Regular readers of Epicurus Today will have noticed an increasingly frequent number of posts on Brexit. This is because we have reached a crucial point in the negotiations, whereby the terms of our departure have been agreed, and just need ratification from the British parliament.
The problem facing Britain’s lawmakers is that the country is incredibly fragmented and polarised in its attitudes towards Brexit. Some, including Robert and myself, strongly believe in staying in the EU, despite 52% of our fellow Britons having voted to leave it. Amongst Leavers, some wish to retain a relatively close relationship with the EU, akin to Norway or Switzerland, while others would prefer to be treated like a non-European country with only a simple trade deal with the EU, like Canada or Japan.
The point is, regardless of what you ideally believe Britain’s relationship with the EU ought to be, there are now only three options. Accept May’s deal, which diverges from the EU to a greater extent than Norway or Switzerland, but encompasses customs and regulatory agreements that go beyond a normal third country. Reject May’s deal, and leave with no deal at all, with perhaps only a few informal agreements to keep planes flying and food coming in. Or stay in the EU. There simply isn’t enough time to renegotiate with Brussels, regardless of who controls the government. And even if there was, the European Commission has explicitly refused to renegotiate, on the understandable basis that May’s agreement took over a year and a half to agree upon- reopening contentious policy areas would prove too costly and create too much uncertainty.
May’s deal has attracted immense criticism from both Leavers and Remainers, and it is very unlikely the deal will pass Parliament. For Remainers, the deal damages the economy by leaving the Single Market, which would create new barriers to capital and conducting business across Europe. They also hate the end to the free movement of people, which will exacerbate Britain’s acute skills shortages in industries like construction and healthcare, and deprive British people of the automatic right to live and work in Europe. Most Eurosceptics have an equal animosity towards the deal. It requires Britain to abide by EU-equivalent fiscal and regulatory policies, preventing a dramatic economic liberalisation some Conservative Brexiteers believe is necessary to thrive outside the EU. It keeps Britain subject to European Court of Justice rulings. And most significantly, if a means of averting a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland haven’t been agreed upon, a backstop is triggered, which would result in Northern Ireland being in a separate customs territory from the rest of the UK. Not only would such a backstop be economically damaging, it would undermine Britain’s status as a true union of nations.
Having said all that, May’s deal has a few benefits. Unlike a Norway or Canada-style deal, it ensures no hard border in Ireland. It provides a degree of certainty to businesses, particularly exporters, which is why the CBI supports the deal. It also achieves many of the objectives set out by Leave campaigners in 2016. It ends annual payments to the EU, even though the economic damage from Brexit and the cost of replicating EU regulatory bodies will massively outweigh the UK’s net contribution. It ends free movement, which I personally support but was a crucial cause of the Leave vote. It also leaves the EU’s common agriculture and fisheries policies, which are widely blamed for the decline of the rural economy.
But unfortunately for Theresa May, most people oppose her deal. Unfortunately for May’s Eurosceptic critics, most people also oppose leaving without a deal. As for Remainers, some polls show a majority in favour of staying in the EU. But support of Brexit has remained surprisingly persistent given how badly the negotiations have gone. The fundamental causes of Brexit- opposition to free movement, the belief the EU is an encroachment on national sovereignty, a feeling ordinary people aren’t listened to- haven’t gone away. The main problem facing Britain is that no single solution commands anything approaching a convincing majority of the public.
So what’s the solution? The first step is to oust Theresa May as Prime Minister and vote against her deal. The second step ought to be to put the three choices facing Britain to a referendum. Given the gridlock in parliament and the increasingly visible divisions in the country, as clearly seen by the thousands of left-wing and far-right protestors clashing in London last weekend, a referendum on the terms of Brexit is the only way to resolve this impasse. The referendum isn’t a perfect idea. It won’t resolve Britain’s divisions, which are with us for the foreseeable future. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, a significant proportion of people will be bitterly disappointed. I’m not advocating a new referendum because its a good idea, I’m advocating it because its the only way to move forward in a legitimate and orderly fashion. Forcing through May’s deal, using the prospect of crashing out as a threat, would be undemocratic and morally suspect. Leaving without a deal, without having consulted the people, would be equally heinous, because Leave voters were promised a Canada-style trade deal at the very least. And unilaterally deciding not to leave the EU would be a violation of the 2016 referendum, and would result in civil disorder and a collapse of trust in democracy. Rather, Britain needs a new referendum. I’ll be campaigning for one with as much vigour and urgency as I can muster.