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“Here’s what I think…”: Let’s talk about Brexit

Tom Cleaver

Let me get something out of the way first: without getting into the whys and wherefores of the policy, I hate the word “Brexit”. There are a few reasons for my dislike of the word: first of all, it isn’t a nice sounding word, it doesn’t roll off the tongue, and I’ve heard it almost every day since the build up to the referendum three years ago. Secondly, it’s a blatant rip off of the name “Grexit”, banded around when it seemed that there was some chance that Greece may leave the European Union in 2015. Thirdly, and most importantly, it symbolises the infantilisation of politics, in that a cheap and tacky “catchy” abbreviation has been bestowed upon a policy of constitutional importance, giving an easy tagline for people to use in order to describe something they do not necessarily understand without sounding like a fool or having to explain the details. Not only does the word offer an easy way out of critical thinking for some, it also belittles the importance of the subject. Important matters should be discussed in mature ways, in my opinion. There’s a reason we didn’t call the two World Wars of the last century the “Glaps” (short for global scraps); they were serious matters to be discussed in serious ways, and with the exception of those of you who are going to start using the word “Glap” ironically in my presence to get on my nerves, those matters were always discussed in a serious manner. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m comparing leaving the European Union to a World War, I’ll leave that to the politicians who endorse it as a policy, but this infantilisation of politics, characterised by annoying abbreviations and meaningless slogans, should not get in the way of serious politics. For these reasons I’m going to try to avoid that word where I can.

“The Wikipedia page for “European Union Law” gets 500 clicks a month”

Anyway, onto the policy itself. I’ll start where this whole subject did, with the calling of the referendum. David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2010 until not long after the referendum, is a chancer and a fool. A head of government with a habit for calling potentially career-ending and crisis-creating referenda is rarely a good thing, and David Cameron is not an exception to that rule. In total he called three of them; won the first two, and had his career ended and his country plunged into crisis by the third. Whichever side of the argument you fall on, you have to admit it is a ridiculous idea to put such a complicated and complex issue, about which the majority of the population knows very little, to a binary referendum. The idea that the average person is informed enough to make an educated decision on whether or not membership of the European Union is a net negative or positive is laughable; the Wikipedia page for “European Union Law” gets around 500 clicks a month, and I doubt that this is because everyone already knows everything that’s written there. It is for this reason, and not because “leave voters are stupid” that not a single person who voted Leave can ever name a single concrete reason they did so. They always revert to meaningless slogans and buzz words such as “fish” or “blue passports” or “sovereignty” not because they are unintelligent, but because they are uninformed, and so are you, and anyone who thinks otherwise is most probably too uninformed to realise how uninformed they are.

No sensible leader would ever have called such a referendum, therefore, but David Cameron did, and he lost it. There are allegations that the campaign to leave the EU broke campaign finance laws, but I’ll leave that for another day and focus on the aftermath of the result that exists for this week at least. Just shy of 52% of those who voted in the referendum elected to leave the European Union, with (of course) just over 48% voting to remain. In line with the pre-agreed rules of the referendum, the United Kingdom was to leave the European Union, which shocked everyone. Except for anyone that could read a set of polls. But everyone else was shocked, as they all said repeatedly on the news for the next few months. In light of the close result and the good faith that the people of the UK voted in, the best route forward for the country would have been to leave the European Union and to join the European Free Trade Area (EFTA). This plan, sometimes referred to as the “Norway” or “Switzerland” model would have seen the UK leave the Customs Union, and the Common Agricultural and Fishing Policies. The UK would, therefore, have been free to negotiate its own trade deals while still benefiting from the free movement of goods into and out of the country. For a country which was so closely split over the issue of Europe, it would have been a good and reasonable compromise. It was one that in 2016 was endorsed by both of the most prominent campaigners to leave the European Union (Alexander “Boris” Johnson and Nigel Farage), and one that would have provided a straightforward and sure way forward for the UK after the referendum, delivering on its result and presenting those who campaigned to leave the EU with the chance to fulfil some of the promises they made to the electorate.

That is not what happened, however. Upon seeing the referendum results, David Cameron, in another fascinating show of his leadership qualities, announced his resignation, and promptly went to Nice to “put his trotters up” according to actor Danny Dyer. His replacement as Prime Minister was Theresa May, who promptly filled the air with meaningless slogans such as “Brexit means Brexit” and “red, white, and blue Brexit”. In order to leave the EU, a country must invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which gives 24 months’ notice. Before finding a consensus for any one plan, the UK government decided to take this action and start the clock on the country’s departure from the EU before deciding on what that would actually mean.

Herein lies “Brexit”‘s biggest problem. The referendum found that a slim majority wished to leave the EU, but in that slim majority there are a plethora of different ideas for what leaving the EU should actually mean. In the weeks and months following the referendum, names of countries and ideas were banded about as ideas but none of them won the hearts and minds of the population as “Brexit” had. There was Norway (the EFTA model that I have talked about), Canada with various number of pluses at the end, another “bespoke deal”, Hard Brexit, Soft Brexit, and, of course, No Deal. The half of the population that voted to leave the EU were split between all these options, effectively dooming the idea from the start given that there was no way of leaving the EU that would make enough people happy. The only plurality was for remaining in the EU, but there was also a majority against that, and a referendum fought on the promise that that would not happen.

“They paid one billion pounds to a group of dinosaur deniers from Northern Ireland”

Since becoming Prime Minister after the referendum, Theresa May had promised that there would be no General Election until it was legally required in May of 2020. Naturally, therefore, after invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty she called a General Election in order to strengthen her majority in Parliament. Having not learned the lessons of her predecessor that calling a vote doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to win it, that majority was lost. However she and her party stayed in government after paying one billion pounds of taxpayers’ money to the Democratic Unionist Party, a group of ten dinosaur deniers from Northern Ireland, in exchange for their support.

Theresa May then commenced negotiations and started attempting to create a withdrawal agreement. These deals also all had names, like Florence, Chequers, Chequers 2 and any I may have missed. Over the next eighteen months negotiations were ongoing. May had set out her “red lines”; those being that there could be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and that the UK should have access to the Common Market while leaving the Customs Union and not accepting free movement of people. All 500 monthly clickers of the “European Union Law” Wikipedia page that I mentioned earlier know that these red lines contradict each other, and that proved to be the case. It was decided that there would be a transition period after the UK would officially leave the EU in order to solve the problems related to customs and trade. On the question of the Irish border it was decided that there would be a “backstop”; meaning that until a permanent solution could be found Northern Ireland would remain in the Customs Union in order to avoid the creation of a hard border.

The withdrawal agreement was eventually agreed, but was immediately almost universally unpopular in the UK. In addition to the close to half the country who didn’t want to leave the EU, almost everyone who did want to leave disliked the deal. The Democratic Unionist party, for example, insist that Northern Ireland must follow all UK laws to the letter (except for abortion and gay rights), and so were horrified by the idea of a “backstop” temporarily leaving them in a different customs jurisdiction to the rest of the country. Those who had wished for a Hard Brexit or No Deal disliked the idea of a withdrawal agreement that would include the UK honouring payments to the EU as part of membership that it had agreed to up to 2021 prior to the referendum, rather than the “clean break” that they had wished for. It was set to be put to Parliament for ratification in what was known as the “meaningful vote” in the December of 2018, but May pulled the vote out of fear of an embarrassing defeat and went on a tour of European capital cities in order to “seek assurances”.

May’s European tour achieved precisely nothing, and the law of the UK required that her deal must be put to a “meaningful” parliamentary vote sooner or later so in January there was a vote, and her deal lost it by the biggest defeat of a government in parliamentary history. The defeat in the “meaningful vote” led to a series of seemingly meaningless votes in Parliament, where MPs spent a day voting on hypothetical scenarios. Theresa May won one of them, and so filled with confidence embarked on another tour to renegotiate, or something.

That brings us to now. This column has been published on 11th February 2019, 46 days before the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union. There is no consensus, neither in Parliament nor in the country as a whole, for absolutely anything. Half of the country doesn’t want to leave the EU at all, and the other half cannot decide on what sort of future it wants. As of now there seems to be two clear factions within the “leave” half of the country, Theresa May’s Deal and No Deal, both of which are completely irreconcilable with one another, and of course completely irreconcilable with the other half of the country. The uncertainty around messing around with the agreements in place with its closest and largest trading partner has caused many UK-based companies to move their operations out of the country, damaging the national economy and meaning there are less jobs available.

“This would leave the UK with the grand sum of one (1) trade deal. With the Faroe Islands.”

Both Theresa May’s Deal and No Deal will complicate trade with the EU for the UK to different extents. For the former, the extent depends on how close the ties will be following the negotiation of a subsequent trade deal after the ratification of this withdrawal agreement, but given that Theresa May seems willing to leave the Customs Union and unwilling to accept free movement of people, ties will obviously not be as close as they are now. As for No Deal, this would leave the UK with the grand sum of one (1) trade deal. With the Faroe Islands. Now, I don’t wish for one minute to belittle the Faroe Islands but I doubt that the archipelago, which has 50.000 inhabitants, can provide enough of anything to the UK to prevent shortages, or buy enough of anything to keep the UK economy going. “WTO Rules” would mean tariffs on every product that leaves the UK (except for in the direction of the Faroe Islands), which would make UK products noncompetitive in comparison to products from countries which have trade deals, and would of course for that reason spectacularly crash the economy. In terms of free movement of people, professions which rely on EU nationals for workers (for example nursing) would have great shortages soon enough.

What seems likely to happen from here on? At some point Theresa May will return from whatever she’s doing in Brussels and will put her deal to another vote in Parliament. I am pretty confident that it will not be voted through this time either, which will leave the UK staring No Deal in the face. No Deal is the default outcome of the two year period from the invocation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty expiring, and with slim prospect of a deal passing through Parliament now, it seems likely that this will be the outcome. The UK, which currently does trade through its membership of the EU, will be cut off from the rest of the world (with the notable exception of the Faroe Islands) and therefore struggle to export anything. Of course, the economic results of a country unable to export anything due to its products all having massive tariffs placed on them don’t bear thinking about. New border checks will mean nothing with an expiry date will be able to enter the UK due to waiting times meaning it will all go off before making it to wherever it is supposed to go. This applies to both foods and medicines. After No Deal‘s consequences become a reality I have no idea how the UK Government and people will react. The national mood in the UK is unpredictable in such a scenario, given that no country has ever voluntarily elected to cut all ties with its closest neighbours and by association the rest of the world in such a way, without so much as a plan for what to do about it.

What would I do? Right now, with less than fifty days to go until the UK is supposed to leave the EU, it is too late to implement my initial first preference, which was accession to the EFTA. As I have already written, both Theresa May’s Deal and No Deal are unpopular choices which will leave the country financially worse off, so I cannot endorse either. What else is within the realms of imagination, therefore? There are some people in the UK, and now within Parliament, who are calling for an extension to the two year period started by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. In my mind, this standing alone will just allow for a continuation of the rudderless bickering over what leaving the EU should look like to continue for another few months, solving exactly nothing and simply kicking the can down the road. There is also a group who want another referendum, which they are calling a “People’s Vote”. These people, coming from the centre-left of UK politics, would be my natural political allies, but I disagree with them on this issue. The problem of people being uninformed on the issue has not changed since 2016. The majority of people still know next to nothing about the EU, and given that polling has only narrowly swung towards “remain” in the three years since the referendum there’s a good chance that another one would yield the same result and do nothing to change the situation.

My solution is much more simple, much more effective, and much more divisive. I would retract the invocation of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and I would call the whole thing off. This would avert the potential disaster made possible by other ideas, and would make more people happy than anything else that’s been suggested. Only an unequivocal revocation would answer this question indefinitely. Am I able to reconcile this position with my personal principle, that I am first and foremost a democrat? Yes. After the referendum, those who advocated for and voted to leave the EU were given three years to come up with a coherent plan of how to do so. They failed in this, and after those three years still have no plan. One plan has been created (by someone who advocated for and voted to remain in the EU) and they all say that it’s rubbish, because it is, but it is the only plan for leaving the EU that exists. If that is all that anyone can come up with in three years of trying to leave the EU, then surely it is better not to. As I said, remaining in the EU wins the plurality of voters, still polling at roughly 50%. As a democrat, therefore, it was my opinion that the referendum result must be respected in 2016, and it was. Now, having given those of a certain persuasion the chance to shape the country in the way they see fit, and having seen them come up with absolutely nothing, it would seem to me best to leave everything as it is.

“If they were so anti-establishment, they wouldn’t have voted Tory twice”

I am not going to doubt for one minute that those who voted to leave the EU meant it, and really wanted and still really want to leave the EU. I’m not going to belittle them and claim that it was a cry of “anti-establishment anger”, because if “leave” voters were so anti-establishment the majority of them wouldn’t have voted for the party in government in the two General Elections a year either side of the referendum. People voted to leave the EU because they wanted to leave the EU. However, an important lesson in life that applies to all of us is that it is very easy to criticise something for not working in the way we wish it to, but often much more difficult to articulate how we would do it better, or, if we can articulate how we would do it better, actually do it better. The people of the UK decided that they didn’t like their country being a member state of the EU and voted as such in a referendum. Overnight and for the ensuing three years it became the flagship policy of their national government, and there is still no coherent idea of what would actually be better than being a member state of the EU. For that reason, the policy is a dud and should be abandoned.

Will my idea ever come to fruition? No. The UK government appears to have chosen its course and that is that it will leave the EU one way or another. As I have already written, this will most likely happen without any withdrawal agreement, by way of No Deal. This will most probably cripple the UK economy. The average “leave” voter may then realise the cost of staging a binary referendum on an impossibly complex subject, voting to change the status quo in a way that is barely comprehensible and doing so without a coherent plan leaving the country fiscally naked. On the other hand, as the polls remain unmoved as the UK sails towards a bleak future outside the EU and right on the fringes of the international community, there may be enough people out there happy that they got their “Brexit”.

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