Is it possible Nigel Farage will go down in history as the great herald of British Europeanism? After all, he did say “a 52-48 result would be unfinished business”.
Let’s backtrack to that result. On the morning of 24 June last year, two things were already clear to Labour. The first was that Article 50 was now inevitable, whatever barriers and legal obstacles any diehard Europeans could throw up. The Government which succeeded David Cameron’s needed to deliver on Brexit to satisfy the new internal politics of the Conservative Party first, and to respect the referendum result second. This has since driven Theresa May to pursue a Hard Brexit against the wishes of the majority of the people.
The second was that the fundamental logic of Britain’s membership of the EU had not changed. It remained essential on 24 June. to maintain our economy and living standards, for Britain to be a member of the Single Market; and if we are to be members of the Single Market, it is more democratic, with elections to the European Parliament and the President of the Commission, to be a full member of the European Union.
As a result, perhaps the most striking thing about Brexit is that even though everything has changed in British politics, everything has also remained the same. Britain will leave the European Union, at which point the debate will shift to whether we should Return.
Right now, for the British people, Labour’s voters and potential voters, the important thing is that the party is seen to adopt a common position and accept the democratic outcome of the vote – and these two things can only be reconciled in a platform committed to Leave.
Labour fighting for a Norway-like deal in the EEA is the best way to achieve this. There is a space in British politics between the Liberal Democrats’ strategy of being the UKIP for Remainers, and May’s granite Brexit. Labour can from this position credibly argue to respect the Referendum result and consistently oppose the Government on the economic effects of a disastrous exit from Europe.
For example, though the public mistakenly believe European immigration is a net drain on our public services, the effect of a hard Brexit on the economy purely from reduced European migration is in the area of a 5% smaller economy per person by 2030, and that’s before we start counting the effects on business from leaving the Single Market. This dilemma for Labour – that access to the Single Market and European migration is central to financing the NHS and our public services – can only begin to be resolved from an economy-first, EEA position on Brexit, and Labour voters agree.
But, ultimately, unless there’s a General Election between now and 2019, Britain will end up leaving the European Union, and there’s not much Labour can do about it. May’s backbenchers, UKIP, and her own instincts are all propelling her towards the hardest possible Brexit, and voters will expect any incoming Government in 2020 to try to make Brexit work in the medium term.
The Conservatives will be politically incapable of making those who voted for Brexit pay the cost of leaving. The cores of the Tory membership and base and the Eurosceptic movement are wealthy baby boomers nostalgic for their childhoods in the fag end of Empire and who have benefitted from enormous transfers of wealth. Instead, despite the Government claiming to act “for the country’s children and grandchildren” those who will end up paying the price of Brexit will be Britain’s working children and grandchildren who voted overwhelmingly to Remain. The living standards axe named Brexit will fall on young people, despite their democratic vote against it. Millennials already stand to be the first generation poorer than their predecessors, and Brexit will only deepen this.
Ironically, an EEA agreement, which would minimise the damage to the economy, would probably survive as a compromise. However, a Hard Brexit, whether that’s Ukraine Plus or crashing out entirely to attempt WTO rules, does not answer the question of the UK’s relationship with the Single Market. As the British increasingly become a nation of graduates, of ethnic minorities, of feminists, of Eastern European migrants and their children, and of today’s young people, the ascendancy of the Remain coalition will begin to bend British politics. After the trauma of a sharp Brexit, a legitimate nostalgia for Europe as a source of economic stability, progress, and modernity will develop into an unstoppable movement for Return.
There are only two major problems apparent with Return – the Euro, and whether Europe will want us back. Neatly, these solve each other. For the European Union to survive the twenty years until Britain is politically ready to Return, the Euro’s structural problems will need to be solved beyond the considerable work it has already received under the bonnet. Thankfully, countries such as Spain and Ireland are showing that the Euro can work with domestic reform. British membership of the Euro, after the drama of the plummeting pound would then offer a potential route for us to credibly commit to be a stable partner in Europe.
Return will aim to secure economic prosperity for Britain and democratic control over European policy in order to solve the contradictions of Britain’s historic relationship with Europe and the failure of the doomed Brexit project. The job of Labour and Remain now is not to fight a lame rear-guard action for a lost referendum, but to accept the result whilst preparing for the post-Brexit debate. As in the 1960s and 70s, after realising our historic mistake, Europe will re-emerge as the best way to bring economic revival, social peace and unity, and political purpose to Britain.