It’s still very wounding to think of the UK leaving the European Union. The Leave campaign was based largely on lies and wishful thinking; those who voted to leave fell well below 40% of the electorate, which might be a reasonable threshold for such a major change. But Theresa May, our new Prime Minister, has said “Brexit means Brexit”. This is surely the best way forward. Rather than try to undermine the referendum result, it is better in the long run to test it to destruction.
Calls to rerun the referendum are understandable but unrealistic. The Conservative Party is overwhelmingly Eurosceptic amongst its membership, if not amongst its MPs. The party must rally to that cause. Members and MPs who don’t like it should leave the party. Politically it needs to rebuild its appeal to the working and lower middle classes outside London, who overwhelming voted for Brexit. Mrs May stands a better chance of succeeding here that the duo of David Cameron and George Osborne.
Labour is in an impossible position. Though its MPs overwhelmingly support membership of the EU, most of them had large Leave majorities in their constituencies. They will be unable to ignore this. So with neither the Tories nor most of Labour ready to fight to overturn the referendum result, that leaves the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and an assortment of Northern Ireland MPs to take up the fight. They are impossibly outnumbered. Which does not mean that they should stop putting the case. But that fight is the first step in a very long road. It may be possible that the UK could limp back into the EU as its negotiating position collapses and it faces a deep economic crisis. This would leave a bitter legacy and it is not to be wished for.
That leaves the question of what Britain should aim for in its negotiations for exit. Many advocate something referred to as “EEA-minus”. EEA is the European Economic Area, which consists of the EU plus Norway and Iceland and one or more tiny statelets. EEA members have access to the Single market, but must also abide by the three key freedoms of movement: goods, capital and labour. The idea behind EEA-minus is that the UK would negotiate exceptions to freedom of movement of labour – as immigration was easily the most successful argument used by Leave campaigners. It feels like a pragmatic compromise between the 48% who wanted continued membership and the 52% who wanted to do something about immigration. It would reduce economic disruption. But it is a shabby compromise that would please almost nobody. Leave supporters would still find the country bound by EU laws and courts, and making budget contributions, with the indignity of not being able to influence them. It is hard to argue that it isn’t a net backward step on practical sovereignty. Remain supporters would look at the whole exercise as being pointless. And any fudge on free movement of labour is guaranteed to disappoint.
Actually, there is a deeper problem. Free movement of labour goes to the heart of the EU’s sense of itself. It is precisely what excites most younger EU enthusiasts about the union. And it is hard to understand why the other EU governments would want to fudge it – the risks for them would be enormous. Any negotiation is practically bound to collapse or at least prove an enormous disappointment.
The opposite possibility is hard Brexit. This means that Britain would be unambiguously outside the EU, without an overarching treaty to bind it in at all. Trade would be covered by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) framework, guaranteeing some minimum standards. This is by no means as straightforward as many Brexit campaigners claimed in the referendum campaign – it actually requires significant amounts of negotiation in its own right (as the FT explains). But it is a robust baseline, and there is much merit in making this the main focus of the UK’s rather limited negotiating resources. The UK would then need to identify a series of priority issues to negotiate with the EU to add on top. Top amongst these are the rights of residence and labour market participation of EU citizens living in Britain, and vice versa. Also there is the passporting of financial services, though this is not an issue to die in the ditch over.
There are three advantages to a “WTO plus” approach, over “EEA minus”. First is that it presents a tough negotiating position, which will help to win concessions on critical issues. Second is that it follows the picture painted by Leave campaigners most closely; in the long run it is critical to call their bluff – they are either right in their optimism – in which case the EU needs to rethink itself – or they are wrong, in which case they will be undermined as the major political force they have become. And third it helps get the bad news out of the way quickly. There remains a lot of denial about the impact of leaving the EU; the announcement of WTO-plus would administer a second shock to the system, causing further losses to the pound and inward investment. But then it should hit bottom, and the momentum might be back upwards. This would be healthier in the long run than a drawn out series of disappointments that would erode confidence in the British economy and make it look the sick man of Europe. Getting the bad news over with is something the Americans usually do much better than Europeans – and we should learn from them.
And for us EU supporters, we need to understand that freedom of movement of people is at the very heart of what we want, and we must recognise that we have, for now, lost the argument. But we must rebuild the case, using the traumas of Brexit as evidence. Meanwhile we must think about the sort of EU that we want. We are now witnessing an unholy mess as the Italian government and the EU Commission wrangle about rescuing Italy’s banks. The EU’s rules on state aid look much too restrictive. The EU will survive, and one day Britain will rejoin it. But it will be a different Britain and a different EU. We must work to change both.