Farewell to Brexit: some valedictory reminders
The recent 448-75 parliamentary majority in favour of Mrs May triggering Article 50 (A50) by end March, just weeks away, probably marks the final defeat of those of us who continue to believe that Brexit will be an unmitigated disaster for Britain. Continuing the argument may now be pointless. Before I bow to the puerile demands of the Brexiteers to “respect the will of the people” and “get used to it”, here are five valedictory reminders of the mess we’re in.
One: An A50 trigger is irrevocable and must be unconditional. That is the government’s considered, self-harming legal opinion in its statement of the government case to the Supreme Court. Largely unnoticed, it has massive implications. Even if the agreement negotiated after the A50 trigger is so damaging to Britain that it’s rejected by parliament, or in a referendum on its terms, we shall still be out of the EU two years after the A50 trigger, either with an unacceptably harsh agreement or – worse still – with no agreement at all. Once A50’s triggered, there’s no going back.
Two: The referendum last June was a snapshot of the opinions of those who voted then, in the then limited state of knowledge about the true implications of Brexit. If parliament had intended it to be a ‘decision’ binding on government, it would have said so in the referendum Act. It was ‘advisory’: it counted the opinions of those who opted to vote on a specific date. Its only message was that the opinions of voters on that day were almost evenly divided. The 52% voting to Leave represented neither a majority of the adult population nor “the will of the British people”. This was never a credible basis for overturning decades of British policy, law, global status, trade advantage and cultural identity.
Three: Since the referendum, a huge amount of new information has emerged, both about the complexity of unravelling decades of law-making, agreements, obligations and privileges dependent on EU membership, and about the deeply unfavourable terms of our exit that are plainly going to be imposed on us by the EU27 (the rest of the EU), to deter others from trying to leave and to penalise us for leaving – and for our relentlessly negative and uncooperative behaviour in the EU in recent years. As this reality gradually sinks in, it will be extraordinary if at least 3 or 4% of the Brexit voters don’t start to re-think their positions, and to regret their referendum votes – which will make the Remainers a majority. But if A50 has been triggered by the time that happens, it will be too late.
Four: It’s obvious madness to throw away all the trade and other advantages we enjoy as an EU member purely in order to gain the legal right to reduce immigration from the EU. EU immigrants are always fewer than half of all immigrants. We have always been completely free to reduce most immigration, that from outside the EU, if we wish. We have totally failed to reduce it in the face of the reality that we need the migrants for their contribution to the growth of our economy, the jobs they create, the scarce skills they provide and their willingness to do jobs that native Britons spurn. We can’t reduce non-EU immigration despite having every legal right to do so: why should we be able to reduce EU immigration if and when we secure the legal right to do so, at the colossal economic, trade, political, diplomatic, security and cultural cost of leaving the EU?
Five: The absolute duty of members of parliament, including peers, is to act and vote in accordance with their own best judgement of the best interests of our country. Most of them know that Brexit on even the most improbably favourable terms will damage Britain far more than remaining in the EU and tackling the grievances that led many Brexiteers to vote to leave. Such parliamentarians can’t reconcile that duty with voting for a UK A50 trigger by the end of March. They might possibly be excused for supporting a compromise: not triggering A50 until after next year’s French and German elections, i.e. after mid-May, when we can make a meaningful assessment of the terms likely to be imposed on us by the then leaders of the EU27, and indeed of the EU’s chances of survival, before we burn our boats.
Future historians won’t understand how almost all our parliamentarians, a majority of whom know that Brexit spells ruin, followed a weak and confused government in choosing to interpret a snapshot of partial opinion, half a year ago, as a binding instruction to commit irrevocable national suicide. Are Ken Clarke, Caroline Lucas, the LibDems, a few Labour rebels and the SNP the only honest politicians we can count on to do their duty and oppose Brexit by every possible means?
On Brexit, the argument is over: unless the government loses in the Supreme Court, giving parliament one last opportunity, before the end of March, to stave off disaster.
Footnote: This piece first appeared in the website LabourList at http://labourlist.org/2016/12/brexit-spells-ruin-for-our-country-mps-must-be-free-to-vote-against-it/. The majority of the comments on it there are a depressing example of the low level of discussion of these issues and of the post-truth, counterfactual and aggressive attitudes of many, though of course not all, the crusaders for Brexit. The great numbers of MPs who voted for pulling the Article 50 trigger by the end of March while knowing that this would mark the start of a massive disaster for Britain, yet who went ahead and voted for it anyway, did so at least in part because they were intimidated by the insults and aggression of the most loud-mouthed Brexiteers, some of whom have stooped to uttering threats of civil disturbances — i.e. violence — if their passion for Brfexit is thwarted by a change of mind on the part of the British people. This is a truly ominous sign of things to come.
And a happy Christmas to all our readers, including the feral Brexiteers!
Very good Brian, and I suspect not quite as valedictory as you intend it to be. Reason tells you invoking Article 50 begins an irrevocable process with an inevitable end. Experience tells me that in matters of the EU, not only is it not over until the Fat Lady sings, but that the Fat Lady, in one way or another finds ways of keeping going. I am not convinced at all by the “it’s all too complicated” claim. This can be made to support remaining (because we find we cannot leave), or leaving (because we find how ensnared we actually are).
I do have a question, however. Given the possibility of all sorts of legislatures within the EU threatening a “veto” to exert leverage in negotiations about the terms of leaving and the subsequent relationship, will the EU struggle to be a viable negotiating partner? And if so, are we looking at “go to WTO/MFN, go directly to WTO/MFN, do not pass Go etc” or at the international equivalent of Jarndyce v Jarndyce?
There is now no good (or more importantly wise) basis for the UK staying in the EU on the current basis. The psychology of the situation is transformed by the Brexit vote. The faster A50 is triggered the better – forces everyone to start working sensibly.
But there are all sorts of options and possible outcomes.
Some largely benign – things carry on much as now with different legal trousers.
Others awful – chaos begets chaos.
Others in the Messy Middle – lots of new opportunities and problems that get played out over months then years then decades, as the EU itself changes (as it has to) to accommodate the Eurozone fiasco and the security threats posed by Schengen etc.
In short, there’s a good enough chance we’ll meander our clumsy way with our EU partners towards Europe 2.0 and it MAY NOT BE SO BAD: http://charlescrawford.biz/2016/05/25/brexit-v-ukineu-10-negotiating-europe-2-0/
Happy New Year!
As between panglossian optimism (Crawford) and Sod’s Law, I side with the latter, I’m afraid. The trouble is, if Europe goes down the tubes, so do we. It’s not just the Euro that’s in trouble, it’s European democracy. There could hardly be a worse time for HMG to to pick up the ball and leave the playground.
I would have thought we’ve made an honourable contribution toward shaping Europe. Majority voting, enlargement, human rights: we may resent them now, but surely they represent substantial UK in-puts? As for free movement, aren’t we among Europe’s leading pundits? Tuscany, the Dorgogne, Andalucia? All those retired Brits who haven’t contributed a penny to the services they enjoy?
Trust in Providence – and thank you for your formidable fighting spirit, Brian.
<em> “Since the referendum, a huge amount of new information has emerged….” </em>
Is this really true? What is known now that wasn’t known or couldn’t have been anticipated prior to June 23rd? It was known that unravelling the laws was going to take some work. It was known that our trading partners in the EU might be less keen to remain partners after a Brexit.
<em> …and for our relentlessly negative and uncooperative behaviour in the EU in recent years </em>
This is a fair point but it just emphasises that the UK hasn’t really been a full member of the EU for some time now. Brexit probably started when the decision to stay out of the euro was made in the early 00’s. The vote in June was just the completion of that process. It’s better for both parties to separate than be locked together in a broken relationship.
Don’t say you weren’t warned:
In the public discussion about Brexit, even among ardent remainers, too much has been made of Article 50’s two-year timetable for completing negotiations and Article 50’s alleged irrevocability. In fact, neither of these points is set in stone.
Paragraph 3 of Article 50 says that the two-year timetable can be extended by the European Council. Paragraph 5 raises the option of a member state which has left the EU deciding later to rejoin.
Why does all this matter?
Because it creates a credible opening for remainers to achieve their goals, provided the political circumstances are right.
Those circumstances could be right if the Labour Party were to come out clearly now for remaining in the EU or rejoining it if the Tories take us out of the EU. That stance should be adopted now and put into the party’s 2020 election manifesto.
There is nothing sacrosanct about a referendum result. When the Labour Party loses a General Election, it is normal democratic practice for the party to seek to reverse the result at the next election. Why should a referendum result be considered uniquely holy and as having more force than a General Election result?
The Labour party should campaign for reversing the result of the 2015 referendum if it takes power again. This does not necessarily mean holding another referendum. There are two better ways. One would be for the incoming Labour government to terminate the Brexit negotiations if they have not yet reached fruition by the time of the General Election. The other is to apply to rejoin the EU if the UK has already left by 2020.
One benefit of this strategy is that it might encourage the European Union’s negotiators to slow down and spin out the Brexit talks with the UK well beyond two years in the hope that a Labour government would terminate them. This, of course, assumes that most member states in the EU would prefer the UK to remain with them. This is a reasonable assumption.
Another benefit is that this strategy gives Labour a clear and unambiguous campaigning platform on which to approach the European issue at the next election rather than picking over individual items in the package the Tories will have been negotiating. The latter risks leaving huge doubts in voters’ minds over what Labour really wants. Voters prefer clarity.
Some senior Labour politicians argue that all new applicants to the EU have to accept the euro as their country’s currency and also have to become members of the Schengen no-passport zone. This, they say, is unacceptable for the UK and therefore, even though there is a legal way back into the EU, there is no politically desirable way back for the UK once it leaves the EU.
But Article 49 of the Lisbon treaty which deals with the process of joining the EU says nothing about the euro or Schengen. It is therefore open for the UK to say that it wants to rejoin the EU on the same terms and with the same opt-outs as it had when it left. Again, if the EU wants Britain to rejoin, as seems likely that most EU member states would want it to, there is no reason to assume they would insist on Britain adopting the euro and Schengen.
The conclusion is clear. When it comes to the parliamentary vote in March 2017 on whether Britain should trigger Article 50, the Labour Party should vote No. The Government will no doubt win the vote, but Labour should constantly and rigorously raise questions about the government’s negotiating position as the talks with the EU proceed. But Labour should use its role as the UK’s official opposition to send a clear message to UK voters as well as to the rest of the EU that Labour will reverse the process if it wins power in 2020, or before that if the Tories call an earlier election.
In reply to Jonathan Steele (former Guardian chief foreign correspondent and commentator): Many thanks for these very stimulating comments, including a suggested policy for the Labour party with which I enthusiastically agree (but which I suspect is far too clearly and decisively pro-EU to be adopted by the party’s current leadership, alas).
My main doubt about your proposals concerns the willingness or otherwise of all the EU27 to see Britain either abandon Brexit in the course of the negotiations or re-join the EU after Brexit has taken place. In view of the amateurish wording of Article 50, it seems clear that for either to happen there would have to be unanimity among the 27 governments, and probably in the European parliament and with the Commission also, and I can foresee at least one of these, and probably more, taking the view that the EU is better and stronger without the constantly whingeing and opting-out Brits. However, if — and it’s a big if — the British application to terminate the Article 50 negotiations and return to the status quo ante, or its decision to apply to rejoin following Brexit, were the consequence of either a fresh UK referendum, or the victory of an unreservedly pro-EU party over an unreservedly anti-EU, pro-Brexit party in a general election manifestly fought mainly on the issue of UK membership, I agree that it would be very difficult for the EU to refuse to let us stay in or to re-admit us. The trouble about this, though, is that I simply can’t see a Labour party led by Mr Corbyn winning a general election, even if it had adopted the policy on Europe that both of us would so much like to see — and even if the Tories had gone over unreservedly to supporting Brexit. But all this is necessarily speculative, and I would love to see all the pro-Europeans who support Labour (or who would support Labour if Labour were to become the champions of Remaining in or rejoining the EU) uniting behind the programme you have put forward. I very much hope that you will offer it to a much wider readership in print and on the Web, perhaps in Prospect magazine or the New Statesman rather than the Graun?, ideally extending it a little to deal with my reservations in this comment.
In reply to Charles: I entirely agree that the EU is likely to change over the course of many years into the future in ways that neither you nor I can possibly predict, probably both for the better and for the worse. It seems desirable though to recognise that some of its features that are apparently so obnoxious to many Britons are seen by our continental partners as strengths, including especially its respect for the letter as well for the spirit of the Treaties (petty legalism in UKIP-speak) and its vision of a borderless cooperative increasingly united Europe as the guiding destination (unrealistic un-British federalism, aka centralism, to the U-Kippers). Freedom of movement within the Union for all its citizens is surely an essential feature of that vision and will continue to be so, unless and until that European vision is drowned in a tidal wave of regressive populist nativist protectionism, returning us to the bad old days of trade wars and eventually shooting wars, which has overcome Britain and is causing us to embark on the ultimate folly of forcing ourselves out of the EU ourselves. So long as we are not followed by Marine Le Pen and other far-right anti-EU populists elsewhere on our continent, I would expect to see a steadily evolving EU (and Eurozone) surviving well into the future, and for much longer than the UK as a single country (unless our politicians wake up before it’s too late to the increasingly urgent need to complete the devolution process by adopting a fully federal constitution durably uniting the four constituent nations, each including England with its own parliament and government under a federal parliament and government with strictly limited responsibilities). The fact that the union of our closest partners, allies and friends in our own continent is probably facing its biggest challenge since the old six-member coal and steel community from which it sprang makes this the worst possible time for Britain to add to its strains by disloyally opting to leave it, demanding terms for our departure that, if accepted, would probably precipitate a stampede by others for the exit door.
But these are really questions and issues for several other blog posts!
In reply to Peter: It seems to me indisputable that all of us know now far more than we could possibly have known last June about what Brexit will involve: what appalling difficulties its negotiation will be bound to encounter, what kind of terms for our exit are likely to be imposed on us, the effect of our ‘decision’ to leave on sterling and its implications for inflation, inward investment following Brexit, the danger of tariffs on and other barriers to our imports and exports until a trade deal with the EU, taking at least a decade to negotiate, can be negotiated following Brexit, how the WTO’s Most Favoured Nation rule will affect our trade with the outside world following Brexit without an agreement, the attitudes of the rest of the Union to our ‘demand’ for immigration controls combined with some form of special membership of the single market (not just access to it), the ins and outs of continuing membership of the European customs union, the uncertain but enormously important legal position over the question whether an Article 50 notification can be withdrawn unilaterally by the notifying government (and if it can, whether that government’s country may retain its EU membership or whether in the absence of an agreement on Brexit in the two years following the Article 50 notification that country simply ceases to be a member, as formally stated in Article 50 itself), how long it would take for Britain to negotiate bilateral trade agreements with all the countries which have trade agreements with the EU that we would no longer benefit from once we left, what would be the consequences for the City institutions of the loss of passporting rights (to which Mrs May’s government seems indifferent), and many, many more problems and issues that the vast majority of Leave voters and plenty of us Remainers knew nothing whatever about. The fact that immediately after the vote for Brexit last June there was a rush of questions posted in Google asking “What is the EU?” tells its own story.
In reply to David: I heartily agree, especially with your first two paragraphs. As to the third: aw, shucks!
In reply to Paul: I doubt if anyone, least of all myself, can confidently or otherwise answer your concluding question. If I were to be forced to bet, I would put my money on Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce — the Brexit negotiations on the terms for our exit going on for so long (with endless mutually agreed extensions), with an ever-growing and increasingly complicated acquis so that no-one but a handful of nerdish experts can follow or understand them, that either they just become an established feature of the landscape that no-one seriously expects ever to be completed, Britain formally remaining a member of the EU meanwhile, or else all concerned will become so fed up with the whole thing dragging on that it’s abandoned by common consent, and we continue to be semi-detached grumbling members of the EU on the same terms as before, until at last we elect a forward-looking imaginative government that recognises the benefits and obligations of our membership, and starts to behave accordingly.
A former ECJ judge, Sir David Edward, and Prof Wyatt QC state – in their evidence to the HoL – that the UK could change its mind after it had triggered Art 50 but the revocation would have to be given before the withdrawal agreement took effect.
I would accept that the one thing, and really the only thing, we know now that we didn’t know sure for prior to June 23rd was the effect the decision had on the value of sterling. It’s fallen by about 10% or so. On everything else we are really no wiser than we were before.
That fall been almost universally hailed as a bad thing. However we do need to recognise that a high pound causes the UK as a whole to spend more than it earns in its trade with the R.O.W. That gap has to be funded by someone in the UK borrowing, which can either be government or the private sector. So, if we are concerned about high levels of debt in the UK, as nearly everyone claims they are, then we have to view that fall as a good thing.
We do need a better measure of inflation than we currently use. If prices in the UK are steady, apart from variations caused by the movements in the exchange rate it makes no sense to say we have inflation when the pound falls and deflation when it rises.
If we want to be a net exporting country then the exchange rate has to be deliberately suppressed to reduce domestic demand. That’s what all net exporters do. Germany uses the euro to good effect to suit its own exporters. Countries like Switzerland and Denmark peg, with various degrees of success, their currencies at artificially low levels to maintain their surplus.
I would argue that the UK’s “strong pound” policy has been almost entirely responsible for the current disaffection of the Northern working class which has led to the leave vote and the current slump in Labour support there. Government has simply not looked after its manufacturing base in the same way as the Germans have.
Of course, seen from their POV it’s much easier to blame immigrants for the loss of one’s job in those circumstances. It all comes down to economics in the end.
On your point Two, Brian, I met up with friends. Three that I know voted for Brexit – one strongly. I can’t be certain but I believe that two are having second thoughts – perhaps regretting their decision. I’m not suggesting that my little straw poll is reflective of the country as a whole but what if it is?
When it comes to interpreting any polls, possibly including even yours, I always find that Anthony Wells at UK Polling report offers , by far, the most intelligent interpretations. He’s very sharp at spotting weaknesses in the sort of face value arguments that many pundits in the popular press are apt to make.
So what’s his take on the current public view?
“It is clear from current polling that that has not been any significant shift in public opinion since the referendum, most people think the govt is obliged to deliver on the referendum result and that most people do not currently want a second referendum.”
Your point one. I do not think the common ground in the Miller case went largely unnoticed. The Government did express the legal opinion in that case that a notice would be irrevocable, but its case was also that this was irrelevant to the result. The reason for its choice was a political one, expressed by David Davis: as its being unthinkable to go against the decision of the majority on he referendum. Para. 26 of the UKSC Judgement makes it clear that the legal point has not been authentically determined. ‘In these proceedings, it is common ground that notice under article 50(2) .. cannot be given in qualified or conditional terms and that, once given, it cannot be withdrawn. Especially as it is the Secretary of State’s case that, even if this common ground is mistaken, it would make no difference to the outcome of these proceedings, we are content to proceed on the basis that that is correct, without expressing any view of our own on either point. It follows from this that once the United Kingdom gives Notice, it will inevitably cease at a later date to be a member of the European Union and a party to the EU Treaties’. Jolyon Maughan QC’s Irih litigation is seeking a reference to the Court of Justice of the EU so the question (of EU law) can be answered.