National humiliation, constitutional crisis, shambles, chaos, delusional and (for the German tabloid, Bild) ‘Brexokalypse Now?’: these are merely a sprinkling of the unflattering terms used to describe the unfolding drama of Brexit. With the House of Commons now embarked on its eleventh-hour attempt to find a way to resolve matters, this contribution by Iain Begg (LSE) puts forward a five-point plan to solve the Brexit imbroglio.
First, the Prime Minister has to go. She has lost her authority and is no longer equipped to lead the process. Who wields the knife does not really matter, and the fact that she has survived no-confidence votes from her party and the House of Commons, as well as a botched Cabinet coup, should not alter the equation. Until she goes, it is hard to see a fresh approach being adopted.
Second, a cross-party consensus is needed. It has been evident for some time now that the manoeuvring to keep parties intact in the hope of achieving a partisan Brexit is not going to work. The starting point should, therefore, be for a caretaker successor to Theresa May to reach across the various factions in Parliament to form a national government with a mandate to sort out the UK’s relationship with the EU. Perhaps, in inviting whoever it is to form a government, the Queen could whisper in his or her ear to this effect.
Third, either a longer extension to the Article 50 process or its revocation will be required to enable the UK body politic to work out what it wants. Despite increasing irritation about the UK’s vacillations and the resulting uncertainty, the EU could reasonably be expected to accept.
The fourth stage would be the most contentious, but cannot be avoided. There has to be a wide-ranging assessment of the advantages and drawbacks of the different options, stressing that none will be satisfactory and all will involve trade-offs. All red lines, entrenched positions and potential outcomes, from no deal to no Brexit, will have to be examined.
Fifth, the caretaker government would then be expected to choose how to decide. It could be by assembling a majority in Parliament to support the outcome of stage 4 or by a further referendum. If the former, it should be much easier to pass because the process of assessing the options will have clarified the trade-offs and enabled a consensus to emerge.
If Parliament nevertheless decides the question has to go back to the people, there are bound to be awkward choices about the precise question, the timing and other terms of the vote. It will be potentially divisive, although the process of deliberation should mitigate this concern, and it will also be vital to ensure a further referendum is not seen purely as a Trojan horse for ‘no Brexit’.
An immediate reaction will be to deride this five-point plan as a fantasy. Yet it is evident something different has to be done to break the logjam and to identify the basis for an informed decision. For this purpose clarifying what the criteria are for judging the options and how to interpret them is key.
An academic approach would be to generate scores for each criterion on a positive-negative scale for all the options under consideration. Weights could then be applied for each criterion, so as to arrive at an aggregate score. Some are now discussed and various other constraints or expectations could be explored in a similar way.
The reddest of red lines is respecting the 2016 referendum result, usually accompanied by homilies about the ‘will of the people’, ’17.4 million voters’ and the rather curious proposition that having a second referendum would be undemocratic. Any of no deal, the current withdrawal deal or a variant on a softer Brexit would tick this box, but an obvious concern is ‘BRINO’ – Brexit in name only where the formal exit is adjudged to be not in the spirit of genuinely leaving. Manifestly, ‘no Brexit’ would not satisfy this criterion, but the subsequent question is whether the criterion should be decisive or just among many to consider.
Equally, there is a consensus that the harder the Brexit, the greater the negative impact on the British economy will be. Some of the more lurid ‘project fear’ claims around the referendum led to economic projections being treated with contempt, but the evidence now suggests with much more authority that UK growth will be lower. On this criterion, no Brexit is the best option.
An independent agricultural or fisheries policy also excludes EU membership, but has to take account not just of the subsidy regime of the CAP and the CFP, but also the terms of market access. Being outside the customs union (as Norway is) gives greater independence because of the opportunity to set separate trade terms. But would farmers want this, even if the fishing community does?
The impact on UK public finances has to be assessed at two levels. Any arrangement that cuts or eliminates UK payments to Brussels delivers a windfall gain. However, there are both transitional and recurrent costs associated with Brexit (setting up and running more stringent border controls, for example) which offset these direct gains. More tellingly, the fiscal position would be expected to deteriorate if the economy grows more slowly. On balance, the net effect is likely to be negative from the hardest form of Brexit and neutral or positive for remain. Variants on the Norway model all imply some continuing payments to Brussels, but also less of a hit to tax revenue.
Controlling free movement of EU citizens is widely agreed to be among the redder of lines, and is manifestly incompatible with variants on staying in the single market or ‘no Brexit’. A less welcoming approach to EU workers could, however, accentuate recruitment problems in certain sectors, such as health care or construction.
Avoiding a hard border in Ireland has become the main difficulty in agreeing on a withdrawal agreement, partly because it necessarily means making a hard choice among having no border in Ireland, no border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and leaving the customs union as set out in the original Lancaster house red lines. Only two of the three can logically be achieved, and even if technological solutions or minimal border checks (as between Switzerland and its EU neighbours) can be put in place, there would still be a border somewhere if the UK leaves the customs union.
Any outcome keeping the UK in a customs union with the EU will preclude the signing of independent trade deals with other partners. But having such independence will only be positive if the UK can negotiate ‘better’ deals than it could when the EU acts collectively. As the UK has found over the last two years, the EU is a formidable negotiator.
Freedom to regulate has also been a prominent concern. Hard Brexit would enable the UK to choose what to regulate and how, but may be more constrained in practice by the need to conform to international standards. An objection to the softer forms of Brexit is that they could leave the UK obliged to follow EU rules, but with a much more limited voice in shaping them.
Both the criteria to employ and the weights to attach to them would need careful thought, but until there is a proper debate about the trade-offs involved in the UK relationship with the EU, it is hard to see how to extricate the country from its increasingly worrying predicament.
This article gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics. Image CC0 Public Domain.
Iain Begg is a Professorial Research Fellow at the European Institute and Co-Director of the Dahrendorf Forum, London School of Economics and Political Science.