UK should negotiate new relationship, not “Brexit”

I am increasingly perturbed by the number of people coming up with all kinds of technical ways to try to stop “Brexit”, up to and including a weird and wonderful (and utterly ludicrous) plan by one academic for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain in while England and Wales left.

I am perturbed because we should not waste time with technical (and actually ludicrous) ways to try to stay in the EU, when there are perfectly reasonable cases to be made for doing so. (And it is perfectly democratic to make them – just as it was for Leavers to continue to argue their case after a resounding referendum defeat in 1975.)

A month ago there was a referendum and, albeit by a narrow majority, the UK electorate backed the motion “the UK should leave the EU”.

That means those who want to leave the EU get first try, and the new Prime Minister has wisely accepted this. Some big beasts of the Leave campaign now occupy all the relevant “Brexit” ministries, giving them the chance to come up with a coherent plan whereby leaving the EU is better than remaining in it.

However, the fact is they wil almost certainly fail. After all, what were the main reasons for leaving the EU?

  • We now know there will not be £350 million a week extra for Health, or anything like it, so that key argument for “Leave” no longer applies;
  • We now know that Turkey will not be joining the EU, or anything close to it given what happened last week, so that key argument for “Leave” no longer applies;
  • We now know that, far from “being able to do our own trade deals”, the UK will in fact have no trade deals at all even in formal negotiation (far less complete) on the day it leaves the EU, so that key argument for “Leave” no longer applies either.

Of all the key arguments for leaving the EU, that leaves just one intact – immigration. Objectively, that key argument for leaving the EU may still apply, even if it is worth emphasising that it also means leaving the Single Market altogether (which wasn’t actually on the ballot paper).

So it is obvious what should happen now. The UK should start discussions with the EU, as a member state whose population wishes currently to leave, around immigration. The UK could indeed argue that it has a unique status – given additional favourable status for people coming from the Commonwealth; the generosity it showed to citizens of new member states immediately upon the 10-member expansion in 2004; and the fact that it is geographically isolated. But it could also argue more broadly that absolute free movement of the scale currently in place across the EU (actually, the EEA) does not work and is in fact leading to hostility to the whole Single Market project across the continent, not just in England and Wales.

The underlying point is obvious. If the EU refuses to heed the warning from the UK electorate on immigration, the UK will have to find its own way somehow but it probably will not be the last to go. On the other hand, if the EU is willing to listen (and every national election which takes place across the continent will only make it more willing to) and to rethink just how absolute “free movement” has to be, then all options including maintenance of the UK’s membership remain on the table. If, after all, the EU proved willing to meet the concerns of those who voted to leave it last month, why actually leave?

The case for leaving the EU is just as poor now as it was a month ago. However, that does not mean that many of the concerns of those voting to leave were not legitimate. If we really wish to remain in the EU from this inauspicious political position, we have to address those very real concerns, not just bleat about academic technicalities.

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4 thoughts on “UK should negotiate new relationship, not “Brexit”

  1. I agree that most ‘Remainers’ are still stuck with trying to undo what has happened. This is an emotional reaction – understandable, but as you have said, mostly unrealistic. There are however three problems with your proposition. The first is that people did not vote the way they did because of intellectual assent to a proposition backed by facts, but an emotional reaction driven by feelings. The fundamental drivers were not £350m etc, but the loss of identity, the sense of no longer having control of one’s community and the profound fear that everything that they valued was disappearing. These fears were strengthened and confirmed by the response of Juncker et al demanding implementation of Article 50 immediately – an authoritarian reaction that went way outside EU’s own rules. The second thing is that the reason we are in this mess is because of the repeated refusal of EU leaders to take seriously the concerns of the eurosceptics across Europe – hence Cameron came back from his negotiations virtually empty handed. Why would PM May risk such a snub when she has become PM because the majority of people have proclaimed themselves tired of making the effort? The third is that it assumes that the EU leadership still wants the UK as a member. Our problem is not, as you say, the technicalities but the breakdown of a relationship and it is not at all clear that the majority on either side really wants to repair it. I think that you implicitly acknowledge much of what I am saying. I am just making it explicit.

    • Yes, I agree with that. My proposition is absolutely not that the PM go and attempt to remain in. However, she should go and make clear that the reasons for the UK’s imminent departure are not unique to the UK. Negotiations should then proceed on that basis.

      • Did the Republic of Ireland’s departure from the United Kingdom really reform either one of them about their own internal problems before it was too late?

  2. martyntodd says:

    Perhaps putting a limit on the maximum number of people allowed to travel to a country might be enough to keep the principle of free movement of labour, but put a theoretical control in the hands of each member state.

    If there was free movement up to a maximum of, say, 0.1% of a country’s population per year, then the UK’s target could be met, other EU countries could follow suit if they wanted. The limit would be optional, so some countries could take in more than the limit.

    It would be first come, first accepted each year, as I think is the rule for green cards for the US

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