Is there an Exit from Brexit?

, by Ian Beckett

Is there an Exit from Brexit?
Given that Britain has long been the “awkward partner” in the European project, should a European federalist not support Brexit? © Tomek Nacho // Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

On 24 June 2016, the world woke shocked to learn that the UK had voted to leave the EU. Ever since, there have been attempts by ‘Remainers’ to reverse the result and to find a way for the UK to stay a member of the EU. But realistically, how possible is that fifteen months after the vote and six months after the triggering of Article 50?

The first thing to note is that there has been no evidence of a change of British public opinion regarding the decision to leave. The result is that even leading ‘Remainers’ such as Ken Clarke have now accepted that exit is inevitable [1]. But for the purpose of this debate, let’s assume the public opinion changes and the UK decides it wishes to remain in the EU.

The issue is surely what sort of relationship can be devised between the EU and the UK that allows the UK to withdraw the Article 50 notification and for the EU to accept such a retraction.

It seems that there are four general options available to negotiators in such circumstances.

First, a return to the relationship that existed prior to the 19th of February 2016. That is the UK in receipt of a budget rebate, outside the Eurozone ( and extremely unlikely ever to join), outside Schengen, with assorted JHA opt-outs, Banking Union opt-outs, a fiscal compact opt-out, as a non-signatory of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, with a partial working time directive opt-out etc. Yet UK support for this position was such that in 2013 David Cameron presciently observed that “democratic consent for the EU in Britain is now wafer thin.” [2] But would such a semi-detached UK position be acceptable to the EU any longer?

The second option would be based on the results of the ‘renegotiations’ concluded on the 19th of February 2016 and subject to the Referendum itself. All the above exclusions for the UK would apply, with the addition of the “handbrake” in place allowing differential benefit entitlements for EU migrants, an end to ‘ever closer Union’, a formal recognition that the EU has more than one currency, and limited bureaucratic reform of the EU to increase competitiveness. But since this is precisely the deal that was clearly rejected by the electorate, it is difficult to imagine renewed membership under these conditions being acceptable to the UK electorate let alone the EU.

Next, one should consider a deal which permitted the UK to abrogate the freedom of movement of EU nationals whilst maintaining membership of the Single Market etc. This seems entirely unrealistic. While it is almost certainly acceptable to the majority of UK voters, it is impossible to imagine the EU even considering it.

Finally, consider a relationship based more on what the EU might desire. This would involve an abolition of the rebate, the removal of many or all of the existing opt-outs and, in all likelihood, a requirement to agree to ultimately join the euro and/or Schengen. These changes would seem to be in the interest of an EU moving towards much closer integration, especially since the June 2016 vote. But the removal of any of the opt-outs, rebate or further requirements placed on the UK would undoubtedly once again increase support for Brexit, almost certainly to the point that a negotiating British Government would be forced to reject the conditions. After all, a decision having been made to leave once, it is easier to do the same for a second time.

It is, I would suggest, now impossible to identify any course which is acceptable to both the EU and the UK to allow continued membership. A final quote from David Cameron encapsulates the root of the problem: “we come to the European Union with a frame of mind that is more practical than emotional” [3]. For historical and cultural reasons, there is not now – and never was – any reserve of emotional warmth for the EU in the UK equivalent to that found in other EU states.

President Juncker in his State of the Union speech announced “the wind is back in Europe’s sails.” [4] Partly this is an economic assessment, but partially a view on the political changes that he believes are now possible. Changes due to the effective absence of the ‘awkward partner’. That being the case, why would anyone who supports the idea of greater integration and ultimately federalisation want the UK to remain a member of the EU?

Is now not the time for both sides to recognise that as painful as it may be economically, politically and even emotionally the exit of the UK is now inevitable, irreversible and even desirable? Given that, benefits are available to both sides but only if rational decisions are taken for mutual benefit. A refusal to understand what is ultimately necessary will result in some limited economic damage to both sides, potentially significant ill feeling but ultimately no change in the final outcome.

Footnotes

[1] http://news.sky.com/video/ken-clarke-fight-to-remain-in-eu-is-hopeless-11028923

[2] [3] David Cameron, Bloomberg Speech 23/01/2013 (https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/eu-speech-at-bloomberg)

[4] Jean-Claude Juncker, State of the Union 13/9/2017 (https://ec.europa.eu/commission/state-union-2017_en)

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