Why won’t Theresa May come clean on what we can expect?
Since last year’s referendum, there have been two main lines on Brexit. The first, set out mainly by the Conservative Party’s upper echelons and the UK media, has been that Britain will have her cake – lots of it, with all the countries around the world, who couldn’t be keener to get their cake out for Blighty – and jolly well eat it. The other line has been a cynical narrative of doom. Britain is damned, they say, because leaving the EU is the end of everything that Britain has always stood for.
Clearly, neither of these dialogues can ever hope to bring any clarity to the debate that the British people must now have amongst themselves, and are ultimately meaningless, soundbite-filled strains of thought.
Why is there not more honest discussion of what the UK is going to be like after Brexit? What should its trading relationships be with the outside world? Is she going to be a country grasping for political purchase on the old Commonwealth, or getting buyer’s remorse and clinging to Europe, or even a nation moving beyond tradition and attempting to create a more truly liberal outlook for itself? Far more substance is needed to answer these questions.
But to get there, we have far more immediate matters to remedy beforehand. As it stands, Britain’s negotiators are locked in a standoff – less a Mexican one, but more one that I would term a classically Anglo-Saxon ‘Eurostrop’, where Britain is threatening to shoot herself in the head if she doesn’t get what she wants. With respect to Brexit Secretary David Davis, who is trying his best to appease rabid Brexiteers and angry Europeans all at once, this tactic will not work. Talk of ‘no tariffs’ with no trade-offs and no exit bill at all was always going to be pie in the sky, designed to sell the idea of a Brexit vote.
This, however, is only one side of the story, and it is a side that the EU will allow to become the main narrative of what Britain is up to, because it ignores one key thing: the EU has not properly costed the liabilities that they insist (rightly) that Britain should pay. Hence, the seemingly random numbers that the EU have subtly suggested (anything between £40 billion and £100 billion) are just that: random. As such, Britain’s line-by-line legal rebuttal of the EU’s ‘divorce bill’ was a reasonable response to an ill-considered outburst from European technocrats.
Having said that, it is important to note that Brussels is far more interested with maintaining its long-term integrity in the face of increasing challenges to the Euro, rising German dominance of the EU’s politics and a generalised economic slowdown.
These are the main challenges to the largest trading bloc in the world. Britain’s decision to finally follow through with its perennial threat to leave is now old news. The EU’s multi-front embattlement means that Brexit is just another irritation in a long list of matters; it is not being treated with the same all-encompassing, ubiquitous reverence that it is being given across the Channel.
Hence, many on UK shores find it hard to understand the comparative indifference that the French and Germans, in particular, with regard to the Brexit vote. But this reveals a truth about Brexit: Britain has a lot more to lose. The UK sells around 44% of all that it produces to the EU. It is not a matter of if Britain will cave to some of the EU’s demands around free movement and trade in order to get a deal. If any deal at all is to be struck, then the UK government must accept a great deal of what the EU is asking for, bills aside. Ireland, the UK’s relationship with the EU’s fundamental ‘four freedoms’ and human rights must be sorted out.
This is not a fact that the government can gleefully ignore, or continue to make patently overambitious statements about. It is time that British people were treated as the responsible voters they are – they should now be told, without spin or evasion, that the pain of Brexit may pinch more than expected.
The UK government has nothing to fear if it is honest and tells people the risk and reward of accepting a deal from the EU, or walking away onto WTO rules. It is what they voted for, and they should understand what the government is capable of delivering in accordance with their vote.
In case of no deal, the government may attempt to spin the consequential meltdown of pound sterling into a case for euro-to-sterling parity, potentially increasing British competitiveness. Except, at that point, the UK would need to lower personal and corporation/cap-gains taxes sharply in order to compensate for the sudden existence of trade barriers across the Channel and retain its attractiveness to skilled workers and major employers. That would be a rather underhand and unhelpful volte-face on Chancellor Philip Hammond’s promise that Britain would not resort to becoming an offshore tax haven for EU businesses. It would leave an awful lot of bad blood between the UK and the EU at a time when cooperation will be needed more than ever.
The most realistic eventuality is that Britain gets a deal which is not quite as good as the status quo before she left the European Union.
She will probably have to pay a sizeable amount into the EU budget during a transitional period, decreasing over time, with the European Court of Justice retaining limited influence over legal matters in the UK. Single market access will not happen, because the Conservative Party has invested too much of its time in promoting a Britain that has less immigration after Brexit.
This was always going to be the case. The EU cannot begin to allow countries to get a better deal than if they were in, and Britain has far less rabbits and hats to mess around with than Brussels. The government must be honest, now it can see that this sort of arrangement will be the eventuality of any deal at all, and tell the British people what it expects. If it does not, it can expect to lose the next election.