May’s hard Brexit is dead. Now let’s bury Brexit

Brexiters claim that 82% of voters supporting the Tories and Labour validated Brexit in last week’s General Election. This has a grain of truth in it. However subsequent polls found issues such as health, the economy, and security were more important to voters. Furthermore, the election marked a return to two party politics in which smaller parties, including ours, were squeezed. A vote for Labour was not necessarily a vote for its ambiguous Brexit stance, but arguably one for hope and an end to Tory austerity.

Shielded from many by her two former advisers and campaign managers, yet at the same time vulnerable to Tory ideological Europhobes, May’s closet premiership progressed an empty Hard Brexit. Instead of trying to unite a divided country after the 2016 referendum by reaching out to the 48% voting remain, May divided the country further by progressing a Hard Brexit which few voted for. Fully aware that half of voters wanted to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union as do most businesses, she seemed unbothered about harming the economy for the sake of meeting unrealistic immigration targets which were consistently missed when she was Home Secretary. Businesses could only engage with Government Ministers if they were enthusiastic about Brexit’s (unknown) opportunities. Her General Election bid for a personal blank cheque on Brexit (and seemingly everything else), possibly along the lines of the Canada-EU deal, left the electorate cold. So last week the people called time on her ‘bunker’ Brexit. So too it appears has business, her Cabinet, and parliamentarians.

A weakened May is now in discussion with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to prop up her minority Government. Meanwhile her Brexit secretary makes contradictory statements saying last Friday that the Government has lost its mandate for leaving the Single Market and Customs Union whilst implying the opposite on Radio 4’s Today. However, the DUP wants to avoid a hard Irish border, a demand which appears incompatible with the Tory manifesto pledge to leave the EU customs union. Similarly, the Scottish Conservatives want an ‘open’ Brexit, which appears to conflict with the Tory manifesto pledge to leave the EU Single Market. The two, with 10 and 13 seats respectively, effectively could each veto a Hard Brexit. But let us not forget the newly emboldened, but hitherto pusillanimous, pro-European Tories. Under the new parliamentary arithmetic, a handful of them could also frustrate Hard Brexit.

The renewed prospect of a soft Brexit merits recalling Norway’s, Switzerland’s and even Liechtenstein’s relations with the EU. As an European Economic Area (EEA) member, Norway has full access to the EU Single Market but must accept all EU policies and rules (except notably fishing and agriculture) and, unlike us, all migrating EU and non-EU nationals. As noted in a 2012 Norwegian Government report: “This raises democratic problems as Norway is not represented in (EU) decision-making …our form of association with the EU dampens political engagement and debate in Norway and makes it difficult to monitor the Government and hold it accountable in its European policy.” Norway also has to contribute to the EU budget.

Switzerland, outside the EEA, has an even less advantageous deal. Unlike Norway, the Swiss have to negotiate ad hoc bilateral agreements ad nauseam, adding uncertainty, bureaucracy and cost. Most of Switzerland’s financial firms do not enjoy access to the Single Market, so in the past they set up major London operations. The access to the Single Market and EU research funding which Switzerland enjoyed was jeopardised by a 2014 referendum which narrowly rejected free movement. However last December, the Swiss Government was obliged to back down and agreed to continue granting EU nationals the right to work in Switzerland subject to Swiss residents having precedence over foreign applicants.

Liechtenstein, another EEA member, has a similar arrangement to Norway’s ‘pay, no say’ model. Additionally it enjoys a little known immigration safeguard measure (EEA Protocol 15) allowing exemption from free movement. While the UK is hardly small Liechtenstein, the latter’s EU arrangement shows there is not inevitably a tradeoff between full Single Market access and immigration control (i.e. we might be able to have our cake and eat it too).

Although these countries’ arrangements fall far short of the best British deal which we currently enjoy as an EU member, a less destructive Brexit now appears possible. If the May government is to survive, it will have to accept a softer Brexit. May’s problem is that some of her 60 ideological Europhobes may not like this. May, or her successor, therefore might have to seek cross-party support for a softer Brexit in Parliament. Lib Dems can therefore still play a meaningful role in moderating, perhaps even burying Brexit.

* Nick Hopkinson is chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and former Director, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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19 Comments

  • The Party needs to make a sharp division between any involvement in Cross-Party moves for a compromise & saying what we want as Liberal Democrats. We need to sharpen our position to “Drop Brexit” & we need to keep saying that. Now is the time to push for Brexit to be dropped altogether, while Brexit supporters are weak & divided.
    I am a serial Loyalist but if Tim continues to muddy & soften our position then I will be joining those calling for a Leadership challenge.

  • You lost get over it!
    Brexit sooner and harder the better please.
    If you like the EU move out of the UK. I don’t know, try Greece or Spain and you’ll soon be back – seeing that the EU is a load of *rap.
    ps. Labour manifesto page 28 if you think they “promised” a soft Brexit (whatever that is)

  • Robin Bennett 14th Jun '17 - 1:18pm

    It has always been on the cards that Brexit will never happen. There was compromise when unity in the EU has been threatened by contrary referenda before: Ireland (twice) and Denmark.

    Boris Johnson was a journalist in Brussels at the time of the Danish referendum on Maastricht, so is familiar with the history of second referendums. And before the Brexit Referendum he said:

    “There is only one way to get the change we need — and that is to vote to go; because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says No.”

    As Aidan O’Neill QC put it to a Holyrood Committee (contemplating the future of a newly independent Scotland in the EU in 2014),

    “Something will be worked out – it always is.”

    Admittedly the Irish and Danish re-runs were about advancing the European project, not about leaving the EU. But imagine that Britain is offered the right to an annual cap on migration from the EU. The pro-EU majorities in both houses of the Westminster parliament may suddenly find it reasonable to join the Lib Dems in demanding that this option, in place of Brexit, be put to a fresh referendum. The result will reverse the 2016 decision. Brexit will not happen.

  • paul holmes 14th Jun '17 - 2:02pm

    Stopping Brexit is fantasy. Cons and Lab alike said they accepted Brexit and they won over 82% of the GE vote. The nature of Brexit is the only question.

  • Tristan Ward 14th Jun '17 - 2:13pm

    Those opposing Brexit or want a soft Brexit as opposed to leaving/crashing out without a deal had better get on with it. All the hard outers have to do is filibuster the negotiations until March 2019 at which point we are out.

    It’s a long shot but it has to be tried.

    As to Tim – be careful what you wish for. See https://www.ft.com/content/83396e2a-45ef-11e7-8519-9f94ee97d996 and https://www.ft.com/content/26e3f816-12c8-11e7-b0c1-37e417ee6c76 for one vision (from that impeccably “pink” source the Financial Times) as to how it might turn out. There MAY be sunlit uplands on the other side of the economic pain, but many will suffer.

  • Tristan Ward 14th Jun '17 - 2:15pm

    …….or to put it another way for Tim – there won’t be any need to go to Greece or Spain – we will get the experience anyway!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 14th Jun '17 - 2:28pm

    A Nick, measured , like another Nick, a headline overdone .

    Two Pauls, one Barker , a fine and sensible contributor , barking , up the wrong tree, talking in language that is divisive supporting an approach more so.

    The other, Paul Holmes, like the detective, intelligent , evidenced based.

    I am of the view that unless we offer attention to policies and notions in keeping with the mainstream, we might as well back Labour as the co-operative party did and do , for all the use fantasism is with so few mps !

  • They will just try to run the clock out and get the hard Brexit they desire. If they can get Labour to go along with it so much the better.

  • I found it astounding that a political party with the word ‘democrat’ in it fails time and again (on the issue of Brexit) to fully understand that although almost half the country voted to stay in, OVER half (of those who bothered to vote) voted to get out. It’s democracy. As a Leaver, I was prepared to accept the democratic view of the rest of my country. We must leave – it’s what the majority of people who voted want.

    There is no soft Brexit! Soft Brexit means retaining the single market membership, and access to the EU Customs Union. Goods, services, capital and, worst of all, people would still have free movement. This isn’t what was voted for. There is only hard Brexit. Control of our own borders to try and keep our population below 70 million means we must get out. If we had of stayed in, our population would rise year on year. We don’t have the space, the resources, nor the infrastructure to support 80 million people…which is what it would be in just 16 years! For me, it was all about immigration control, and I know it was for many. So there IS only hard Brexit.

    A number of factors will bring the EU crashing down within 10 years, anyway, and it won’t be pretty. Would the Lib Dems please try and understand democracy, and also understand that there is ONLY hard Brexit.

  • Hello Ian. I won’t deny what the EU has been, it’s what it is now that’s worrying. It has lost all of its sense of economic direction. But what worries me most is population growth within our tiny island. THIS is what people forget, over and over. We are already feeling the effects of over-population here. We are crowded. We are turning over acres of farmland into solar farms, and towns and cities have filled up their brownfield sites. But even where there is space left (and there is even space in London) we don’t have the infrastructure in place to deal with population growth. This is never brought up on TV debates. People instantly think you’re just being racist, or bigotted, but it has nothing to do with that! It’s about school sizes, GP surgeries, water supplies, hospitals, electricity infrastructure. We MUST have control of our borders back – at any price. All this talk of leaving and its effect on the economy, on trade, or whatever, doesn’t matter – whether it’s good or bad. We could be the richest country in Europe, or the world, but what’s the point if you can’t swing your arms in the countryside? Getting control of our population is the number one concern, and I’m really surprised that some politicians haven’t drawn attention to it. In the future, we will see terrible strife in certain countries – due to their failure to control population growth. The EU is committed to free movement…without due regard to what that can cause. Free movement is insane. Watch how Germany will go from its present great state to chaos. France, also will suffer. Both will have a massive influx of migrants over the next 10 years. The EU, realising its error, is desperately trying to share them out. Watch what will happen with Poland, Hungary and Austria. Watch the Italian economy go into tailspin. Watch will happen to the money distribution when the UK’s annual £18 billion is no longer there. Yes, the EU will fail, and we will suffer – in or out. But we WILL be able to control our population growth. And THAT’S why we have to have a hard Brexit.

  • David Becket 15th Jun '17 - 10:11am

    The problem is Barry that with an ageing population we need to import skills in all walks of life from manning our NHS to picking our fruit. Cut that flow off if you like, but the only way our economy and services will go is downhill, we will become a poorer nation.
    I would accept the need for better control, but you are not going to make much difference in the numbers if we want to maintain our viability as a successful nation and prevent our economy going into tailspin.
    You could also solve the problem by cutting off the health services that are are causing people to live longer.

  • Spot on, Nick. The woodentops who created this mess have a choice. Either they get us out of the mess or they face annihilation at the ballot box when it finally dawns on people that they face ruin.

  • Hello David. Yes, I’m well aware of the immigrants that we have actually needed, and continue to need. Being out of the EU means that we can accept only those we need, like nurses from the Phillipines and doctors from wherever. However, low-skilled workers, we certainly don’t need. I think the figures are that they COST us £3,500 per worker, per year. This is taking into account the families they have, the drain on resources – even after their tax contribution. We therefore need to pick and choose the immigrants we need and want. It sounds cold, but that’s how it is. We’re only 243,000 square kilometers. We simply cannot absorb a population growth of much more than 75 million without it causing major problems that no amount of money can solve. There is only so much space here! we cannot “maintain our viability as a successful nation” with a population of 80 million. As I said, if we stayed in the EU then that would be a reality in just 16 years! I admit the future doesn’t look great, one way or another. But I do know that a greater population density isn’t the way forward. We are already more densely populated than Pakistan and China. Like I said, no one is mentioning it for fear of being called racist or bigotted. It’s absurd. Hard out Brexit is the ONLY way – with no deal, if necessary. Financially we’ll be ok, I think. But as I said, the finances actually don’t matter – that isn’t the issue. It’s immigration, immigration, immigration.

  • Jo Hayes: So you agree with Nick Hopkinson that the democratic decision of 52% of the voters should be ignored? Is that what you are agreeing with? Look at the title, and his last sentence.

    Not only is he undemocratic, he is totally wrong. Labour’s EU stance wasn’t ambiguous at all – it’s there on page 28 of the manifesto! This election result wasn’t about Brexit, even though May sought it to be. If it was, then it was an endorsement of hard Brexit. There is no soft Brexit. ‘Soft’ Brexit is staying in the EU, continuing to even pay in! There is only hard Brexit.

    You call Tories “woodentops”, and maybe you have a point – it was classic miscalculation. But you fail to realise that we aren’t actually in a mess at all. The Tories are, the country isn’t. Governments with no overall majority tend to be softer, and less radical (look at history), so far from being in “a mess” the country may well do well out of it.

  • @Barry
    I am an ardent Remainer. But I don’t dismiss your concerns about the impact of immigration. The trouble is that leaving the EU is probably not going to solve the problem. My figures might be a little out but I believe the net immigration for 2015 was about 330000. Over half of that came from outside the EU. So it has been complete failure on behalf of UK government to address this issue. Even EU immigration could have been tackled more aggressively within the the regulations of the EU and by challenging the regulation. Again blame the UK Government. So why has immigration as an issue been allowed to drift? Two reasons IMO. Firstly the UK has sought to manage it’s debt to GDP ratio by expanding the economy. The easiest way to grow an economy is to increase the population. Secondly just to import, both highly skilled and low skilled labour masks the total lack of investment in the native skills base of the UK. It’s an easy fix. Leaving the EU is not the answer to the problems that resulted in the 52% of the 70% vote. I understand your concerns and I have had them on the doorstep but lay the blame with bad UK government, not the EU. Not to say that the EU is perfect but ultimately the benefits far outweigh the alternative.

  • J George SMID 15th Jun '17 - 12:07pm

    Nick, thanks for the article. The biggest danger is now in the Tories splitting in two fractions each blocking the others proposals. So when DUP and the Scots can block the hard Brexit (The two, with 10 and 13 seats respectively, effectively could each veto a Hard Brexit.) there are still enough Europhobes to insist on ‘Brexit means Brexit’ version. We have to stop such an impasse by supporting cross party platforms like European Movement so ‘sensible Brexit’ (whatever that means) wins the day.

    To Robin Bennett: I am afraid the ‘view from the Continent’ is just the opposite. Not EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says No.. If we change our mind they already said we could come back but without all the ‘perks’ we had negotiated along the ‘history’. No rebate, no opting outs.

    To Paul Holmes: The nature of Brexit is the only question. I am glad somebody is introducing some relative values into the debate (the nature of). So far all sides treated the EU as an unchangeable, given, abstract entity. Nothing further from the truth. Take last 12 months and how the EU changed: refugee crises, re-introduction of border controls (hardly mentioned in British press), responses to austerity backlash, Greek crises, … Macron victory. Every time EU changed and responded, always resulting a a different EU. The same absolute value is also ascribed to ‘Brexit’. Which is also changing as we speak.

    So ‘the nature of Brexit’. will change here and over the channel. Even Nigel Farage freely admits that Brexit will be decided in Brussels. And, as previously, ‘the nature of Brexit’ could be of New Britain in New Europe. People voted to leave the EU of 2016. Will they be happy to leave the EU of 2019?

  • Hello PJ: The migration figures are at 248,000 for 2016 – down from 330,000 in 2015, net. However, Britain also has the fastest population growth in Europe. Immigration accounts for 60% of population growth. The population has grown by 5 million since 2001…the same amount it gained in the previous 37 years! That’s why I would like to see the ports closed this afternoon! We cannot go on like this. This is a direct result of our open-door policy, chiefly under Tony Blair, but we also have many vocal people around today advocating the same policy – unbelievably. However, if we stayed in the EU, there would be NOTHING we could do about it (as France and Germany will see in the next 10 years). At least being out of the EU, we control our own borders. I don’t believe, as you say, that we could challenge the EU rulings – as Poland, Hungary and Austria are about to find out to their cost. Free movement (totally unrestricted) is core EU policy. Mark my words, little is said about population growth, but it will become a major issue for us, even out of the EU, in your lifetime. However, it will become a huge issue for the EU! The EU is Left/Liberal minded, and changing the free movement policy won’t be easy to push through – so populations will swell. At least we will be able to do SOMETHING about it. If we were in the EU, we could not.

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