New Times,
New Thinking.

Brexit has been a disaster – but Remainers need to get real

There is little hope of rejoining the EU for decades, so we should try to improve Brexit, not reverse it.

By Martin Fletcher

A ton of slurry has landed on my head since I suggested that we must find a way of moving beyond the bitter warfare over Brexit that has so disfigured and damaged the UK for the past six years. Let me risk another tsunami of outrage by returning to the fray.

First of all I would urge my critics to read the actual article, which was rather more nuanced than its headline, “It’s time for Remainers to try and make Brexit work”.

Secondly I would like to say that I have used my New Statesman column to rant and rage against Brexit and its champions week in, week out for seemingly an eternity. My views on Brexit have not changed one iota. I regard it as an inane, self-inflicted economic, social and political calamity. I bow to nobody in my fury at Boris Johnson and all those other lying Leave leaders who knowingly duped an ill-informed electorate into voting for it (though increasingly I regard ordinary Leave voters as victims more than villains).

But thirdly, and most importantly, I would like to ask my critics this: do you seriously believe that Brexit can be reversed anytime in the next decade or two?

Let’s get real. There’s not the slightest chance of any government calling another EU referendum in the foreseeable future. No prime minister would want, or dare, to rerun that searingly divisive, poisonous process for at least another generation, and certainly not before the polls suggested – over a protracted period – that the electorate was overwhelmingly and unequivocally in favour of rejoining.

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Nor would any prime minister dare to do so, moreover, until he or she was absolutely certain that the European Union would allow Britain to rejoin, and we are far, far away from that point.

We were always a contrary and awkward member of the EU, but Brexit in general – and Johnson in particular – have brought relations between London and Brussels to an all-time low. Our so-called leaders have spent much of the last six years hurling insults at all our former friends and allies on the continent, and picking puerile fights with them. We have tied them up in endless acrimonious negotiations, arrogantly assuming that they would accede to our every demand and let us retain all the advantages of EU membership. Then we reneged on the withdrawal agreement that we had so solemnly negotiated, ratified and signed. 

We have no reservoir of trust or good will left on the far side of the English Channel, and there is no chance that the EU would readmit us until it was convinced beyond all possible doubt that we would never seek to leave again. I doubt it will reach that conclusion until mid-century at the earliest.

And while I’m at it, there is one other pertinent point. After the debacle of 2016, when nobody knew what Brexit would mean in practice, we now understand only too well the dangers of voting for an amorphous project. So how could we possibly hold another referendum when we do not know the conditions on which we would be re-admitted?

[See also: Two years on, our trade deal with the EU is a rotten turkey]

It is blatantly obvious that Brussels would not allow us to rejoin on the fantastically advantageous terms that we enjoyed before Brexit. The EU might well insist, for example, that we join the European single currency and the border-free Schengen zone, or surrender our rebate. Would support for rejoining be as strong if the UK was not granted its past opt-outs?

In short, I am arguing that passionate Remainers such as myself must deal with the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. Brexit is not just a disaster, but a disaster that is extremely difficult to reverse, so we have to make the best of a very bad job. If we accept that there is no prospect whatsoever of us rejoining the EU for 20 or 30 years, we have to decide whether we want to continue fighting the vicious battles that have so debilitated and polarised this country for the last six years, or seek some sort of fresh start.

That certainly does not mean Remainers should cease pointing out Brexit’s many egregious flaws, or arguing the case for rejoining, or condemning those who landed us in this dreadful mess. It doesn’t mean Remainers have to make all the concessions while Leavers offer none. But somehow, sooner or later, leaders of the rival camps have to find a way to put the bitterness and recriminations behind them. They have to find a way to make Brexit work better or, as Remainers would put it, limit the damage. They have to try and agree on a way forward, behind which the mass of decent people on both sides can unite.

That is a tall order. Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer both know that Brexit is a disaster, but with the former paralysed by fear of his right-wing Tory zealots, and the latter by fear of losing Red Wall votes, neither is capable of taking the sort of actions required to counter its most baleful consequences. 

Instead, for want of a better idea, I suggested the creation of some sort of independent, broad-based cross-party commission from which the more extreme figures on both sides would be excluded. Such a body could take some of the heat out of Brexit. It could explore ways to improve relations with the EU, lower trade barriers, ease visa restrictions and mitigate a host of other Brexit-related problems in a more rational and dispassionate manner than either of the mainstream parties can manage. At the very least it might bring some much-needed honesty and realism to the debate.

As I said, I don’t know whether that kind of mechanism could work, but right now I hear no other suggestions for healing the UK’s gaping Brexit wounds and reuniting the country. All I do know is that we can’t carry on like this indefinitely, with the two halves of the country pulling in completely opposite directions and scarcely talking to each other.

We Remainers should perhaps learn the lessons of 2018-19 when, in essence, we rejected Theresa May’s plan for a soft Brexit in the belief that we could get a second referendum. It was a gamble that we lost, and we ended up with Johnson as prime minister and the hardest of hard Brexits. Such are the perils of complete intransigence, and letting our hearts rule our heads.

This article was originally published on 3 January 2023.

[See also: How Brexit Britain lost a vital asset: space]

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