Suddenly Brexit is all over the media. What’s driving this outbreak of a debate that the two major political parties have seemed to want to suppress? Is Brexit really done? Is a consensus possible that would drive a much closer relationship with the EU?
The referendum in 2016 narrowly supported the proposal that the UK should leave the EU. But while the Leave campaign made many claims for the advantages of doing so, no actual plan existed. This led to many years of ferocious argument until its 2019 General Election victory gave Boris Johnson’s government a clear mandate to end the discussion and execute the decision. A simple reversal of Brexit is not feasible, but we must mitigate the consequences and the time may be right to achieve a new consensus about the way forward.
The devilish detail
The details of our agreement with the EU were the result of many decisions but were guided by the most extreme interpretation of what Brexit meant: leaving the customs union and single market, an end to free movement of labour, no commitment to future alignment of standards and no acceptance under any circumstances of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The absolutist European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative MPs have been very influential in this.
Brexit has consequences
It’s clear that alternative deals were possible which would still have honoured the referendum result and eliminated much of the new bureaucracy and paperwork that is dogging trade with our close neighbour and largest trading partner. The government made hundreds or even thousands of decisions during negotiations. It’s inconceivable that they were all good decisions, and many will have had unintended consequences. The economy is in a mess and the UK is alone among G7 economies in not recovering from the pandemic.
The Governor of the Bank of England believes Brexit is damaging the UK economy and UK business agrees. The Office for Public Responsibility builds pessimistic assumptions about Brexit effects on trade and productivity into its forecasts, so reducing the government’s scope for public expenditure increases and tax reductions and driving up interest rates and mortgage costs.
Farmers and fishermen are upset
UK farmers are upset about the trade deal with Australia and George Eustice MP (a former Secretary of State in the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who was involved in the negotiations) has said the UK had given away too much for little return in the rush to secure the first genuine new trade deal after Brexit. Fishermen (who believed Brexit would benefit them) are now disillusioned.
Small businesses are swamped with new paperwork
Small businesses struggle with the costs of exporting and must either shift investments and jobs to the EU by establishing distribution centres, or simply stop selling into this huge market. The experience of the Cheshire Cheese Company is typical – having lost £600,000 in EU sales, they have sold out to a larger competitor which already had EU based warehouses for distribution.
Leavers are not getting what they expected either
All this has confirmed Remain voters’ expectations about the consequences of Brexit. However, it is fair to say that Leave voters prioritised different issues. Sovereignty and immigration were key. But even committed Brexit supporters such as Jacob Rees-Mogg have struggled to articulate what tangible benefits our independence has brought us. His list included the ability to purchase more powerful vacuum cleaners and a discount on fish fingers.
Meanwhile immigration has been at record levels (although the make up of migrants has changed, as fewer EU nationals have arrived). Migrants arriving in small boats over the English Channel has hugely increased, including many children. The departure from the EU Dublin agreement on asylum makes this problem worse.
UK needs allies
The war in Ukraine has reminded everyone of the importance of strong alliances and multi-national organisations such as NATO to stand up to threats from Russia. The US will not negotiate a trade deal and China is treated with more caution than it was in 2016. Going it completely alone seems a lonely and dangerous decision.
More and more people believe Brexit was a mistake
There is an increasing feeling that Brexit was a mistake (57% of the population believe this according to a recent poll). It may be unfair to associate the current cost of living crisis with Brexit, but people are bound to do so because the two are coincident.
It is perhaps fairer to ask where the extra money for the NHS promised by the Leave campaign is – all the headlines are about the NHS in crisis, we live in a country where it is hard to see a GP and you cannot rely on an ambulance being available quickly when you need one. Once this impression becomes received wisdom the government, who are the creators of Brexit in its present incarnation, have a problem. Hence the pressure to revisit some of the details – most obviously in the troublesome Northern Ireland protocol.
Brexit debate breaks out
It is no surprise that Jeremy Hunt’s pledge to remove “the vast majority of trade barriers with the EU” and the Sunday Times story that relations with the EU would evolve to become like those enjoyed by Switzerland triggered a vigorous debate. Nigel Farage threatened (again) to return to front line politics to “foil a Tory plot to reverse Brexit”.
Simon Wolfson the Brexit supporting chairman of Next, made the important point that “…we have to remember, you know, we’re all stuck in this Brexit argument. We have to remember that what post-Brexit Britain looks like is not the preserve of those people that voted Brexit, it’s for all of us to decide.”
A possible way forward
But perhaps a new consensus is possible that supports pragmatic steps to align regulations and standards in certain areas (especially agriculture and the environment) which minimise trade barriers and promote jobs and investment. The chemical industry, for example, could benefit from the UK abandoning its own set of hazardous chemical regulations in favour of aligning again with the EU Reach programme. It might also allow the UK to regain membership of the important EU Horizon science programme.
The consensus would include Remainers, who would see this as a steppingstone to eventual re-joining the EU, and “soft Leavers”, who (having been promised that leaving would be pain free and good for the economy) want to respect the Brexit referendum but do not see why the country should pay such a heavy price for the ERG’s ideology.
Tory difficulties over Europe will not go away.
This seemingly straightforward proposition is of course enormously difficult for the Conservative Party. The ERG is large and influential enough to threaten the Government’s majority. Any “back sliding” from the purity of the Brexit deal would be anathema to the ERG and could exacerbate the obvious fault lines in the party.
However, in a situation where the public increasingly sees Brexit as a mistake that is making the current cost-of-living crisis worse, they will find themselves on the wrong side of the argument.
An opportunity for Labour?
This consensus gives credence to the Labour Party’s nuanced stance on “making Brexit work” which has disappointed many committed Remainers. Reversing Brexit is a step too far – at least at this stage – but reforming Brexit agreements should not be controversial to Remainers and most Leavers. The EU would have to be persuaded it was worth looking again at the painfully negotiated agreements, especially after the UK’s cavalier approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol. But if a new interpretation solves the problem, then everyone wins.
But why is Labour reluctant to talk about and exploit the obvious issues with the Tory implementation of Brexit? The nation is probably ahead of its politicians in this case and it’s time for Labour to lead the debate.