The idea that Britain can expect to “have its cake and eat it” is “pie in the sky”
Hopefully it is at last dawning on voters that it really is not possible for Britain to enjoy the many benefits of being a member of the EU if it opts out of the responsibilities that this implies. Brexit, as presented during the referendum, offered the prospect of a bright alternative for many UK citizens who were strongly dissatisfied with the status quo. It was easy to heap the blame for much of what was wrong in the UK on the bureaucrats of Brussels. Throwing off the European Commission’s shackles would create space for a more independent and prospering Britain to re-establish its greatness in the world and to create a fertile environment for innovation. It was a vision of a “land flowing with milk and honey”.
Unfortunately, the proponents of this seductive vision had given no thought as to how it could be translated into practice – and, as they now still stumble forward, it is becoming clearer every day to all that the Brexiteers’ dream is based more on wishful thinking than reality. With the benefit of hind-sight we can now see that the biggest error made by Mrs May and the UK parliament was to fire the starting pistol for the negotiating process by invoking Article 50 before they had defined attainable goals. Almost two years after the referendum, there is still no consensus even in the Cabinet on how to handle negotiations, so how can the government call for public backing when it cannot even explain its own objectives to us?
The main reason for the government’s current predicament is that the Brexit that they seem to want is unattainable and potentially hugely damaging to Britain’s economy and to its international standing. Until the Prime Minister faces reality and accepts that what the Brexiteers propose is based on nostalgia, fantasy and illusions, the negotiation process will lead nowhere.
Here are a few of the illusions that seem to have captivated her.
Illusion 1. Europe needs Britain more than we need Europe.
The first and biggest illusion in the Brexiteers’ thesis is that Europe’s other 27 EU countries need us more than we need them and so they are bound to agree on a favourable future free trade deal that preserves many of the benefits of the Single Market and Customs Union, while allowing us to walk away from adhering to the “freedoms” that guarantee a level playing field. The other EU countries have remained unanimous in signalling to Britain that, once it has left the Union and become a “third country”, it would be fooling itself if it aspires to a new relationship that is as favourable as the present one.
Illusion 2. If Britain leaves the Customs Union, it will be able to negotiate big new trading partnerships with other nations.
Liam Fox has traipsed the world searching for favourable trade deals, but still has to admit that he has drawn a blank. As a relatively small player, it seems clear that Britain won’t be able to create better trading conditions than those negotiated by the much larger EU unless it gives in to humiliating commitments including relaxing immigration restrictions and lowering its food and environmental standards. The lion’s share of UK trade is now with EU countries and those which already have agreements with the EU, so the extra volume of trade that could be developed with other countries is relatively small.
Illusion 3. Only by opting out of the Single Market, will Britain be free to reduce immigration.
Britain already has freedom to control the number of immigrants coming from non-EU countries, with the exception of genuine asylum seekers, but has chosen not to go as far as it could in this direction. If the UK really wants to cut inflows of migrants from other European countries, probably the best solution is not to tighten controls. Instead, if we remained a member of the EU, the government could engage constructively with the European Commission in developing programmes in the main migrant source countries (e.g. Romania, Portugal, Italy) aimed at reducing the “push factors” that drive people to move abroad. This would be compatible with the “level playing field” principles of the Single Market. It is likely that these countries would welcome UK assistance in upgrading their social protection programmes and in freeing up their labour markets and also, if asked, agree to discourage flows during an interim period.
Illusion 4. Leaving the European Union will enable us to “take back control”.
Most EU regulations and the actions of the 40 or so decentralised agencies are intended to improve inter-country cooperation in addressing issues that have trans-boundary dimensions. Some relate to trading standards, but many address issues such as assuring high levels of food safety, approval of medicines for Europe-wide use, letting citizens have access to national health services when they are travelling between countries, ensuring aviation safety, creating favourable roaming arrangements for mobile telephones, cooperation between police forces and so on. If Brexit means Britain must leave these bodies, as seems likely, it will lose any control over their work and become a “rule taker” rather than a “rule maker”.
Illusion 5. Britain can play a more influential role on the international stage when acting alone.
Although the Prime Minister claims that she wants to continue to cooperate with Europe in addressing defence and security issues, it is difficult to see how this can be full-bodied cooperation unless Britain stays represented at the highest levels of EU governance. While routine matters, such as the exchange of intelligence on terrorist activities, can be handled at lower levels, the big decisions – for instance on policies towards Russia or China – have to be taken jointly at heads of state level. By excluding itself from the EU, Britain will become increasingly weightless in determining European policies but, if only because of its juxta-position, will be exposed to the consequences of decisions made by its neighbours, whether it likes it or not. We should also recognize that Britain’s absence from the top table will play into the hands of those countries that see that it is to their advantage to have a weakened Europe.
Let me add that the post-Brexit disengagement of Britain from a managerial and technical role in all the EU bodies exacerbates the risk of future conflict in Europe. My own belief is that one of the great contributions to sustained peace in the region stems from the building of mutual trust and respect between the hundreds of thousands of people from all member countries who, over the years, have come together, convened by the European Commission, to jointly address problems of common concern and – as in the Erasmus programme – to immerse themselves in each others’ cultures.
It is tempting to extend this list of illusions – to touch, for instance, on the illusion that Britain will be more prosperous when it leaves that EU (which has already been smashed by the government’s own forecasts), or that leaving the EU would be a quick and easy process. Instead, let us use the evidence that is already available to call on the government and all political parties to come down to earth and to bravely admit that, even if in June 2016 a majority of voters called on Britain to leave the EU, we now know enough to be certain that it would be an immensely self-harming step.
The time has come for a U-turn in the processes shaping our future relationship with Europe in ways that respect the aspirations of young British citizens. They are the ones whose lives will be most affected by any decision and who overwhelmingly voted in the referendum to stay in Europe.