Two years have passed since the people of the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the EU. Fifteen months have elapsed since the formal request to leave was made, under Article 50 TEU.
During this time, while other Europeans have grown used to the idea of a Union without the UK, the United Kingdom has remained convulsed by lack of clear direction or consensus about how to proceed.
Indeed, pressing political problems in other policy fields in the UK have been left unattended due to the amount of political energy absorbed by the ‘Brexit’ debate.
Voters were asked whether they wished to remain in the EU or to leave the EU. By a very slim margin, after a campaign now under judicial review, they voted to leave. They were not asked whether they wished to remain in the single market (the ‘Norway’ option), the customs union (like Turkey), enter a comprehensive trade agreement (Canada or Switzerland) or drift into mid-Atlantic on world trade terms. The fight over which course to pursue has dominated political discourse ever since.
A majority of Conservative MPs seeks to leave parts or all of the single market. A majority of Labour MPs seeks to preserve the current economic relationship with the EU. Only the Scottish Nationalists and the Liberal Democrats, the third and fourth parties respectively, seek to remain in the EU; and only the latter call for a re-run of the referendum.
Public opinion, meanwhile, has turned narrowly against leaving the EU. Concern about its consequences and the management of the resulting political process is considerable. But the electorate remains deeply and more-or-less equally divided on the question which was posed.
The Government has now finally published a proposal for the UK’s future relationship with the EU. It has the backing of the cabinet, though it caused three ministerial resignations. It has already been attacked by many Conservative MPs and may not command a majority in Parliament this autumn unless MPs of other parties support it. Nor is it at all clear that it would be acceptable to the EU-27: indeed, they have specifically and repeatedly told the UK that they will not allow the kind of ‘cherry picking’ of the benefits of the EU’s single market that the proposal contains.
Most surprisingly, for a country whose economy is dominated by services which are sold largely within the EU, the Government does not seek to remain with the European single market for services.
The fall in the value of sterling in the wake of the referendum brought immediate pain to some but gain to others. The wider negative economic impact of the vote to leave, and the government’s decision to follow it (though the referendum was merely consultative, not legally binding) is being felt in the UK, but only slowly and gradually. Like the frog in a pan of cold water which, if gently heated, will boil it alive, the UK sits pretty while disaster looms.
The social impact of the vote has been more immediate and more evident. UK hospitals and other services are no longer able to retain or attract the foreign workers on which they rely; the atmosphere of tolerance of other Europeans for which the UK was widely admired has dissipated and commercial decisions to switch investment elsewhere are reducing the number of jobs available. Moreover, UK citizens who can easily acquire the citizenship of another EU member state are doing so in large numbers, suggesting that a brain drain may ensue. Few sophisticated citizens wish to find their United Kingdom passports placed between those of Uganda and Uzbekistan on a list of third countries from which visas are required for travel.
If there is any silver lining to this cloud it is that the people of the UK are beginning to understand more about a Union of which they knew little and held many misconceptions.
For the next six months, this issue looks likely to continue to dominate debate, almost to the exclusion of all others. Lacking clear authority in her Party, the Prime Minister risks losing her job. Without a clear majority in Parliament, the government may fall. With the publication of the White Paper, the chances of a smooth transition to a soft landing have lessened: the chances of both a ‘no deal’ exit and a second referendum have grown.
In her speech to the Conservative Party’s conference in March of this year, Theresa May said:
“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.”
She might have predicted that this would offend the cosmopolitan elite, the ‘citizens of anywhere’, but it was designed to attract to her party the ‘citizens of somewhere’ who feel dispossessed by globalisation. Her words touched a nerve in public discourse, however, which went straight to the heart (or brain) of the UK’s body politic.
The deeper currents of human history, as the historian Kenneth Clarke has observed, are not political and economic so much as cultural and behavioural. The Battle of Brexit is about whether the British are indeed islanders, or merely the residents of a rock surrounded by water.
Author: Sir Graham Watson