Recently Wolfgang Muenchau asserted that after the triggering of Article 50 it was now inevitable that the UK would leave the EU. Those who had voted “remain” in last year’s referendum should renounce their anger at and resentment of the present government’s negotiating tactics. They could more usefully devote their energies to reappraising the unsuccessful arguments they had put forward in last year’s referendum. They could thus prepare themselves better for future debate about eventual British re-entry into the EU. Muenchau is a respected and influential commentator, but on this occasion his arguments are unpersuasive, writes Brendan Donnelly.
The weeks since the triggering of Article 50 have shown with embarrassing clarity the frivolous and incoherent nature of the whole Brexit project. It is a strange conclusion to draw from these developments that the United Kingdom cannot in any circumstances abandon the self-damaging path on which the Conservative government, or more precisely a segment of this government’s supporters, have set themselves.
It has not always been fully understood in this country just how bleak a response Mrs. May received from Donald Tusk to her letter triggering Article 50. The politeness with which she formulated her unrealistic demands provoked an equally polite but detailed rejection of them. There will be no beginning of negotiations on future relations between the UK and EU until “sufficient progress” has been made on preliminary financial and other issues; future trading relations will be substantially less favourable than the existing ones; there will be no sectoral agreements; no long-term trading agreement can be concluded with the UK as a third party until after it has left the Union; any transitional agreement must maintain existing arrangements for migration and the European Court of Justice; and any Brexit agreement affecting Gibraltar must be the subject of a separate agreement between Spain and the United Kingdom. With the exception of the last point (Gibraltar was not mentioned in Mrs. May’s letter) each of these assertions is a direct contradiction of central planks in what has hitherto passed for the British government’s negotiating strategy. Mr. Tusk’s letter is constructed on the reasonable central premise that the UK is the not particularly strong petitioner in the Brexit negotiations and that no purpose is served by pretending otherwise.
This exposure to the reality of European negotiations has provoked in Mrs. May and her supporters two contrasting reactions: a timid move by her towards modifying some of her more unrealistic expectations; and a flight to the wilder shores of bellicose fantasy regarding Gibraltar by a former leader of the Conservative party, Michael Howard. Each of these reactions has its rationale. Mrs. May does not wish to spend the next two years simply reiterating for the benefit of a domestic audience demands and propositions that she knows have no chance of being acceptable to her negotiating partners in the Union. Lord Howard and those who think as he does wish on the other hand, consciously or otherwise, to distract attention from the unattractive reality of Brexit negotiations in which the UK is close to being a supplicant. Both Lord Howard’s and Mrs. May’s reactions have however this in common. In their differing ways they throw fundamental doubt on the rationality and practicability of the Brexit process.
During the referendum campaign last year, David Cameron was widely ridiculed for his argument that British withdrawal from the EU would be a destabilizing factor for the peace and stability that Europe had enjoyed over the past seventy years. He may well be now taking some grim satisfaction that his predecessor as leader of the Conservative Party has done his best to underline the validity of that warning. Lord Howard of course has no current executive responsibility and eventually Mrs. May gently distanced herself from his remarks. But as a result of Lord Howard’s bombast, the “Daily Telegraph”, widely read by members of the Conservative Party, was quoting in all seriousness the next day the view of a retired military commentator that “we” could “cripple” Spain militarily if the government wished to. It is hardly alarmist to see in these bizarre menaces against a NATO ally the thin end of a very nasty wedge. Admirers of the European Union have frequently praised it for making war between European countries “unthinkable.” Liberated by the prospect of Brexit, the thoughts of Lord Howard and his supporters are obviously running along very different lines.
Image by @RochDW, licensed under Public Domain Mark 1.0
President Mitterrand famously warned that nationalism and war are inseparable. This unsavoury military posturing about Gibraltar may well give some of the more reasonable supporters of Brexit pause. Ironically, they may be joined in their unease about the course Brexit is taking by an entirely different group of voters, who supported “leave” last year but will be disturbed by other recent utterances of the Prime Minister. Far from being too bellicose, these utterances of Mrs. May’s will have been altogether too compromising for the taste of some among her supporters.
In response to Mr. Tusk’s letter, the Prime Minister has made in recent days two important concessions. First, she has accepted that freedom of movement for EU citizens will continue for at least some time after the UK has left the EU. Second, she has accepted that there will have to be a transitional period after the two years of negotiations envisaged by Article 50: Mr. Tusk’s letter makes clear that the mandate of the European Court of Justice will continue in force during any transitional period. Given Mrs. May’s personal antipathy to the ECJ and her long-standing public commitment to reducing immigration into the UK, these are significant concessions and point towards the sort of reciprocal compromises that will be necessary for a negotiated British exit (“soft Brexit”) from the European Union. Mrs. May’s government apparently no longer claims to believe that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.
Some commentators have been encouraged by these more emollient tones. Their relief may well be premature. The Prime Minister has shown no ability over the past nine months to resist the most radical Eurosceptics within her party, who regard any accommodation with the rest of the EU as an act of betrayal. Much more likely is that over the coming years of negotiations the British government will oscillate unpredictably between the two poles of compromise and intransigence. Such oscillation is almost inevitable, because neither a “soft Brexit” nor a “hard Brexit” represents a stable or coherent political programme. Radical Eurosceptics will reasonably ask what is the point of leaving the EU if, as they fear, economic logic pushes the government towards maintaining in a “soft Brexit” as much as possible of the present arrangements between the UK and the Union. The economic damage likely to be done by a “hard Brexit” is on the other hand a prospect from which Mrs. May and many others in the Conservative Party rightly recoil. Far from resolving the question of the British position in Europe, Mr. Cameron’s ill-judged referendum has left the UK with no attractive or perhaps even acceptable choices for its future relationship with the EU.
It may be that the present stasis of British Parliamentary politics continues until March 2019, when the UK will leave the Union in accordance with the terms of Article 50. But a minority of the Conservative Parliamentary Party is deeply troubled by this prospect, as is an overwhelming majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Together they comprise a clear overall majority in the House of Commons. It would be an extraordinary malfunctioning of the British Parliamentary system if the Commons, in its present composition, simply acquiesced in whatever unpredictable and damaging outcome arose from the negotiations between the British government and the rest of the Union over the coming two years. Beneath the surface of Conservative “party loyalty” and the sullen acceptance by Labour MPs of Jeremy Corbyn’s reaffirmed leadership much discontent is brewing. The minority of Conservative MPs still hostile to Brexit remember the disloyalty shown by their Eurosceptic colleagues to John Major and David Cameron. Their willingness to bite their tongues indefinitely should not be taken for granted. Opposition to Brexit and opposition to Jeremy Corbyn are now intertwined among Labour MPs in a way that poses a real threat to his leadership. The continuing decline of the Labour Party in the opinion polls has been accelerated precisely by Jeremy Corbyn’s equivocal attitude towards Brexit, an attitude that some Labour advisers ill-advisedly thought would commend the party to many of its traditional voters. A leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party opposed to Brexit could rely on the support of the great majority of his or her Parliamentary colleagues, and such a development would undoubtedly encourage the Conservative minority to be more assertive within their own Party.
The radical Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party who now shape governmental European policy have every interest in claiming that the fight for the UK to remain in the European Union is over. The claim of inevitability in politics is always a powerful one. But in politics inevitability is often a purely subjective phenomenon. What all actors believe to be inevitable becomes so purely by their shared belief. If this belief is no longer universally shared, what appeared inevitable yesterday can rapidly become a matter for negotiation and discussion tomorrow. There will be many occasions when over the coming two years British Parliamentarians will have the opportunity and indeed the duty to take stock of what the government is doing in their name. It is entirely possible that the Brexit negotiations will not get beyond the preliminary stages of the financial settlement; the British government may abandon the negotiations as a tactic to cement internal Conservative unity; the final settlement may be so manifestly worse than the present situation that it prompts reconsideration even in the cowed present membership of the House of Commons. During the referendum campaign, much prominence was given to Boris Johnson’s claim that after Brexit the UK would be able to “have its cake and eat it.” If this had indeed been possible, it would have constituted an intellectually and politically coherent basis for the UK to leave the European Union. With every day that passes, it is becoming clearer that no such possibility is on offer. If Wolfgang Muenchau is right that the British political system is incapable of reacting rationally to this emerging reality, then that fact has disturbing implications going well beyond even the wide boundaries of the current Brexit debate. It is now a commonplace that Brexit poses an existential threat to the United Kingdom. It may well also pose an existential threat to our current party political and Parliamentary system as well.
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).