Taking Stock after the Snap Election

This is a new introduction to the site. We trace what has happened since the June 2016 referendum and conclude that neither the government nor the opposition has a convincing Brexit negotiating strategy. We suggest that the approach to negotiation needs to shift from antagonistic bargaining to constructive consensus building. The process should be “reset”, not ruling out membership of the single markets nor curtailing the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Instead it should explore innovative ways of reconciling the goals of “leavers” with continued membership of the EU – as we illustrate in relation to alternative ways of cutting migration from member countries.

An Utter Shambles

We created the Future of our Children website some months after the 8th June 2016 EU referendum. A few of us with children and grandchildren living in Britain felt that we had to speak up for them and the many other young people who wanted Britain to remain in the European Union. Older voters who swung the “leave” vote would be least affected by a Brexit, whereas it would have a fundamental impact on the future livelihoods of younger people, including many who were not yet of voting age. We felt that it was dreadfully unfair that their aspirations should not be given due weight in the decision-making processes following the referendum.

Nothing has been done on the political front over the past year or so to reduce our concerns that the young are being short-changed.

Following the Tory choice of Theresa May as prime minister, we saw her embrace the “leave” camp, appointing former leading campaigners to key ministerial posts, hardening the deep divisions sparked by the referendum, leaving “remainers” – including droves of young voters – out in the cold. In January 2017, May set out her initial views on Britain’s objectives for the Brexit negotiation, wishfully trumpeting that there was “the strength and support of 65 million people willing us to make it happen. Because after all the division and discord, the country is coming together”. For most young people as well as for the Scots and Northern Irish, this did not ring true.

Then, though claiming to champion British sovereignty, May argued that she had the power to invoke Article 50 through which the UK would signal its intention to start separation negotiations without involving parliament, but was over-ruled by the Supreme Court.  The resulting parliamentary debate was muzzled by the imposition by both leading parties of 3-line whips on their MPs, requiring them to vote to trigger the exit process rather than to respond to their constituents’ preferences.

Not long after she had submitted her letter to the European Commission to start the negotiation process, May sprung a surprise on us by declaring a “snap” general election, expecting that she would strengthen her negotiating position by increasing the Conservative majority. In justifying this move she said that “since I became prime minister I have said that there should be no election until 2020, but now I have concluded that the only way to guarantee certainty and stability for the years ahead is to hold this election and seek your support for the decisions I must take”.  She received a slap in the face from voters who opposed her policies and she lost her party’s outright majority in the house of commons, fuelling turmoil rather than stability.

After stitching up a costly voting pact with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Tories can now command a fragile majority in the lower house. Surprisingly, May has not adjusted her approach to Brexit negotiations to respond the fall in voter confidence, but remains determined to take the UK out of the single market and customs union, cut immigration levels and remove Britain entirely from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

May’s authority to deliver her “hard” Brexit, however, has been greatly diminished by the general election result.

She has lost control of her cabinet whose members are quarrelling with each other over their interpretation of what a Brexit agreement should look like. Most of these battles seem to be driven more by the rivalrous ambitions of the protagonists rather than by any genuine concern for the future wellbeing of the British people.

In spite of the deal with DUP, May could run into difficulties in getting parliamentary approval for the Repeal Bill in September if several pro-remain Conservative MPs abstain or vote for amendments proposed by opposition parties, provided that they can get their act in order.

The outcome of all of this is an utter shambles, with Britain’s negotiating team now lacking all credibility when it sits down with its opposite numbers in Brussels!

It is unbelievable that, almost 15 months after the referendum, the British government is still unable to articulate a united and credible view on its objectives in seeking to leave the EU. It is still more worrying that Labour and other opposition parties seem incapable of coming up with an unambiguous strategy on Europe which could appeal to a majority of voters.

A Shift in Public Aspirations

The Tory government justifies its pro-leave stance on the grounds that this responds to “the will of the people” as expressed by 38% of the electorate in a referendum that had only consultative status – in which roughly 17.4 million voted to leave the EU and 16.1 million to remain. The campaign was mired by false claims made by each side, and the interpretation of the meaning of the result is complicated because of many ambiguities about the practical actions implied by the “leave” victory.

The “will of the people” is not static and even a small shift in voter intentions from “leave” to “remain” would tip the balance – for what this is worth – in favour of the UK remaining in Europe. The snap election results suggest that this swing is beginning, and it seems bound to gain momentum as people feel the impact of rising inflation caused by the sinking Pound and fret about how the uncertainties surrounding Brexit affect their lives in so many ways. If not heeded to now, it could result in the negotiation of an agreement that would be ultimately disowned by British voters.

Probably the most important signal from the 2017 election is that voters on all sides are dissatisfied with what they see as a deterioration in public services and utilities. There are high expectations for improvements in many aspects of the health services and schools as well as for easier access to universities, and calls for greater investment in affordable housing, transport systems and in urban renewal. Some parties, notably Labour, are advocating for renewed public sector engagement in the provision of utilities. At the same time there seems to be growing public support for higher pay for low-salary public sector workers such as nurses, teachers and firemen.

The significance of this is that there is a rising demand on fiscal resources which can only be met from revenue if the economy is growing. Continued membership of the single market and customs union offers by far the surest way of maintaining sound conditions for the long-term economic growth required to enable any future government to respond to voters’ aspirations. To walk out of these highly favourable trading arrangements without having negotiated equally favourable ones is reckless: it is like selling one’s house before lining up the purchase of another. Yet this is exactly what Theresa May has done by announcing, even before beginning negotiations, her intent to take our country out of the single market. The main driving force behind this decision that exposes the British economy – and hence our livelihoods – to massive risks appears to be her personal phobia towards the European Court of Justice. Her stubborn opposition to the jurisdiction of the ECJ seems bound to scupper any meaningful negotiations with the EU on its future relationship with Britain.

Where Now?

We are in an extremely fluid and bewildering situation in which predictions are meaningless.

We remain committed to continue to do whatever we can to support the aspirations of young British people to live as European citizens.

All we can do is write and occasionally talk to people, hoping that those who like what we say will pass on the messages.

We will try to persuade them of the long-term benefits of negotiating a deal that could involve remaining in the EU while using our influence in its governance to work with other like-minded countries to foster policies that address the main concerns expressed by “leave” voters and by the many citizens throughout the EU that share similar misgivings.

We will call for a shift in UK’s Brexit negotiating strategies from antagonistic bargaining to constructive consensus building. The first step would be to withdraw Britain’s ex ante decisions to leave the single market, customs union and the ECJ and to restart negotiations with the aim of reaching an agreement on formulae for continued engagement that are good for both UK and the rest of Europe.

For example, in relation to the freedom of movement of European citizens, we could explore options for reducing the “push” factors that drive emigration to the UK in the main migrant source countries. This could involve creating greater open-ness in their labour markets, setting comparable minimum wages, introducing universal unemployment benefits etc, matched with programmes within the UK to increase training opportunities and incentives for nationals to fill future skills gaps. Such an approach, including the possibility of applying short-term brakes on “excessive” migration during an agreed incubation period, would seem to fit with Britain’s aim to balance immigration with its needs and with the EU’s aims of improving employment markets in its member countries.

Please send us your thoughts on this and, still better, write pieces that we can share with readers.

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