Monday 10 July 2017

What should remainers be fighting for now?

Vince Cable’s recent comment that Brexit might never happen has brought into focus the difficult discussion amongst remainers as to what should now be our goal. Should it be a soft Brexit (in the ‘original’ meaning of leaving the EU but remaining within the single market, customs union and other institutions via EEA/EFTA) if simply remaining in the EU proves impossible? Or should it be to remain as full members of the EU without even countenancing the possibility of soft Brexit? Within the remainer ‘community’ (if one can call it this) both views are in evidence. To take two of the most eloquent and influential remainers, if I am not misrepresenting them, in the first camp is Ian Dunt, editor of and author of Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now? In the second camp is the philosopher A.C. Grayling. Or, amongst politicians, many LibDems appear to be in that second camp whilst most Labour and Tory remainers seem to be in the first.

As for myself, I am torn. Since the day of the referendum result I have been writing that the best that can be hoped for is a soft Brexit. Not because that is my preferred outcome, but because it seems the best achievable outcome. As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I think the referendum was ill-conceived, the result bogus and the consequences catastrophic. But that result sits there as a political fact, and just as it is monstrous that the government have pursued a hard Brexit and so treated approximately half of those who voted with contempt so too would it be unreasonable to completely over-ride those who voted to leave, for all that I think they were ill-informed and just plain wrong. This is all the more true given what has happened since the Referendum, with Brexit coming to be defined as hard Brexit so that shifting from that to soft Brexit is already a bigger political ask than it would have been last year.

A soft Brexit would give most people some of what they want – there were many Brexiters who campaigned for leave, and surely many voters who voted leave, on just this basis: something like Norway or Switzerland. Even Nigel Farage recently opined that this was where we were heading and if so it would be, from his point of view, better than EU membership. For remainers, it also gives many of us something of what we want. In brief, soft Brexit as defined above gives Brexiters exit from the EU, CAP, CFP, common defence and foreign policy and de jure CJEU jurisdiction; but not from freedom of movement (except for maybe some tweaks), de facto CJEU jurisdiction and budgetary contributions. Nor does it enable independent trade deals. It gives remainers retained membership of the central EU institutions and continued freedom of movement. And it should be remembered that the majority of people are enthusiasts for neither leave or remain: to them, it gives a stable situation which avoids the economic shocks of hard Brexit and the political turmoil of no Brexit. It’s really how those people’s opinions move now that matters, rather than the hard core on either side of the debate whose opinions will never change.

In short, I don’t think it’s at all likely that we can go to the status quo ante of June 22 2016. This is only in part because the situation is so dire that we have to make compromises to salvage anything from the mess. It’s also because in some ways a soft Brexit would put Britain where it has in some ways been from the moment of joining – that is, seeing the EU primarily in transactional, economic terms; something evident during the remain campaign. I deplore that, but since it is so perhaps it is better for the institutional arrangements to reflect it.

But even if this were not so, what has happened in the year since the referendum result has meant that what would happen if we were simply to revert to remaining could be deeply problematic for both the UK and the EU, as leading Brexit expert Anand Menon has recently argued. On the one hand, despite comments from Macron and others that Britain would be welcome back if it changes its mind, the EU has to some large extent moved on from Brexit. On the other hand, a ‘remaining’ Britain would undoubtedly be wracked by a revived and embittered Euroscepticism which might even force another referendum on leaving within a few years’ time. Better for all to have Britain outside of the EU institutions, including for those of us who are pro-EU since no longer would Farage and his oafish followers be able to embarrass our country in the European Parliament. Of course the hard Brexiters would be furious but whereas in a no Brexit scenario they would surely regroup, in a soft Brexit scenario their chances of garnering much support would be minimal and they would be left, where they should be, on the fringes of political debate.

None of this is to say that soft Brexit is without adverse consequences (and, an important point, it cannot be assumed that it is automatically available as an option*). There will be a price to be paid for that Referendum result whatever happens. But soft Brexit would be better economically than hard Brexit – and especially if it took the form of, unlike Norway, being in the customs union as well as the single market. Still, it would be highly damaging in terms of geo-politics as the role that Britain has created for itself in the previous decades as the lynchpin between the EU and all the other multi-lateral bodies would have been squandered. Yet, even accepting that, it would at least defuse the sense abroad that we have completely lost all rationality and stability and to that extent would be preferable to hard Brexit and perhaps even to reverting to remain, which would compound the sense of a country which does not know what it is doing whilst yielding little in terms of the UK’s ability to be a dominant shaper of the EU which is shot for good now, whatever happens. (Or, almost: perhaps a new centrist party forming a government which went to the EU and strongly affirmed not just EU membership but commitment to the European project could change that – but this seems extremely unlikely).

It is possible, of course, that UK public opinion will shift quickly and decisively towards remaining in the EU and if so, despite all the issues raised in this post, that would become an attainable goal again. The emerging economic disaster of Brexit might well have that effect, and perhaps it would only take a couple of major company relocations to cement what is already beginning to show in the opinion polls. But that will only happen as a result of external events; it’s not going to make much difference how vociferously and articulately remainers argue the case for remain. That’s already been priced in to public debate and there are few minds that will be changed by it in itself. What could, however, make a difference to what happens now is for the remain camp to create and unite behind a single body, rather than the multiplicity of groups that currently exist. If they do, the first thing they will have to agree on is whether no Brexit is still a viable goal and, even if it is, whether soft Brexit is a tolerable and perhaps more feasible one.

It’s important to stress that even if united around the second soft Brexit (or perhaps one should say ‘soft remain’) position, achieving it is a daunting prospect. For all that since the election some of the steam has gone out of the ultra-Brexiters it is still the case that they have moved the terrain of debate significantly towards them in the last year. Thus the main arguments within the government are not so much about soft versus hard Brexit but crazy-hard (crash out) Brexit and awful-hard (transitional) Brexit. That ‘crazy-hard’ has become the new ‘hard’ and ‘awful-hard’ has become the new ‘soft’ shows how far things have shifted since the referendum, and how much work there will be for remainers to claw things back to anything resembling sanity.

*Addendum (10 July 2017): Just to elaborate a little on this (following comment on twitter by @LittleGravitas). The situation here is a complicated one. The Brexit debate has always assumed that remaining in the single market is a straightforward option, but it has several intricacies. First, there is the issue of EEA versus EFTA membership. EFTA members are Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland whilst the EEA brings together the first three of these countries plus EU members, with Switzerland relating to the EEA via numerous bi-lateral treaties. As a broad generalization, EFTA members are rule-takers vis a vis the EU without representation (so-called ‘fax democracy’).
The UK left EFTA in 1972 and rejoining would require the agreement of the EFTA Council. Thus it would not be automatic nor would be in the gift of the EU (i.e. it could not in itself be an outcome of the Brexit negotiations with the EU). Would the UK be welcome to rejoin? Here there have been very different noises at different times and from different people. For example, the President of the EFTA Court sounded a positive note in December 2016 but the Swiss Economy Minister speaking in April 2017 was much more cautious, worrying that the size of the UK economy would swamp and therefore distort EFTA.
There is also much complexity in how independent trade deals operate. It is often said that EFTA countries like Norway can make their own trade deals because they are not part of the EU Customs Union and within that its commercial policy. That is so, but it neglects the way that EFTA members often make trade deals as an EFTA bloc and also (which matters for the UK) they are predominantly goods not services agreements. Moreover, it is not necessarily the case that EU composite trade deals are accessible to EFTA members (although some are). On the other hand, being outside the customs union poses other issues, especially for trans-European supply chains, that matter hugely for the UK since it has many industries (automotive being the most obvious) within such supply chains whereas the other EFTA countries do not.
There might also be the possibility of an associate agreement with EFTA, which would not necessarily entail freedom of movement of people (this is the kind of arrangement that Finland had between 1961 and 1986). But this model is more for countries moving towards eventual EU membership than for a country leaving the EU.

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