Friday 26 May 2017

Brexiters in denial: we didn't mean 'that' or 'you'

Because of the General Election there is not much Brexit news to write about, although there are daily reports of Brexit causing companies and sectors to be in difficulty or pulling out, losses of vital EU staff, falling growth, and rising inflation. In fact there is not a single example of something good happening which would not have happened had it not been for Brexit. Even the paltry crumb of comfort that the falling pound helps exports turns out to be minimal.

The General Election hiatus is also bad news in that it represents a waste of what everyone agrees is the already inadequate 24 month time frame for the Article 50 exit negotiations. It means that at least two of those months are being squandered. To put it another way; suppose that you had a vital task to complete and had just 12 days to do it. You and everyone else knows that 12 days is way too little. So you begin your 12 days by spending a day in bed. That’s what Britain is doing.

It’s not as if there was any compulsion to trigger A50 at the end of March. It was the government’s choice to do that, and then almost immediately call an election. In some peculiar way we seem to have decided, both as a nation and in our government, to start doing incredibly stupid, self-damaging things.

Anyway, since we are in that hiatus, I am going to write more today about Brexiter logic – or, rather, illogic – because I think it is going to become an increasingly important issue once the negotiations start. I’ve written before about Brexiter illogic in terms of them thinking any piece of evidence to ‘prove’ that they were right. That’s quite easy to demonstrate from the public statements of leading Brexiters, but here I want to talk about something much more nebulous, which I’ve observed mainly in online discussion forums and social media.

There is the strange sense from those who argue most vociferously for Brexit that, somehow, Brexit won’t change anything. For example, I’ve seen Brexiters ridicule the idea that leaving the EU could mean needing visas to travel to the EU or that it could mean restrictions on air travel within the EU. Or that security cooperation with EU countries would be diminished. Or that European fruit and vegetables might be less easily sourced. Or that British people would face restrictions on retiring in EU countries. Or, possibly the most ubiquitous since the referendum, leave voters saying to their friends and neighbours from EU countries: ‘oh, but we didn’t mean you when we said there were too many immigrants’.

I don’t think that these things are necessarily to do with the idea that Britain can ‘cherrypick’ some parts of the EU that they like, and it is more subtle than simply rejecting warnings as 'project Fear'. Rather, what underlies such sentiments is two related things. One is a taking for granted of the familiar accoutrements of modern life without realising that they are the product of extensive, albeit largely invisible, institutional arrangements. So of course ‘nowadays’ planes fly us to wherever we want without restrictions, as if this were not the outcome of complex agreements such as the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA), and ‘of course’ we can travel visa-free in Europe, as if that were not the outcome of freedom of movement rights. In some ways, Brexiters, who despise Euro technocrats and bureaucrats and rail against extra-national decision making, also treat it as an act of nature that there are Europe-wide regulatory systems which, on Brexit, British citizens will still have available to them.

The related underlying issue is that for many Brexiters the vote to ‘take back control’, with all its emotional resonance, was not thought about in concrete legal or institutional terms but as a kind of symbolic, feel-good act. That, indeed, is the implication of the Brexit White Paper which affirms (para 2.1) that sovereignty was never lost by EU membership but that “it has not always felt like that”.

The problem is that both the assumption that familiar freedoms are an act of nature and the symbolism of taking back control are now in collision with the reality of leaving the legal institutions of the EU. This isn’t going to be a matter of assumption or symbolism: it will have hard, concrete effects. It will be no good saying to your EU neighbour that ‘you didn’t mean her’ when she quits her job as a Paediatric Consultant and your child is ill. It will be no good saying that ‘of course, they will never introduce visas to go on holiday to Spain’ when you have chosen not to be a part of ‘them’.

One reason why this situation has come about is because of the way that the Leave campaign chose to conduct itself. Rather than accept that there would be adverse consequences of leaving the EU but that these were, in their view, worth accepting, the leave campaign hyperbolized so as to dismiss those consequences. Thus, to take the most obvious example, when remainers talked about the EU’s role in keeping peace in Europe, the leavers said ‘ah, so World War Three will break out if we leave’ – making a perfectly reasonable claim into a ludicrous one that could then be dismissed. It was the same with travel. When remain warned about restrictions, leave hyperbolized that to say ‘ah, so you’ll never be able to go on holiday if we leave’. The legacy of that, now, is that when WW3 has not broken out and the end of foreign travel is not in prospect, Brexiters taunt remainers with the claims that the latter never, in fact, made. But that in turn means that Brexiters still believe that leaving the EU doesn’t make any difference at all.

From this mixture of lack of realism about EU institutions, symbolic understanding of leaving, and dishonesty about the consequences of leaving flows a great danger. As the realities of what Brexit means kick in, the leaver mindset that leaving ‘didn’t mean that’ or ‘shouldn’t mean that’ or ‘needn’t mean that’ is morphing into a belief that ‘the EU is making it mean something that it doesn’t, or shouldn’t or needn’t’. So whereas a rational response would be to say that by voting to leave leavers have chosen the consequences, what is emerging is the punishment narrative that Brexiters are already beginning to deploy to avoid taking responsibility for the consequences of their decision.

Although I have said that the sentiments discussed in this post are more obvious amongst grassroots Brexiters than their leaders, traces are visible amongst those leaders. For example, Nigel Farage recently ranted about the idea that British people would no longer be able to travel to Europe in response to point made by Guy Verhofstadt that Brexit would be likely to mean restrictions to travel. On the one hand, it was a hyperbolization (it wasn’t the effect claimed), on the other it was used to imply that, despite Brexit, ‘nothing would change’. Similarly, David Davis has recently opined that key EU regulatory agencies, the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority, could stay in London post-Brexit (as if Brexit ‘made no difference’) whilst the Brexit press depicts the loss of those agencies as ‘Brexit Punishment’ (as if Britain hadn’t chosen to leave the EU or ‘didn’t mean that’ when it did).

Once this unnecessary election is over the Article 50 negotiations will start and the consequences of Brexit will become ever clearer and the cries of ‘EU punishment’ will get ever louder. It will then be vital to remind leave voters that whatever they may have thought that voting to leave the EU meant, what it actually meant – it seems extraordinary to have to write this - was something very simple: leaving the EU. It will be a rich irony, given the months in which this absurd slogan was deployed to scarify remainers, that Brexiters will need to learn the rather brutal truth that, indeed, Brexit means Brexit.

[Updated with minor edits 28 May 2017]

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