Leader: It is time for a bonfire of the Brexit illusions

Throughout the negotiations, Britain has been accused of wishing to “have its cake and eat it”. The irony is that it was already doing so. 

NS

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Brexit was supposed to be a moment of liberation for the United Kingdom. We would, ideological Leave supporters promised, end free movement and win the right to sign our own trade deals. At the same time, it would maintain the economic benefits of EU membership and avoid a hard Irish border. These grandiose promises, we were assured, were achievable because the UK “held the best cards”. It had a large trade deficit with the EU – importing more than it exported – it could divide and rule the 27 other member states, and it was prepared to leave with no deal.

The ensuing two-and-a-half years have remorselessly exposed these delusions. From the moment Article 50 was invoked in March 2017, it was the EU that took back control. As Carlo Calenda, the former Italian minister for economic development, replied when Boris Johnson warned “you don’t want to lose prosecco exports”: “I’ll sell less prosecco to one country and you’ll sell less to 27 countries.”

EU member states have been united in maintaining that Britain cannot enjoy the benefits of membership without the responsibilities and costs. Faced with this reality, some Brexiteers now openly advocate leaving without a deal. For them, the economic pain, especially for the poor, that would result is a price worth paying for the illusion of sovereignty.

Others believe that a fantastical arrangement – “Canada plus plus plus” – could yet be negotiated. Finally, in a remarkable inversion, the likes of the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, a fervent Eurosceptic, plead that “a deal is better than no deal”. On this, Dr Fox is correct, but the draft Brexit agreement published by the UK government does not deserve to be judged against this lowest of bars.

Were parliament to approve Theresa May’s proposed deal, it would represent the most reckless transfer of sovereignty by Britain in postwar history. The UK has offered to make a divorce payment of €40bn to €45bn in order to guarantee EU citizens’ rights, and to maintain a customs union in the absence of a solution to the Irish border problem. In return, it has received a platitudinous seven-page declaration on the “future relationship” between Britain and the EU. The details of a new trade deal have been deferred until the second phase of the negotiations – when the UK’s influence will be yet weaker.

When the House of Commons votes on the eventual deal, MPs from all parties should not hesitate to reject it. If Mrs May’s government is defeated, a general election should then be triggered through a no-confidence vote. This is unlikely to happen but it should, because until the 2011 introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, it would have been unthinkable for any administration to survive such a reversal. A new election would necessitate an extension of the Article 50 negotiating period – an option which European leaders have long indicated they are open to.

More than two years after the Leave vote, the British people deserve a credible and honest account of the choices facing the country. No Brexit deal will be superior to our EU membership – one reason the option of remaining altogether should not be ruled out. Throughout the negotiations, Britain has been accused of wishing to “have its cake and eat it”. The irony is that it was already doing so. The UK enjoyed opt-outs from the euro and the Schengen Zone, a £4.9bn budget rebate and exemption from the EU’s refugee policy. It was a rule-maker not a rule-taker.

The best arrangement now available is membership of the European Economic Area – the “Norway” model – combined with a customs union. Britain would leave the EU, the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, but it would preserve essential economic ties, most notably in services (which account for 80 per cent of UK GDP), and avoid a hard Irish border. This is the only deal that both upholds the referendum result and could plausibly pass parliament.

It is not, as the Brexiteers assert, a lack of belief or faith that has hindered Britain but a lack of realism. The time has come for a bonfire of illusions.

This article appears in the 23 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis