Blog: Brexit – what now?

Comment by Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice Chancellor University of Glasgow


Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli

For those of us who believe in open, inclusive, outward-looking societies, 2018 was a depressing year as the UK hurtled closer to the EU exit door and our internal Brexit debate became ever more extreme, while reactionary and protectionist forces continued in their ascendancy across the Atlantic and beyond.

We enter 2019 seemingly resigned to much of the same, but still not quite understanding the full darkness of the abyss the UK is about to plunge itself into.

In a matter of weeks, we’ll see trade disrupted, growth reduced, opportunities denied, rights foregone.  Medical and fresh food shortages, once a fantasy of Project Fear now seem achingly real.

The Prime Minister’s deal seems dead in the water, with the only apparent strategy being to run the clock down and hope to press the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and parts of the European Research Group (ERG) wing into (eventual) acceptance. This will either be at the first time of asking in mid-January, or by re-presenting the same deal closer to the deadline with verbal, rather than legal, reassurances from the EU27 around the EU’s lack of interest in activating the backstop. But all the numbers seem stacked against the Prime Minister. Not least because no verbal window-dressing of the deal can escape the fact that there will either be a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, which is anathema for the DUP; or that to avoid that the UK will end in a permanent customs union with the EU and will have to maintain close regulatory alignment with the EU. The latter is anathema to the ERG.

To most rational observers the most disturbing aspect of the debate within Conservative ranks is that, according to recent research 57% of Tory Party members would rather opt for ‘No Deal’ when given the choice of the PM’s Deal, No Deal, or Remain.  This is because the most extreme Brexiteers have been allowed to paint ‘No Deal’ as some version of the status quo. If we leave with No Deal we will be outside the EU but things will carry on as normal in our trading relationships. In essence, squatters rights even after we are evicted from the EU. The ludicrous invention of a ‘Managed No Deal’ put forward by extreme Brexiteers needs to be dispensed with. Simply put, it is like calling for a Managed Armageddon or an Orderly Apocalypse.

The UK Government is trying, far too late of course, to contradict its previous rhetoric around ‘No Deal’ being acceptable. Not surprisingly it seems to have lost credibility with its own rank and file supporters.

And of course, as many of us have stressed, if the Deal were to be approved, it would cause real economic damage to the UK relative to remaining in the EU – around 4% of GDP by 2030 according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research – roughly equivalent to losing the economic output of Wales or of the financial industry in London.

The Norway+ option, with the UK as a member of the single market and customs union and accepting each of the four freedoms is clearly the ‘least-worst’ type of Brexit in economic terms – though it is still not close to the benefits of EU membership. It would be relatively simple to negotiate, leaving the Withdrawal Agreement relatively unchanged and modifying the Political Declaration to reflect the new direction.

But even if the Government – and Labour – did a monumental U-turn and accepted freedom of movement, there is no doubt that the EU would insist on a much tighter level of conditions for the UK to be part of the European Economic Area (EEA) given our size as an economy relative to Norway. It would also, given the concerns of other European Free Trade Association (EFTA)/EEA countries, perhaps require a ‘third UK-only pillar’ to be negotiated within the EEA/EFTA structure, needing years of negotiation. This means we would leave the EU on the current Withdrawal Agreement, with uncertainty persisting throughout the transition period as negotiations continue.

A future UK government might also renege on a Norway+ intention expressed in a Political Declaration which is not legally binding. And so while it is an option which shouldn’t be discounted, it is fraught with political and legal complexities.

There is a much simpler solution open to the UK. If the Prime Minister is unable to secure an appropriate deal, and Parliament cannot offer an alternative then ask the People.

This is not some high-minded, idealistic wish; it is realpolitik, an admission that the Parliamentary process has failed to find a way through the impasse.  The UK faces an unprecedented political crisis and only the people can get us out of this mess.

The EU would be inclined to agree to a brief extension of Article 50 if the UK made it clear this would be used to prepare for a fresh referendum.

A People’s Vote should not be feared if, as is more likely than in 2016, it will involve a national debate on the options actually in front of us, as opposed to imaginary ones. More importantly, it would need to be a debate based on the principles of that choice.  A recognition that in the 21st century, as a large trading country we face a clear and dramatic trade-off between ‘gaining control’ and ensuring prosperity for all in society. A recognition that pooling sovereignty is what has taken Europe away from war and towards peace in the 20th century. A recognition that an increasing freedom to work and study across Europe is one of the great prizes for our future generations, and one of the elements which has cemented understanding and peaceful co-existence in our European continent.  A great, informed, national debate based on great ideas rather than fear, and based on solidarity rather than whipping up hatred would only see one winner, whatever the outcome.

We stand at an important point in history – where we can turn back the tide of negativity and xenophobia here in the UK, and perhaps be a beacon for the rest of the world which has seen these negative forces prevail far too often in recent times.

This article was first published in The Times on 10 January 2019 (paywall).


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