And So, Back to Brexit!

I want to try to understand Brexit. Don’t we all? What follows is to some extent “thinking aloud” – me trying to help myself to understand and accurately to document what I do understand about this momentous political decision. So, the Tories are determined that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on 29 March 2019, come what may.

What may come, in the meantime, depends on the outcome of formal talks and negotiations between Theresa May (or her successor) and her Minister for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, and our erstwhile 27 other European partner states, represented by M. Jean-Michel Barnier.

May has signalled an intent for the UK not only to end its membership of the EU, but also explicitly to discontinue the UK’s participation in the EU’s Single Market – an immensely beneficial arrangement for UK industry that minimises the regulation of goods and services within all 28 EU member states and makes the movement of such goods and services, essential to the UK’s prosperity, vastly easier than it might otherwise be.  In simple terms, the Single Market is the reason why there are only sometimes 5 mile queues of trucks up the M2 from ports like Dover and Folkestone rather than permanent 15 mile long queues.

May has also signalled that the UK also intends to cease membership of another hugely important pillar of the EU, the Customs Union.  The Customs Union – again another immensely beneficial arrangement for the UK-  guarantees minimum uniform tariff rates to be levied for all categories of goods traded within the 28 EU member states (because they are agreed and defined in advance by those states).  Outside the Customs Union, the UK’s exports would not benefit from the agreed tariff rates in operation for Customs Union members, and would probably have to pay substantially higher tariffs.

The shorthand for the above has become known as “Hard Brexit”, and you might reasonably look at it and ask why anybody in their right mind would want to walk away from such beneficial arrangements, that actively contribute towards the UK’s prosperity.

The short answer is this : immigration.  Over the past 20 years or so, an apparent majority of the English and Welsh electorate (though not the Scots or Irish) has been conditioned by the likes of Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith, Paul Nuttall, and others to become absolutely obsessed by immigration.  In particular, Farage and his ilk in UKIP, because of their stated opposition to British membership of the EU, decided that the best way to persuade people that the EU was A Very Bad Thing was to convince them that Britain’s membership of the EU was a prime source of immigration to the UK, that was wholly detrimental to many aspects of UK society.  That they whipped up and deliberately engendered racial hatred and prejudice in doing so was of no concern to them.

In order to be a member state in the EU, a country must agree to the central principles espoused by the Treaty of Rome that established the EU, one of which is the free movement of goods, services, and people, within all member states of the EU. It’s what makes the Single Market and the Customs Union possible, but it’s also what makes it possible for Polish electricians, or Latvian chambermaids, or French production managers, to choose to come to live and work in the UK, and, reciprocally, for Scottish mining engineers to go to the Czech Republic to work on major projects, or for English software developers to live and work in, say, Italy or Slovakia, or for British pensioners to stay toasty in southern Spain.   Again, this is (in my view) unquestionably a fantastic arrangement. It affords younger people, in particular, fantastic opportunities to travel, learn and grow in different countries, and provides significant, tangible benefits to the British economy – not least to the staffing of our health service.

UKIP and others have chosen (because it suits their purpose) to characterise the free movement of people within EU member states as immigration, when technically, the free movement of EU citizens is not immigration at all. It is what it is –a mutually agreed, mutually beneficial arrangement between states in which most of the movement of people is not actually permanent in the way that the notion of “immigration” implies.

It should be noted here that any responsible government, mindful of the UK’s status as an EU member state and the responsibilities entailed by that, would and should take practical action to address the possible concentration of pressures on services and infrastructure that can result from particularly intense movements of some EU citizens into a particular locale. This is precisely what Labour’s Regional Impact Fund, established by Gordon Brown, was established to do.  The Regional Impact Fund was immediately scrapped by the Tories when they assumed power in 2010.

This false characterisation of the free movement of EU citizens, and the associated encouragement of racism and xenophobia, are therefore what has enabled first the “victory” in the EU referendum of 2016, and now, the determined rush towards Brexit, on the wholly bogus basis that it represents “the will of the people”.  Everything, it seems, must be subordinated to the Holy Grail of freeing us from the cursed burden of EU “immigration”. And because retaining access to both the Single Market and the Customs Union is possible without being an EU member – but absolutely conditional on continued acceptance of the free movement of people, here is the reason for the drive towards “Hard Brexit”, which can therefore include neither.

In their approach to the Brexit negotiations, Theresa May and David Davis have encouraged the fantastical notion that the UK can leave behind our membership of the EU, the Single Market, and the Customs Union, and somehow be better off and more prosperous than our remaining part of these institutions would afford. How this might be possible is unexplained, other than a nebulous notion of achieving international trade deals signed with distant nations other than with the largest trading bloc in the world, situated right on our doorstep.

It is difficult to envisage what we will be left with when we eventually reach 29 March 2019.  I think that leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union represents economic hara-kiri for the UK, and that it therefore will not happen. We will do a deal to retain access that inevitably requires the inclusion of the free movement of people.  “Hard Brexit” is doomed, and the utterly specious notion that “No deal is better than a bad deal” must surely be shot down in flames – no deal is the worst possible of any sort of deal.

Looking further ahead, it is possible optimistically to foresee a date when the UK re-applies, post-Brexit, for EU membership, as it becomes brutally apparent that the decision to leave was a mistake of gargantuan proportions.

But as we contemplate Brexit of whatever complexion, consider this heart-breaking reality :  The UK currently has the best terms of membership of the EU of any of the member states : We are not part of the Eurozone and are exempted from contributing to bailing out Eurozone member countries such as Greece. We are not part of Schengen, and will not be. The soft border between Northern Ireland and Eire, integral to the continued success of peace in Northern Ireland, is made possible by our EU membership (and endangered by Brexit). We retain the annual contribution rebate established by Margaret Thatcher’s government.  And we are explicitly exempted from the aspiration of “ever closer union” espoused by the rest of our erstwhile EU partners.

All of these benefits would disappear on Brexit, and it is highly unlikely that we would be able to have any of them reinstated should we in future seek to re-join the EU.  In my view, this compounds the enormity of the decision to leave.

Technically, it is still conceivably possible for the UK to decide before March 2019 that we don’t want Brexit after all, and we’ve decided to stay as a member. It might take a further referendum – not currently on the cards – or a general election – currently still very likely to be on the cards while May’s minority government stumbles on – to enable such a decision to be taken.  It may be that such a decision is no longer possible in terms of Realpolitik, but I sincerely hope not. Many in the Labour party must surely be thinking along these lines.

Comments

  1. This is a welcome rational contribution about an irrational subject. The Brexit vote was not even about immigration, for while it may be technically true that EU citizens are not immigrants its not going to cut any ice in a fevered atmosphere to point this out. Immigration per se is not about the EU – Farage whipping up feeling about Syrians traded on ignorance that Syria was part of the EU. The idea was that Britain can gain control of its borders, and this was compounded by the big red bus…. money comes back and we can fund the NHS. All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

    I have already used the F word – Farage. At a meeting Bill and I was at I pointed out that he drives everything and is never now mentioned. That is true. UKIP’s votes were hovered up on June 8th and the Tories know if they backslide he will be back. UKIP is not dead. Farage is the presence that we dare not speak the name.

    Trevor Fisher

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