“Brexit” means “Brexit”, said the Prime Minister. The question is what “Brexit” really means. No answer to that question has yet been given. Brendan Donnelly argues that it is difficult to see how May’s government and party can ever arrive at a consensus on this issue. In consequence, a “hard” Brexit is a much greater possibility than it is generally assumed.
Recently installed as she is at 10 Downing Street, Theresa May has probably not yet given much thought to her resignation honours list when she ceases to be Prime Minister. If she does, an obvious candidate for preferment should be the official who invented for her the magnificently vacuous mantra, “Brexit means Brexit.” These three little words have provided over the last month at least some decorous concealment of the indecent confusion which comprises current British governmental policy towards the European Union. The phrase corresponds well to Lloyd George’s definition of a perfect parliamentary answer: it is short, true and wholly uninformative.
In a fascinating article this week for the Financial Times, the prominent Conservative campaigner for Brexit, Bernard Jenkin, praised the Prime Minister’s formulation of her European policy and attempted to give his own definition of what “Brexit” should mean. Jenkin advocates what he describes as a “rapid and simple procedure,” consisting of triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and then immediately giving domestic effect to Article 50 by an Act of Parliament, which “need be no more than a few clauses.” A small act of diplomatic business and a short Act of Parliament are therefore, in Jenkin’s analysis, all that are necessary to emancipate the United Kingdom from its vassalage to “Brussels.” Any attempt to complicate or extend the process simply serve to delay the moment when British national autonomy can be reclaimed.
Particularly striking (and frankly implausible) is Jenkin’s claim that there are no “hard” or “soft” options for Brexit. It is entirely understandable that he should adopt such an attitude. It was before 23rd June an article of faith for the Leave campaign, of which Jenkin was a leading member, that no significant economic damage or even change would result from a plebiscitary vote to leave the European Union. If there were difficult decisions to be taken concerning relations between the European Union and the United Kingdom after Brexit, the difficulties would all be on the side of the European Union, not on the side of the British government. In his insouciant description of what he sees as the straightforward process of leaving the EU, Jenkin is remaining true to the sweepingly optimistic analysis he and his colleagues put to the electorate during the referendum campaign. He therefore has no time for the argument that the result of the referendum on 23rdJune has created a raft of difficult choices for the British government, which it will take many months and perhaps years to resolve. May’s temporisation in the early months of her Premiership before invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty makes it clear that she does not share Jenkin’s confidence that all will be well, all will be well and all manner of things will be well. No doubt it was similar forebodings about the difficulties of Brexit that led her, possibly reluctantly, to argue tepidly for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union during the recent referendum campaign.
May is not to be envied in her attempt to develop a strategy for the negotiation of Brexit. There is within her party a substantial constituency which, like Jenkin, does not believe that any negotiation is needed: for them, Brexit has been decided and any discussion of the modalities of this irrevocable decision is a betrayal of the electorate, a tactic of “experts” and the “metropolitan elite” for backsliding. Other Conservatives (and not just Conservatives) could not accept in Britain’s future relationship with the European Union any maintenance of the principles of free movement or respect for the acquis communautaire that would be intrinsic to, for instance, any future British membership of the European Economic Area, an option favoured by many British exporters. There are further divisions within the Conservative Party on the issue of British future membership of a Customs Union with the European Union. As May herself has recognised, there are also concerns and interests specific to Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and even Gibraltar that need to be accommodated in any final settlement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. It is unsurprising that May has recently taken to speaking about a “bespoke” arrangement for the United Kingdom in its future relationship with the EU. It must be questionable whether an arrangement that will satisfy all May’s stake-holders is politically or even logically achievable.
Within the British government and its administrative structures, it is increasingly coming to be realised (pace Jenkin) that extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union and establishing a new relationship with the Union will be a gigantic logistical undertaking, involving many different and overlapping negotiations. It was not widely understood for instance before 23 June that the negotiations for leaving the Union must precede and be separate from those regulating the UK’s future dealings with the EU, a temporal separation that probably creates in its turn the need for a “transitional arrangement” between the two agreements. Nor did the formalities relating to the UK’s membership of the WTO after leaving the European Union receive anything like the attention they deserved during the referendum campaign. It requires an enormous leap of faith to believe that all these negotiations can be satisfactorily concluded within a reasonable time-frame, and certainly not within the two years envisaged by Article 50 for the conclusion of an initial agreement on the administrative aspects of the UK’s leaving the European Union. The difficulty of May’s task has been illustrated by the unwillingness of the remaining members of the Union to begin substantive negotiations with the United Kingdom before Article 50 is invoked. When one government is negotiating with twenty-seven, it is the twenty seven who corporately set the timetable of the negotiation, not the one.
Against this murky and unpredictable background, it is extraordinary that the British government still claims to believe that it is constitutionally entitled to trigger Article 50 without specific parliamentary sanction for doing so. In invoking Article 50, the British government of the day is essentially putting an end to British membership of the European Union in two years time at the latest. What the terms will be for the reversal of the past forty years of British integration within the European Union is at the moment wholly unknown and indeed wholly unknowable. There is and may never be any coherent British strategy for these negotiations; it is equally impossible to predict, other than as an exercise in wishful thinking what the reaction of our partners may be to the final British aspirations. Many of those who argued that Britain should leave the European Union did so on the basis that they wished to restore the parliamentary sovereignty supposedly compromised by British membership of the European Union. It is a highly idiosyncratic view of this British parliamentary sovereignty to believe the British government has the right or even the duty to take such a momentous and potentially disruptive decision as that of leaving the European Union with only minimal parliamentary involvement. That 38% of the British electorate, on the basis of a dishonest and fantasy-driven referendum campaign, expressed a wish to leave the Union on 23 June is a flimsy basis for the subversion of centuries of parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom.
There is a view sometimes expressed by commentators both in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe that as negotiations proceed there will be a gradual and inevitable convergence of positions between the European Union and the British negotiators charged with making a “success” of Brexit. This may well be wishful thinking. For many years, the leadership of the Conservative Party has shown itself incapable of standing firm against the ever more exigent demands of its most radical Eurosceptic wing. This process reached its culmination in the appointment by May of a raft of Ministers from this wing of the party to conduct the Brexit negotiations. David Davis and Liam Fox in particular are instinctively sympathetic to Jenkin’s analysis of the balance of forces between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Davis revealingly commented before the referendum that “We have far more to gain than we have to lose, while the opposite is true for the EU.” If he really believes that, then it is difficult to foresee any meeting of minds between him and his twenty seven partners, all of whom are firmly convinced of the opposite proposition.
It is certainly true that the United Kingdom’s partners in the European Union would prefer an amicable to a fractious parting of the ways between themselves and the British. But they will expect the negotiations to proceed at a minimum in a spirit of co-operation, goodwill and political realism. There is very little in the recent history of the Conservative party to suggest that it is corporately capable of such behaviour in its European policy. The Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party won, from their point of view, a famous victory on 23 June. It is not about to cede the fruits of that victory by accepting an arrangement with the remaining European Union (delightfully described by the Daily Telegraph recently as the “rump” EU) that resembles in any significant way the present state of affairs, for instance through continued payments to the European budget or the adoption of European social and environmental standards. When substantive negotiations between the UK and its European partners begin, there is at least as much reason to believe they will rapidly dissolve into an impasse as to anticipate that they will generate convergence.
The possibility that Britain will leave the European Union in a “hard” Brexit, perhaps even in the way sketched out by Mr. Jenkin, is much greater than is generally assumed. Those British politicians who fought during the referendum campaign for Britain to remain within the Union and have consoled themselves since with the reflection that much could still be rescued from the wreckage of the UK’s forty years within the European Union may be in for an unpleasant shock. It may even be a shock so unpleasant as to transform the already volatile structure of British politics. There are many millions of voters unwilling simply to acquiesce in Brexit and whose traditional party loyalties have been shaken by the events of the EU referendum. The course of the Brexit negotiations over the coming years is unlikely to reassure them that the present structure of British politics adequately reflects their concerns.
Brendan Donnelly has been Director of the Federal Trust since January 2003 and is a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He is a former Member of the European Parliament (1994 to 1999).