom on the eve of the vote, Clarke said it remained to be seen whether the changes would be enough for MPs to support the withdrawal agreement.

“I’ve given up trying to predict exactly how things are going to pan out, but I will just say that we will find a way through.”

While European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker had previously pledged to ensure the backstop would not become indefinite, Clarke said the UK now had that commitment in legally binding form.

“What we always need to remember is the expectation and aim and hope is that you never need the backstop.”

She conceded that the British government had suffered a “really resounding defeat” in the first vote on the agreement, but believed that was due primarily to concerns about the Irish backstop.

The British government was committed to leaving the EU on March 29 “with an orderly deal”, and believed the current agreement was the best arrangement on offer, she said.

“There’s a consensus generally that this agreement represents the right sort of compromise between the EU and the UK...I suppose the nature of compromise is you don’t make anyone particularly enthused, but I think generally there is a sense that this is a good deal.”

While there was some support for a second Brexit referendum in the UK, the government and most MPs believed in supporting the results of the first vote, she said.

Clarke declined to offer any odds on the deal passing Westminster at the second asking, saying: “I’ve given up trying to predict exactly how things are going to pan out, but I will just say that we will find a way through.”

UK High Commissioner Laura Clarke does not believe nostalgia is driving Brexit. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

In an opinion piece for The Guardian, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd accused Brexiteers of believing that trade with Commonwealth countries like New Zealand could replace the UK’s relationship with the EU - describing the argument as “utter bollocks”.

Clarke did not support Rudd’s views, saying the UK’s post-Brexit plans were based on “frictionless trade in goods” with the EU, as well as the freedom to sign bilateral agreements and explore multilateral initiatives like the CPTPP deal.

“I don’t think it’s some sort of nostalgia for days gone past,” she said.

Clarke also denied suggestions the Brexit debate had damaged the UK’s reputation on the world stage, and said the country had managed to work on global issues like international development despite the withdrawal process.

While the debate had been “quite noisy”, that was inevitable given the major constitutional change at play.

“Yes, Brexit takes up a lot of bandwidth but actually we’ve surged resource into it and there’s a lot of work going on elsewhere.”

“Everyone is committed to avoiding a cliff-edge Brexit and a cliff-edge exit from the EU...all the work will be done to avoid that, even if it means extending Article 50."

Asked about the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on New Zealand exporters, Clarke said Kiwi businesses needed to be prepared and read the formal advice from the New Zealand and UK governments, while stressing there was "no appetite" for such an outcome.

“Everyone is committed to avoiding a cliff-edge Brexit and a cliff-edge exit from the EU...all the work will be done to avoid that, even if it means extending Article 50 [the formal withdrawal clause].”

However, she would not rule out a no-deal Brexit, saying the current situation was unprecedented.

Clarke reiterated that New Zealand would be at the front of the queue for a post-Brexit free trade deal, although she conceded that there would be “interdependencies” with the EU which would need to be resolved before any agreement could be finalised.

She did not see any downsides for New Zealand migration flows as a result of Brexit, and believed some Kiwis could benefit from a move to a skills-based visa system.

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