Britain has only a couple of months left to decide on its future relationship with the EU. Phil Syrpis (University of Bristol) says it is time for both the government and the opposition to level with the public about the choices involved. The coarse sloganeering of the past two years will lead to a destructive Brexit unless politicians get real.
The summer recess is often described as silly season. But this year is different: the silliness has to stop. We have just two months to decide on our future relationship with the EU, and the magical thinking – in the government and Labour party alike – is no longer sustainable.
The basics are these: at the end of March 2019, the Article 50 clock will stop ticking. In order to allow for scrutiny, implementation and ratification in both the UK and the EU-27, the withdrawal agreement – and the framework for a future relationship deal – must be signed in October, which is less than three months away.
Given that the UK has chosen to leave the EU, it could a) seek to join the EEA (the Norway model); b) choose to leave the single market and seek a free trade agreement with the EU (the Canada model); or c) choose to leave the single market without a deal. These options are, in principle, still available. But they all have costs. The EU has, with varying degrees of patience, been saying it is for the UK to make its choices, and it has formed its proposals in the light of the UK’s ‘red lines’.
The problem, of course, is that the UK has not (yet?) made the necessary choices. The government has told us that Brexit means Brexit. That it means taking control of our money, our borders, and our laws. That – and here I paraphrase – it means keeping the benefits of EU membership, without paying for it, or, more importantly, agreeing to abide by EU law standards. Neither the government nor the Labour party has been able to articulate a coherent position.
A lot of time has been spent desperately trying to unearth a magical solution which finesses the stark nature of the choices ahead. There have been calls for imagination and creativity. The rather messy and incoherent relationships which the EU has with some of its neighbours, Turkey, Ukraine and Switzerland, have been studied closely. Ultimately, in July, the Government alighted on the Chequers plan (which promptly cost it David Davis and Boris Johnson). In the weeks until October, it is not suddenly going to find ‘the’ answer.
In the short term, the withdrawal agreement is key. That, of course, relies on there being an answer to the Irish border conundrum. The UK and the EU have committed to avoiding a hard border in Ireland, respecting the Good Friday Agreement. But, if the UK leaves the EU, the fact is that EU’s external border will fall across the island of Ireland. There will be a hard border even if Northern Ireland (or the UK as a whole) has a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU, and even if Northern Ireland (or the UK as a whole) remains part of the customs union. The only way to avoid a hard border is for Northern Ireland (or the UK as a whole) to be part of both the customs union and, for goods at least, the single market. That entails alignment with EU standards, and a key role for the institutions which monitor and enforce those standards. And it entails a commitment to continue to align with those standards. That does not sit comfortably with the more buccaneering visions of Brexit.
In the face of the very real risk of no-deal chaos, both the UK and the EU have been trying to finesse, or de-dramatise, the Irish border issue. The longevity of the backstop solution, its geographical scope (NI or UK), and its material scope have all been probed. It is not impossible that a messy and incoherent solution, which strains the integrity of either the UK, or the internal market (or more likely both) and which is difficult to monitor and enforce, may be attainable. That would pave the way for the standstill transition. It would – and this is extraordinary – widely be hailed as triumphant progress.
This is a time for serious thinking. The most important question is this: what sort of relationship should the UK have with the EU in the years ahead? The fundamental choice is whether we want to continue to enjoy, to borrow a phrase, a deep and special relationship with the EU, or whether we want to replace that with something much looser.
The Chequers plan is unworkable. More than that, I have failed to see any convincing articulation of the benefits of any particular form of Brexit. The aspiration is damage limitation. None of the Brexit options compares with the deal the UK currently has as a member of the EU. Each leaves the country economically worse off. ‘Norway’, the least economically damaging, is, in part, vulnerable to the ‘vassal state’ critique. ‘Canada’ would take years to negotiate and, in any case, would not prevent a hard border in Ireland. And even the government now seems to have realised that the chaotic consequences of no deal should not be seriously contemplated.
Over the summer, I hope that the key political players, in particular in government and the Labour party, but also those seeking to challenge the position of the leadership of the main parties, reflect on the fundamental question, articulate coherent positions, and explain those positions to the public.
It hardly needs saying that the decision is a huge one on which livelihoods depend. But there is something even greater at stake. Since the referendum, politics in the UK has coarsened. Laws have been broken, conventions casually set aside. Reasoned debate has been sidelined, with sloganeering populism taking centre stage. Shamefully, neither the government nor the opposition have levelled with the public about the nature of the choices ahead. Instead, they seem paralysed by the perceived need to implement ‘the will of the people’.
If the silliness continues, the UK will blunder its way forwards towards a messy, destructive and unstable Brexit, which cannot deliver what was promised on its behalf. The clock is ticking relentlessly. It is time for the political class in the UK to think long and hard about the future, and to begin, albeit belatedly, to engage constructively with the public (and with the EU). The costs of a failure to do so are unimaginably high.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.
Phil Syrpis is Professor of EU Law at the University of Bristol. He researches EU social and internal market law, and, since 2016, Brexit. His inaugural lecture, delivered in May 2018, discusses the impact which Brexit has had on EU law scholarship. It is available here.
Thank you for a very well written.and eloquent piece.
Thank you. I can’t say that I am optimistic that we will see an end to the silliness; both the Government and the Labour Party seem to be far too inward looking at the moment.
How about the EU outlining the sort of post Brexit relationship it would like with the UK.
We have been pussyfooting around the EU for far to long, if it no longer wishes to have any sort of trading relationship with us, then fine. There are numerous countries around the world who are not members of a protectionist bloc and have amicable trading relationships with other countries and there is no reason why we cannot do the same.
I think that this badly misstates the dynamic. It is (surely) for the UK to propose a solution – to at least say what sort of relationship it wants from the EU. The EU’s preference would be for the UK to stay. The EU has also (in agreement with the UK) pledged to avoid a hard border in Ireland; an EEA + CU arrangement would achieve that. Further, the EU is (quite understandably) concerned with the integrity of the single market. The problem is that neither Remain, nor EEA + CU are compatible with the UK’s current position. And we have yet to see a coherent plan (from the Govt or the opposition). They seem to want to have their cake and eat it. I am calling for them to make a choice and come up with a plan; and begin the long task of persuading both the public in the UK, and the EU, of the merits of the plan.
Mr Syrpis, Thank you very much for taking the time to reply, much appreciated..EEA+CU I not beleive will solve the Irish border. The Irish want totally free trade for agriculture and food. EEA+CU does not stop health checks on food so the border would be hard.
Thanks. My understanding was that EEA+CU would result in the same regime for agriculture and food as currently exists. I may well be wrong though.
EEA/Efta is not like EU membership. It is more a basic framework. Norway doesn’t have a EU like market for agriculture and food, but an agreement for this is possible for the UK.
A good source for information on this and other brexit problems is eureferenfum.com
Very good summary of the very real problems facing all of us. Very careful not to try and place blame, as the blame game won’t really help us in the few weeks we have left to stave off a disastrous turnoff events.
I would just like to point that our media has fuelled impossible dreams and solutions to the conundrum we find ourselves i,n mainly the press, especially the Mail, Telegraph and Express who constantly accuse anyone not for the hardest of hard brexits as being “unpatriotic” and against the will of the people. However, I think the real culprit is the BBC. They have a statutory duty to report the truth, but have interpreted it as presenting lies as if they were just another side of an argument.
I agree completely with your criticism of the media. The level of debate is very frustrating… and very bad for the country.
” The costs of a failure to do so are unimaginably high.”
“Reasoned debate has been sidelined, with sloganeering populism taking centre stage.”
Exactly, if you can’t desist from exaggerated sloganeering why do you expect others to do so?
I like to think that there’s a line of sorts between sloganeering, and rhetorical flourishes…
More seriously, the point of the post was to say that, in political more than in economic terms, the consequences of the current approach are very serious. Most Brexiters will not get the Brexit they think they were promised. They will understandably be angry. The debate about the nature of our future ties with Europe is not happening. Whatever the outcome in October, when the withdrawal agreement may or may not be agreed, the country will not be ready.
“Most Brexiters will not get the Brexit they think they were promised. They will understandably be angry.”
If you really believe that then you are not thinking things through. Do you really believe that we could remain in the EU now as you wish and Brexiteers will be perfectly happy and that there will be no backlash from them?
” The costs of a failure to do so are unimaginably high.”
I would say Vicky Redwood has it about right.
Yes there will be a short term hit but it won’t be “unimaginably high”.
To put this into context, if interest rates were to return to their pre-crisis rates my income would be 40% higher. Any potential hit from Brexit will be trivial by comparison.
Vicky Redwood and Capital Economics seem to be very optimistic on and deal brexit. There are several think tanks like this (IEA springs to mind) and the conservative/brexit leaning news media give their opinions good press coverage.
I prefer to look at the total of the general coverage and generally dismiss the few outliers to look for a consensus. In my reading, the consensus is that there will be an extended period (up to 50 years according to Jacob Rees Mogg) of economic “adjustment” and that there is a real possibility of extended depression.
If your income is based on interest rates, this assumes a large amount of capital. The vast majority of people in the UK are not in the situation but depend upon employment for their income. A no deal brexit would hit employment very, very hard. This would initiate a downward spiral. Keynsian Economics would then be the best way out, but our track record on this is poor recently. I would suggest that “austerity” in spades would be our government’s reaction to the crisis, with the expected result.
I find the problem with so many things today is that they are ideologically based, faith based if you will, but I prefer evidentially based policies.
Change is constant so economies are always adjusting.
Not one forecast has predicted a depression.
The forecasts have been consistent – first a period of adjustment that may or may not cause a “technical” recession.Then a period of growth again creating lots of jobs. The criticism is that this growth will be slower than if the UK had stayed in (very debatable).
The latest was the IMF who have the benefit of having been able to analyse what has happened so far in terms of the economy. Over 12 years 4% less growth in the economy (note less growth not fall) which is 0.3% per year. So trend growth for the UK economy is 2.5% so we will grow at 2.2%. To put this in context the UK is currently growing at about 1.8% per year. Lots of jobs being created and more tax revenues paid every year.
Project fear is just project fear and twitter is a swamp.
“I prefer evidentially based policies”
So exactly what evidence supports your views? So far the only actual evidence we have is that we can compare the economy over the last two years to the predictions that were made for the short term effects of a Leave vote. The consensus was hopelessly pessimistic both on employment and on GDP.
“A no deal Brexit would hit employment very, very hard.”
But the general consensus, if any, is that British industry would suffer from a shortage of labour.
“I find the problem with so many things today is that they are ideologically based, faith based if you will” Of which you are guilty.
Of course, the UK has not yet chosen to leave the EU.
In an advisory referendum, 52% of voters attempted to vote for one of several mutually exclusive future relationships with the EU (WTO, Norway, Switzerland, etc). Unfortunately, the spread of those votes is not know, but (given they add up to 52%) it’s unlikely any one of these options has more than 48% of votes. 48% voted to remain. So, of all real future options, the one with the most support is to remain.
Nevertheless, the government notified intent to leave the EU, without specifying which of these mutually exclusive options with minority support it would choose.
And it’s not clear that any one of these options (which likely have between 10 and 30% support each, every one less than remain) can actually get the parliamentary support that would be needed to leave.
Even if your country wasn’t paralyzed with cognitive dissonance there is no time to organize anything. Time is up.
Even the dogs on the street know where it’s headed. Either a rather chaotic hard Brexit or if you lose your nerve or someone with a level head is found you can go into a holding pattern for a few years. Actually a lot of cognitive dissonance has to do with national pride and not being seen as foolish or weak when you must know the outcome is going to be a shambles. I guess you will look for more time in the run up to March as the best face saving position. But never underestimate human capriciousness when faced with matters of pride.
“48% voted to remain. So, of all real future options, the one with the most support is to remain.”
Fred, please kindly explain what kind of European Union Remain you want the UK to remain in.
The European Union is not a static organisation. It is on a path to “ever closer union” remember?
We seem to be being told 30 years of intertwined rules and regs are a Gordian knot that must be severed on a specific date . Surely the withdrawl bill means we can just leave, with all rles and regs in place and, as and when either side passes a law divergent from a specific area we can untangle one thread at a time ?