The Tragedy of ‘Soft’ Brexit and How it Came to Be
In a week’s time, unless the UK’s democracy catches another dose of cold feet, representatives of the UK and EU will commence negotiations over Brexit. Some time ago, the European Council published their guidelines for those negotiations, setting out what the EU aims to achieve from the talks, and its ‘red lines’ – the limits to its flexibility.
For Britain, preparations have been somewhat different. Britain first began to think seriously about Brexit only once the referendum of June 2016 had been concluded. The referendum itself was a concession to the apparent, if evanescent, rise of UKIP, a populist right-wing ‘independence’ party, and the vote to leave the EU came as something of a surprise to an underprepared Conservative government. Nevertheless, it swiftly changed its leader, established a new Department for Exiting the EU and began pandering to the 52% of the nation that suddenly mattered. In the meantime the Parliamentary Libraries were tasked with researching the matter and several parliamentary committees were briefed to establish negotiating positions.
Most of the good work done by those researchers and committees was, to put it mildly, unhelpful to the Brexit cause. It swiftly became obvious that the sheer complexity and innate liabilities of a move out of the EU would seriously damage the rights and freedoms of Britons and the economic advantages, uncertain and hypothetical as they were, would only benefit a few sectors of the economy – financial services, for example, which always benefit from uncertainty, and firms that relied on importing goods manufactured outside the EU.
In response to this, and the possible backsliding it might have provoked, wealthy anti-EU interests, such as the interesting Lord Vinson, commissioned captive think-tanks to churn out a deluge of pro-Brexit material. The pinnacle of this was arguably reached in March 2017, when Civitas published “It’s Quite Okay to Walk Away”, a one-man diatribe with graphs and numbers that found, after looking at a whole seven databases, that EU trade made no positive difference to the UK at all, on the basis that economies outside the EU, such as Angola’s, were actually growing faster. The Department for Exiting the EU hoped to emphasise this point by circulating official statistics showing that exports to the UK from some non-EU states were growing rapidly. That this was happening without the aid of Brexit, and that top of the list was Liechenstein (sic), a member of the Single Market, was clearly not deemed relevant.
Despite these efforts, support for Brexit still seemed to waver, and some unruly citizens (dubbed saboteurs) asked the courts whether the government wouldn’t need the permission of Parliament to trigger Article 50. The judges reckoned that they would, in a ruling that had the responsible judges eerily named as ‘enemies of the people’ in the government-friendly press. To avoid any similar problems, and while the official opposition was too weak to do anything but pander to the slender pro-Leave majority, the government hurtled into the business of staging a swift and ill-informed debate and a heavily-whipped vote, which duly passed, despite the intransigence of a few representatives of well-educated constituencies.
Once that obstacle was behind them and Article 50 had been triggered by means of an impressively bland and superficial letter, the government found itself under pressure to set out its principles. Having none, it published instead an 12-point wishlist, the infamous “cake and eat it” White Paper, in the hope of persuading voters and parliamentarians that everything would be fine.
That, for at least a month, was where the matter was laid to rest. At this point, a few started whispering of a ‘soft’ Brexit, a palatable Brexit that would have all the advantages of membership of the EU, and none of the downsides at all, as the 12-point plan seemed to allow. This, naturally, did not impress those for whom Brexit still meant Brexit, and muffled agitation threatened to turn into substantive public debate. At this point, the Prime Minister decided to call a general election, ostensibly to increase her majority in the House of Commons and put an end to the ‘disunity in Westminster’ that was supposedly upsetting an otherwise, if unwittingly, united nation. The resounding success of which was supposed to deliver her a stronger hand with which to negotiate the best of all possible Brexits. What the best of all possible Brexits might possibly be was, the British public was reassured, something they best not know, for fear of tipping that stronger hand to the EU.
The election was not, in any sense, the resounding success envisioned. Labour, the main opposition party, played an interesting game, issuing a long list of expensive promises, and pledging to deliver the ‘soft’ Brexit, plain Brexit or opposition to the ‘Tories’ hard Brexit’ according to where it was campaigning. This, despite its manifesto committing to ending Freedom of Movement – one of the four freedoms required of members of the EU, the Single Market and the Customs Union – gave the impression to many (including its own MPs, some of whom, even after the election, were still unaware of the party’s stance) that Labour would fight for whatever Brexit they wanted or didn’t want. As a result, it got many more votes than expected, and which allowed it to snatch a temporary claim of victory from the actuality of defeat.
The governing Conservative party didn’t do too badly at all, thanks mostly to the right-wing populist vote of UKIP which, now devoid of any coherent reason to exist, had vanished up its own leadership, partly thanks to a quirk of the electoral rules that gave it more than enough airtime to hang itself. The Conservatives learnt from this quickly, vanishing almost entirely behind a vapid slogan and the nom-de-guerre of an invisible “Theresa May’s Team”. By cunningly avoiding any debate, and refusing to answer any questions, it remained gloriously aloof for much of the campaign. Despite this, it did not emerge entirely untarnished, and its marginal gains translated, via the magic of its usually-beloved First Past the Post electoral system, into a net loss.
Armed with a narrow semi-victory, Theresa May was left in an awkward position. During the campaign, the Prime Minister had famously promised ‘strong and stable leadership’ and to deliver on the ‘Brexit promise’, whatever that was. But now she was leading a minority government in the wreckage of a hung parliament and into the wreckage of Brexit negotiations for which it was still woefully under-prepared. Only by entering into a sort-of-coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party, an organisation for whom ‘reactionary’ would be an understatement, could the former Prime Minister remain the current Prime Minister. And so that’s what she did.
And that’s where we are now. On the brink of opening negotiations with the European Union, without a clue as to what our position might eventually be, and with some doubt as to the preparedness or likely longevity of the UK’s set of protagonists. The Prime Minister has famously said she’s prepared to ‘walk away’ from Brexit negotiations and into the dark night of what some call ‘extreme’ Brexit, but that seems unlikely. It is a possibility, in the same way that suicide is a possibility, but not one that many will find tempting. The Minister for Exiting the EU, the irrepressible David Davis, has clarified the position slightly, by rowing subtly backwards, comparing the suggestion to the threat of walking out of a house purchase, calling it a mere negotiating gambit rather than, as would be closer to the mark, walking out of an already-mortgaged house.
Although this is a glimmer of sanity, there is a long way to go, not least because the UK has entered into many contractual obligations with the EU which can’t all be broken unilaterally. Moreover, as a member state of the EU, the UK would be deemed liable for the consequences of its withdrawal, such as the relocation of UK-based EU agencies, the need to link the Republic of Ireland’s energy grid to the European mainland, and the funding of many ongoing research and infrastructure projects. As it is unlikely that the 27 other EU nations would pick up the bill on our behalf, or encourage any other nations to skip their bills, their response to the UK ‘walking out’ would doubtless be to pursue us mercilessly, possibly applying sanctions against us via the same World Trade Organisation that the UK is pinning its post-Brexit trade hope on.
Even so, ‘soft Brexit’ is still being discussed, as if it’s a thing. That might not entirely wrong. There are some who reckon we’ll be able to cherry-pick bits and pieces out of EU/EEA membership, as if the dismal business was all about constructing a pleasant political gateau. There is some truth to that, though the only freedom the UK will have is to decide whether or not to continue relations with those EU agencies that allow non-EU/EEA members to do so, where the rules allow. So, although the UK wouldn’t have membership of the EU Intellectual Property Office, the Common Agriculture Policy or the EU Environment Agency, it might be allowed to observe some of the activities of the EU’s Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency.
Compared with the soul of Brexit, or even the billions dreamt of by the trade-obsessives, this is small-fry, and there’s little chance the money we’ll be able to save by observing a few agencies will match the vast amounts we’ll need if the UK is to transfer, modify and/or replicate all the institutions, policies and law required by all the others.
So, however ‘soft’ the Brexit, the domestic challenges remain equally enormous. So far, the UK government has managed to sidestep substantive discussion of this, but that’s becoming an increasingly untenable position. Already farmers are wondering if they’ll be thrown under the trade bus for the benefit of the financial sector and the National Health Service has belatedly noticed that EU nurses have stopped applying for jobs, with the result that the prospect of a shortfall is no longer just a prospect. Then there are the ports and airports, currently set up on the presumption that the bulk of trade is with Europe (including out-of-EU trade that arrives via Rotterdam), which needs minimal inspection and paperwork, and thus have little in the way of appropriate information systems, storage areas or inspection facilities. All those will need expanding and upgrading within something less than two years, no matter how ‘soft’ Brexit is.
As I’ve hinted, although trade seems to be the key issue for Brexiteers (apart from those who simply wish to exploit workers), it’s the last thing on the mind of most of the humans who’ll be affected. That’s because the first thing that needs to be decided are the rights and freedoms of EU citizens in the UK, and of UK citizens in the EU. That might seem a simple issue, but it’s not. There are different employment protections, health insurance systems, pension schemes and welfare benefits to be negotiated. At present, with the UK a member of the EU, everything’s delightfully reciprocal, not least because 40 years of detailed work has been done to ensure just that. We’re now going to try to reproduce that in a few months, with the UK (even under ‘soft Brexit’) both having wasted a year, and still determined to reject the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which currently arbitrates and enforces it all. All with a government that can’t deliver what it promised, and an opposition that doesn’t know what it’s against.
Even if that small element of the mildest of Brexits is possible at all, which I strongly doubt, the rest presents insurmountable challenges. For that reason, I don’t see how a ‘soft’ Brexit can happen at all or how it helps to pretend there’s an alternative that’s still a Brexit.
Some have claimed that the UK might still have ‘access’ to the single market. But every nation has access to that, through the WTO. If the UK is to get the preferential deal it seems to want, however, it has no choice but to give up on its commitment to end Freedom of Movement and opposition to at least the partial rule of the ECJ, in return for remaining a full member of the single market. But, in that case, what’s the point of any Brexit? The only conceivable advantage will be to the offshorers, transnationals and tax-haven plutocrats that financed the Leave campaign in the first place, and their interests are still opposed to the interests of the UK and its people. For the UK government, and the opposition, to continue to pander to them at the expense of the electorate they’re supposed to represent is tragically explicable but in no way excusable.