Looking Beyond the Brexit Rainbow
Around one year ago, Britain woke up to find that slightly more than half its voters had opted to leave rather than remain in the European Union. The Prime Minister, David Cameron (who had called the Referendum on EU membership in the expectation that it would lead to a “remain” verdict), promptly resigned. His place was taken by his former Home Secretary, Theresa May, who had supported the “remain” camp. She famously but cryptically claimed that “Brexit means Brexit” and placed the Conservative leaders of the “leave” campaign in prominent positions in her Cabinet.
May backed her Brexiteer colleagues to the hilt and announced her intent to invoke Article 50, giving notice to the European Commission of Britain’s intent to enter negotiations to leave the European Union. When her authority to do this was challenged in the courts, she was compelled to seek parliamentary approval, which she gained after imposing a 3-line whip on her Conservative party MPs. May triggered the exit process by invoking Article 50 on 28th March 2017. Her letter indicated her intention to pursue what has been dubbed a “hard” Brexit, including Britain’s voluntary exit from the EU Single Market.
Just 3 weeks later, May, much to everyone’s surprise, called a “snap” election to strengthen her Brexit negotiating hand. The election, held on 8th June, backfired, leaving her party without a parliamentary majority and her own authority as Prime Minister and party leader seriously diminished.
Initial negotiations with the EU formally began in Brussels ten days later, on 19th June.
The implications of the election result are still subject to much debate. What is clear, however, is that May was dealt a huge slap in the face and that she can no longer claim that, in seeking a Brexit agreement that unilaterally excludes the UK from the Single Market, she represents what she likes to call “the will of the people”. She has entered the negotiations on a weak footing, without knowing what the electorate has empowered her to aim for, and uncertain as to whether she can command a parliamentary majority.
The Prime Minister’s greatest mistake was to opt for Britain to leave the Single Market. In doing so she killed the goose that lays the golden egg that is fundamental to Britain’s long-term economic prosperity, jobs and investment, as well as for the peaceful coexistence of Northern Ireland with Eire. It seems that she took this fatal decision because she wrongly saw it as the only route through which she could accede to calls of the “leave” advocates to “take back control” and “regain sovereignty” through cutting immigration from the EU, reducing a perceived plethora of useless regulations, escaping from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and opening up bilateral trade agreements with other countries. She and her supporters claimed, without any evidence, that, once out, they would be able to negotiate a new trade deal with the EU that would be as good as the Single Market but without strings attached. In a strangely self-defeating way, she notoriously pronounced that “no deal would be better than a bad deal”!
Strangely, the recent general election campaign focused on almost every subject of national concern but not on alternative Brexit strategies. What is clear, however, is that it denied Mrs May and the Conservatives the authority to pursue the Brexit negotiating strategies that she had outlined before the election.
Before substantive discussions can realistically begin, therefore, it would be proper for the new parliament to signal its approval of a negotiating position that reflects the implications of the general election results. In particular, this should acknowledge that, since the referendum, there has been a significant shift in public opinion away from exiting the Single Market now that the full significance of this is becoming increasingly clear. There seems to be a consensus that, without continuing to be a member of the Single Market, Britain’s economy will suffer badly, with a sharp drop in its fiscal income which will limit the capacity of any government to address the many urgent needs identified by voters in the election.
There is now an unprecedented opportunity for Britain, referring to the results of the recent election, to notify the European Commission of its interest in exploring informally – before proceeding further with substantive exit negotiations – the options for staying in the Single Market and probably in the Union itself while meaningfully addressing the major concerns expressed by “leave” voters on reciprocal residence rights for UK and EU citizens in the countries in which they live, EU migration, regulations, the European Court of Justice, and trading options.
One reason for optimism over the prospects for reaching a positive response to this is that the Brexit issue has stimulated introspection in many EU member countries, leading them to acknowledge that many of their problems are convergent with those that Britain seeks to address. The results of the recent Dutch and French elections will embolden the EU to embark on reforms that respond in practical ways to these common concerns.
There is also dawning realisation on all sides that the process of first extricating the UK from the EU and of then negotiating a new relationship would be fiendishly difficult and, by prolonging uncertainties, would be deeply damaging and disruptive not only to Britain but to all EU members.
Finally, there seems to be no point for Britain to pay a huge withdrawal fee only to turn around immediately and find ways to re-engage selectively with the EU on many subjects of essential interest to the UK.
Interestingly, a recent Cambridge University study of voter attitudes in eastern England indicates widespread eagerness for compromise in arriving at a new relationship with Europe, centred around the idea of remaining in the Single Market.
David Cameron won some UK-specific concessions from the EU but failed to convince British voters that this responded to their aspirations. What we suggest is that Britain should instead propose an agenda for EU-wide reforms that, if adopted, would go a very long way towards meeting all the main practical objectives set by “leavers” without requiring the country to withdraw.
This agenda would focus on:
- Residence Early agreement on confirming residency rights of EU citizens in UK and of UK citizens in European countries, whatever the outcome of negotiations.
- EU Migration Agreement that the European Commission would promote a level playing field on migration by requiring major migrant source countries to guarantee decent minimum wages, comparable welfare benefits (especially unemployment allowances), and more open labour markets. Reducing the strength of the “push” factors that drive migration is likely to be far more effective in reducing flows than setting up harder borders, as emphasised recently by Angela Merkel. Until such policies would begin to have an impact, Britain would be entitled to act to match inflows more closely with employment needs.
- Regulations and Policies Extend principles of subsidiarity to allow all EU members to legislate to adopt or drop regulations, standards and policies when these have no transboundary implications. To cite topical examples, UK would be free to set its own fire protection measures, but would be bound to continue to adopt EU norms on air traffic movement and safety within the region. It would also be expected to subscribe to EU climate change mitigation policies.
- European Court of Justice (ECJ) Seek agreement that disputes between parties from within the same country would not normally be handled by the ECJ except in cases of appeals against judgements of the highest level of national court. The ECJ would have a restricted role in handling human rights-related disputes, accepting that these would normally fall within the jurisdiction of the European Court for Human Rights, under the Council of Europe.
- International Trade The European Commission would accelerate its programme for creating trade agreements with other major nations and regional markets.
Now is the time to come forward with a positive vision of Britain staying in Europe and acting in concordance with other members to address the legitimate concerns of “leavers” while avoiding the huge costs and risks associated with leaving the Single Market, the Customs Union and the European Union itself. This would truly represent the collective “will of the people” in Britain, recognizing that healing the deep divisions that have torn our people apart over the last year requires policies on our relationship with Europe that respect the feelings of those on both sides of the chasm.
An agreement along these lines could also be easily and quickly negotiated!
Hopefully this vision would be attractive to a cross-party majority in parliament.