On triggering article 50 the prime minister’s biggest hurdle is an expectant nation. Evidence consistently shows that people expect Brexit to deliver more trade, less migration and cessation of any financial relationship with the EU. And with reason: this is what they were promised.
The prime minister has not attempted to prepare people for turbulent times, instead, we have been told, Brexit is a cost-free option; trade will be enhanced not hampered; there will be major savings from the EU budget; core arrangements with the EU, for example over national security, will remain unchanged; regulatory freedom will ensue; and the integrity of the United Kingdom will be protected.
This is not only a strategic error which ignores inevitable trade-offs, but is dangerous for a country already divided and which could become more so when a fantasy vision turns out to be false and scapegoats are eventually sought.
The idea you can leave the EU’s primary economic structures, the single market and customs union, developed to break down trade barriers, and have uninterrupted trade and a windfall for public services is as disingenuous as it is delusional. There is no EU free trade agreement with a third party that offers the same degree of market access as we enjoy today. At the very least, service trade will be restricted, goods will face origin checks and our existing trade deals will be renegotiated as weaker agreements than they are today. The European parliament has already today made plain that similar benefits to those we enjoy will not be on offer from a bloc intent on securing its own stability.
For some, economic cost is the price of renewed sovereignty. But this is illusory. In an insight in to the minds of Brexit enthusiasts, the government’s own white paper stated, “Whilst parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that”. The opportunity for many is to unilaterally legislate, let’s face it, to remove ‘burdensome’ workplace or environmental protections. However, as Michel Barnier has already suggested, equivalence in “environmental, social and consumer protection standards” is likely to be a condition of a comprehensive trade deal and so anticipated regulatory freedom runs contrary to the promised a deep trade agreement.
Many voted on the grounds that a dramatic reduction in migration was promised. Both the government and Vote Leave aim to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands. This, however, undermines the government’s warm words about being an “open and tolerant” country that welcomes the “skills and expertise” we need. It is impossible to see how such a reduction can be achieved without causing economic hardship to UK businesses.
The government is likely to emphasise greater ‘control’ in the system, as David Davis has begun to do. Such an approach, however, risks creating an expensive bureaucracy to oversee the flow of migrants into our economy without significantly changing the volume whilst maintaining a net migration target that has at its premise a quite extreme reduction in numbers.
As for our Union, the prime minister has argued that we must leave our largest market to regain sovereignty and without economic risk, only to argue that Scotland must remain within their largest market to avoid economic risk. The promise of a “UK-wide” approach was made but was never genuinely sought and as a consequence separatist forces have wind in their sails and the United Kingdom is at risk.
How can the government make the best of this? Immediately, they should be upfront about honouring our liabilities as well as making contributions for participation in valuable programmes and agencies, whether Europol or Erasmus; be flexible over timings and an end the ideological intransigence of fully leaving the ECJ by 2019; and drop the ‘tens of thousands’ target and make more of the value of EU migrants to our economy.
The prime minister’s biggest task, however, will be to reject the ideologues within her own party and temporarily supportive newspapers who will use every hurdle to argue for a walk-out. She should therefore make clear they intend to reach a deal, will be flexible in doing so and will resolutely eschew all suggestions that ‘no deal’ would be an acceptable option.
And how should their opponents respond? We must celebrate successes if they come – for example we hope for an early settlement on the rights of EU nationals; argue that alternative choices are available as the costs of the current path emerge, highlighting the divergence between promises and delivery; and argue that the final settlement must be given democratic consent at the end of negotiations. This will be conducted by various forms of activism, whether marches, pressure groups or parliamentary pressure. The Labour party will have to decide the degree of cost it will accept to be a facilitator of Brexit or if they genuinely intend to hold the government to account for pledging the “exact same benefits”.
We all want the best from negotiations, but I fear Brexit gains are imagined, the cost likely to be real, and the government are pursuing neither the most potentially advantageous form of Brexit nor one for which there is a clear mandate. Debate did not end on 23 June 2016, nor on 29 March 2017: this is a firing gun not a finishing line. Whether the final deal remains in the national interest should be a judgement people and parliament are able to make.
Image: Glyn Lowe Photoworks