What does the election result mean for Brexit?

It certainly makes things more complex!

In the words of Professor A C Grayling ‘When May called the election she said it was for a mandate for #Brexit: meaning she didn’t have one. She certainly hasn’t got one now!’

The electorate rejected May’s approach to Brexit. But as a result of losing her majority, she has now made an alliance with the DUP, a party that supports a hard Brexit – except in terms of wanting to avoid customs controls on the Irish border.

She is also dependent on the soft Brexit supporting Scottish Conservatives – without whose surge she and her party would have been completely sunk.

And it is worth remembering how close we were – a few hundred votes in eight constituencies – to having a Labour government that would have depended on the goodwill of the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, all demanding a referendum on any final Brexit deal. We would have been in a totally different ballgame.

But now, uncertainty reigns. There is no majority in Parliament for a hard Brexit, but what is there a majority for? And what can feasibly be secured in the negotiations? And will we conclude that Brexit itself should be questioned?

Trade Agreements

Some MPs on both government and opposition benches support staying in the single market, possibly going for the ‘Norwegian’ model of remaining in the European Economic Area (and rejoining EFTA – the European Free Trade Association – if it will have us). This avoids the economic disruption of being torn out of our main market, and allows most goods and services to flow freely without red tape.

But it implies accepting also the free movement of labour. That has, up to now, been anathema to leading ministers, on the grounds that that was what voters most dislike about the EU. However, some may at last be willing to grasp the nettle and actually explain to the electorate that most migration to Britain is from outside the EU (entirely under national rules and control), that EU freedom of movement is not an unconditional right and that Britain could address the difficulties it creates by enforcing the conditions properly and taking other national measures.

There is also a concern that staying in the single market means following its rules (on consumer protection, fair competition, environmental standards and workers’ rights) without having a say on them anymore. But most of these rules will be followed anyway, not just by industries and services who export to the EU, but also by Britain as such in its internal legislation. Many EU rules are in fact the transposition in Europe of standards agreed at world level. Others are where the EU, as the world’s largest market, has set a standard which is subsequently followed by many others. We will therefore be following the bulk of those rules anyway. Not having a say on them is a consequence of leaving the EU, not avoided by leaving the single market too. Leaving the single market would simply add economic losses to the loss of political influence that arises from leaving the EU. (And if we want to avoid the loss of influence, then we must stay in the EU itself.)

Similar arguments arise about staying in the customs union. Even if we secured tariff free access, exporting into a customs union from outside means customs controls to apply World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules of origin. This means a lot of paperwork and red tape for companies and increased controls at the border. The cost of the additional bureaucracy and delays – often within international supply chains – is prohibitive. What does Theresa May want to do? Leaving the customs union would be particularly unpalatable to the DUP, because it would mean a customs border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but on the other hand she has re-appointed Liam Fox, who wants out of the customs union and whose whole department is premised on the idea that Britain would negotiate separate trade deals and set its own tariffs with the rest of the world, despite the significant hurdles to that course of action.

European Cooperation

And what of security cooperation? The recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London were a reminder that we need to cooperate more, not less, with other countries in facing this common threat. Walking out of EUROPOL and of the EU data sharing mechanisms is not a good idea. The EU might let us remain in them, provided we accept that any disputes about the rules are settled by the European Court of Justice. On this issue, several ministers and opposition MPs are signalling that they want to maintain such cooperation.

Other technical agencies are important for completely different reasons. The European Air Safety Agency, the Medicines Agency, the Chemicals Agency and so on are not just about cutting costs by pooling our verification, testing and certification systems – their authorisations are necessary for placing products on the European market. Either we ask to stay in them, or we will have to set up our own agencies at great expense, recruit the necessary expertise and negotiate recognition of them by the EU and by countries across the world. Without securing one of these two options, British airlines, pharmaceutical and chemical companies will be unable to sell to the rest of Europe.

Also up for debate is what to do about agriculture and fisheries. There are increasing signs of disquiet from farmers who face leaving an agreed system of subsidies across Europe that not only guarantees their income but also their access to European markets with a level playing field. That access will be under threat if we leave. Can we negotiate to avoid such a catastrophe if we leave? How? By following a system equivalent to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) leaving little leeway for difference? In which case, shouldn’t we stay in it and have a say on the rules.

And for fisheries, not a peep from the government about its intentions.

In another sector, our universities – and MPs representing seats with universities – will also be pressing for continued participation in European research programmes and student exchanges. Will the government agree to soften Brexit in this way? Can it secure that in the negotiations if it is at the same time questioning free movement of students?

Confusion and chaos… or a re-think?

All this will add pressure on the government that may reach breaking point. Agreeing what constitutes a soft Brexit will accentuate divisions in the Tory party, polarise positions and raise the possibility that the only viable way of avoiding economic catastrophe is to rethink Brexit itself.

6 Comments

  1. For some time now, I have increasingly been of the opinion that Brexit is dead. This is not only because of the enormous problems it is creating and will create, nor only because of the result of the election. It is also because I believe that Brexit is becoming less and less popular. People are already beginning to feel the adverse effects in their pockets – consumer spending is slowing and now possibly starting to fall. Younger people mostly never wanted Brexit in the first place – a major reason for the failure of Theresa May’s election gambit was that many young people registered and turned out to vote this time. A much higher proportion voted than in 2015, and probably more than voted in the referendum.

    There is no agreement about what Brexit should be. Mrs May and her cabinet of hardliners came up with a plan, which the electors have rejected. The Tories do not have the majority to force through whatever they want. Whether Mrs May can make, and sustain, a deal with the DUP is very doubtful, in my view. She has a propensity to say one thing one day and then go back on her word the next day, which is not a good way to maintain any kind of alliance, particularly one which many Tory MPs are unhappy about.

    There will be a period of complete chaos now. Mrs May will eventually be forced either to resign or to call another election. Time will start to run out. Popular resistance to Brexit will probably grow. In the end, Brexit will become nothing more than a damage-limitation exercise, and more and more people will begin to wonder exactly what the point of it all is.

    And so, in the end, it will officially be buried. Unofficially, it was always a stupid idea, with very little chance of going anywhere.

  2. In the terms of analysis of the situation the UK has not got much further than at the time of the referendum, apart from naming a couple of things (hard or soft). If you look at the EU documentation about the issue of Citizens’ rights and the commitments that need to be taken into account in leaving you get a hint of the detail involved. Surely, the UK Civil Service has the capability of forming up analysis of the complexity, but it is pretty clear that the governing politicians have no grasp of the reality and must be ignoring advice. I suppose we might get a hint if we see real UK papers emerging from the negotiations next week, but I am not hopeful.

  3. If the remain campaign had outlined the complexity of leaving the EU. I think a lot of people would have thought hang on,this is not going to reduce “red tape” as promised, it is not going to give the NHS £350,000 per week as promised, it is in fact the direct opposite of what leavers said it would be, not the land of milk and honey, but a land of total confusion (as it is turning out to be).Think again UK, think again!3

  4. If three lunatics and one sane person hold a vote, is the product of that sacred democratic choice sanity or lunacy? If three unacademic people and one, well- qualified person hold a vote on a technical matter, is the majority choice the best analysed and reasoned? All referendums suffer this flaw – immaterial for the X Factor, but disastrous for serious politics that affect the future of a whole nation.

    Mr and Mrs Joe Public could not readily find the necessary unbiased information for an evidence-based EU membership choice. The vacuum was filled by tabloid editors and dishonest politicians, framing reality to their own political agenda with cynical emotional triggers (patriotism, xenophobia, nostalgia, lost empire) and a raft of false promises. The steady drip of insidious propaganda did the job well.

    Now, cold reality is biting back and the threat of economic failure and social misery could not be clearer. Can our politicians find the courage to admit a colossal mistake and return to the fold? The humble pie will taste ever more bitter the longer we leave it. But what is the alternative? Humiliation, chaos and permanent impoverishment, while Trump sizes up an isolated, rudderless UK, desperate for trade and ripe for corporate exploitation … farewell NHS!

    Our children deserve a better future than this. We should exit Brexit now.

  5. There is no such thing as a soft Brexit. It is now dawning that Brexit is not the best for the economy and as said in the article does not address the problem that worry most from immigration – the non-EU migration. There has been an Australian type Points-Based system in place since 2008. However, it does not seem to have been applied effectively – could this be because of austerity staff cuts??

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