Follow Us

Follow us on Twitter  Follow us on LinkedIn

02 November 2017

Fed Trust: “Hard Brexit or no Brexit?”, that is the question

The inability of the Brexit negotiating team to make the hoped-for progress in the discussions does not stem from May’s tactical ineptitude, but rather from the traumatic confrontation between the collective fantasy of the government, and the economic and political realities represented by the EU.

It is not always realized in this country, even by eminent commentators, just how different are the starting-points in the Article 50 negotiations between the British government and the EU. The British side has a single aim, that of maintaining as far as possible what it sees as the advantages of being in the EU, while minimizing what it sees as the disadvantages. The EU has two aims, neither of which sits easily with British aspirations. The first is to ward off harm to itself arising directly from the UK exit, be it in Ireland, in the Union’s internal finances or in the rights of EU citizens. The second aim, once this harm has been averted, is to establish a long-term economic relationship with the UK which is mutually beneficial, but which appropriately and demonstrably reflects the negative consequences of British unwillingness to accept the responsibilities of EU membership. It is a familiar mantra of British ministers that both the UK and the EU have an interest in coming to an agreement for an orderly British withdrawal. The often unacknowledged problem with this formulation is that the two sides define their interests in these talks in such radically different and probably incompatible ways. [...]

It is entirely possible that the European Council in mid-December will conclude again that insufficient progress has been made towards realizing the first of the Union’s goals in the Brexit negotiations. Despite the apparent commitment of the Prime Minister, Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier to “accelerate” the pace of negotiation, the discussions seem to have once more entered a period of stagnation. From the British side this stagnation is blamed on the EU and its failure to make reciprocal “concessions” to those offered in Mrs May’s Florence speech. The Union does not believe that her speech calls for any reaction from them beyond welcoming it as a belated and only partial recognition of British obligations to it. [...]

The hope and indeed expectation of many in the British government and elsewhere that a special, uniquely favourable (bespoke) “deal” will be on offer post- Brexit is the purest fantasy. If there is a finally negotiated arrangement, it will faithfully reflect the template already established by the Union in its dealings with other third parties. The more the third party is prepared to accept the responsibilities of Union membership, the greater will be its access to the rights of membership. Yet Mrs May has made clear that her government rejects the responsibilities of membership of the Customs Union and membership of the single market. [...]

If, as seems entirely possible, the European Council of mid-December refuses to move onto the second phase of negotiations, while at the same time sketching out the limitations on what it might anyway be prepared to offer in this second phase, much will change in the domestic British debate around Brexit. The two alternatives described long ago by Donald Tusk, of a “hard Brexit” or “no Brexit” will be brought more sharply into focus, with perhaps differing consequences for two crucial audiences, namely for the Conservative Party and for British public opinion more generally. Of the two audiences, the Conservative Party is perhaps easier to gauge in its likely reaction.

The past six months of internal debate within the Conservative Party have established an important dividing-line between those who wish after Brexit to remain closely involved and aligned with the EU and those who do not. The first camp regards with horror the prospect of a non-consensual Brexit and would cheerfully embrace a lengthy transitional phase so as to soften and postpone the pain of parting. The second camp is eager to leave the Union as soon as possible and is either indifferent to or even welcoming of an abrupt termination to the Brexit negotiations. [...]

How British public opinion more generally would react to the prospect of leaving without an agreement is more difficult to predict. During the referendum campaign those favouring Brexit fell consistently into two camps: one saying leaving would involve no significant economic cost to the UK; and another accepting potential economic disadvantage but prepared to accept this risk in order to restrict free movement, escape the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice or end payments into the EU budget. Given the increasing vigour with which British business and financial interests are now warning that a “cliff-edge Brexit” would be damaging to economic well-being, it is difficult to believe that such a prospect would be a matter of indifference to the first of those two camps. [...]

It would be a bold person who would predict with certainty whether Brexit will occur on its appointed date in March 2019. Much has been made of issues relating to the revocability or otherwise of the Article 50 notification, to the desirability or otherwise of a second British referendum on the terms of Brexit and to possible reconfiguration of the British party political system. Whether Brexit occurs or not resolves itself in the last analysis into a simple question. As the negative consequences of Brexit unfold and become more manifest, will there be enough MPs from a range of parties with the courage and conviction to stop it? So far, this is emphatically not the case. Despite its spectacular incompetence and bad faith, the present Conservative government still determines the Brexit discussion in the UK. It is however entirely possible that changing public opinion will interact over the coming months with latent (and not so latent) concerns among many MPs to produce a substantial majority hostile to the only kind of Brexit which can realistically be achieved. If that is so, questions about the revocation of Article 50, a second referendum and new political parties will fall into their as yet unpredictable place. It would be a stupendous but entirely conceivable irony if next year’s robust assertion of British Parliamentary sovereignty was not to embrace Brexit as a resumption of “control” but rather roundly to reject the whole Brexit chimera.

Full opinion piece on The Federal Trust


© Federal Trust

< Next Previous >
 Hover over the blue highlighted text to view the acronym meaning
Hover over these icons for more information

Add new comment