Following party conference season, more than a few of you are now watching some of the headlines coming out on the UK’s protracted divorce with the EU. Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, Marmitegate… there’s a lot to talk about.
The most recent rumblings suggest Europhiles are seeking a vote on any sort of Brexit deal, and before Article 50 itself may be triggered. The claims are that the government has no sort of mandate to act without putting these to a vote in parliament first. In one sense, this is quite right. In another, it is so very wrong.
Where’s the mandate?
Mandate is a fairly slippery concept. The ability of the government to trigger Article 50 or negotiate a deal without parliamentary approval has been challenged in the commons and in court as an abuse of power. Presumably those same MPs and people shouting about this were fairly relaxed about previous UK governments ceding sovereign power to the EU in a succession of treaties signed up to without any form of mandate through election or referendum (Gordon Brown, take a bow), but never mind that for a moment.
They’ve finally come to their senses and reasserted the sovereignty of parliament. Welcome! Why now? The most likely reason is to attempt to overturn the referendum result.
Nicola Sturgeon recently pointed out that there was no mandate to proceed on a ‘hard’ Brexit as the majority of MPs didn’t back it. Well… the majority of MPs backed remaining for all the good it did: the public disagreed. Whilst ‘advisory’ in nature, the legislation around the referendum was explicitly positioned as being a democratic instruction to government with the expectation that the government would carry out the wishes of the country subsequently.
That instruction was to leave the EU, and therefore the government has a clear mandate to trigger Article 50. There is then a reasonable debate to be had around what the shape of that looks like.
But what about the type of deal? There’s no mandate there.
The majority of divorces settlements normally occur with any given party seeking the best possible arrangement for them, and the UK has said it wants the best possible deal in leaving the EU. We’ll take the house, the car, the money, the cat and their head on a plate please.
The minor issue is that the EU is perfectly entitled to say, ‘gross chance, frère’. We could be in the farcical situation of every single proposed deal being voted on in Parliament, only for the EU to reject it (just for laughs, one suspects), running the clock down all the while.
Any good divorce lawyer would advise you to keep your cards close to your chest. It feels like the right solution is to allow debate and scrutiny, and otherwise let the government get on with it.
But that’s still not a mandate for the type of deal!
The principle claim of the ‘Leave’ campaign – ‘we would like to leave the EU now please’ – was what was voted for by 17m plus people.
“But it’s not clear what that means!”
Er… actually, it’s fairly clear. Try asking anyone what leaving a club means. You stop paying the club money, you don’t get a say in drawing up their rules, or get any membership benefits, but they can’t tell you what to do any more. In context of the EU, this probably means a ‘hard’ Brexit. We stop paying them money, we don’t get the benefit of whatever arrangements they have for members, and they stop telling us what to do. Let’s call it a clean break.
Of course everyone voted for different things: reducing immigration from the EU, stopping the payments, restoring UK sovereignty. But whichever one it was, it all amounts to the same result, pretty much.
The jungle drums from the EU suggest they aren’t willing to cut a quick sweetheart deal (partly political posturing by Merkel & co prior to their 2017 elections). The EU has little to lose by dragging out negotiations with the UK which – if unresolved by the 2 year point – would mean the UK just parachuting out of single market membership. The UK could use European Free Trade Area status as a stop gap staging to buy itself time, but that would need to be ratified by the EU. And why would Jucker allow this, when he could otherwise choose to inflict some pain on the UK?
Still, this may be less of an issue than the business lobby would have us believe. The UK’s share of exports to the single market has fallen in recent years: we import more from the EU than we export to it. We would still have access to the single market. Other major world economies manage without being part of the bloc. The UK will survive. Would it be rough in the short to medium term? Probably. But you don’t avoid the medicine because it tastes bitter. This has always been about the long term.
An empire of fear
The EU is threatening that the UK will be cut loose into the international wilderness unless it is willing to compromise. Donald Tusk is taking the biscuit (well, a jaffa cake at least). There will be nothing left for us on the table, only vinegar. Ah, Project Fear Mark II: welcome.
In the minds of Juncker et al, fear of what will happen to the UK as it leaves the EU will keep the local systems in line. Oops, did I just say that? Freudian slip there. Local nations. You get my point, though I don’t think Jean-Claude & Donald have.
And here is the rub. The EU was initially conceived as a trade arrangement: closer integration was seen as part (NB. not all) of the antidote to extreme nationalism which spawned Germany’s Nazism under Hitler and Italy’s Facism under Mussolini. Strong trade links between EU countries to the mutual benefit of all were undoubtedly positive, but recent years saw considerable expansion in the EU’s remit.
Times have changed. The overreaching arm of the ECJ and freedom of movement no longer appear to reduce strong feelings of nationalism, but quite the opposite. One wonders whether some of those feelings might dissipate were countries to regain some control – the EU could no longer be blamed for any related ills.
And even though it would still be in the interests of the people of the EU as a whole to come to a reasonable agreement with the UK where both parties get a measure of what they want, the European Commission appear willing to inflict some pain on its own people to watch the UK suffer for rejecting the political project that the EU has become, and to prevent others from leaving.
Is this the sort of club you want to be part of? Stay with us or we’ll punish you? Me neither. But there you go: welcome to the empire of fear.