In our immediate response to the UK election result (see The ‘Brexit Election’) we said we would have to see how the situation developed before we could know how the Brexit process might be affected. That’s still true but the compromises required to form a government are becoming clearer and mean the middle ground between Leave and Remain may be where the flag has to be planted.
For the Conservatives to stay in office we now know that they need the support of both the DUP and the Scottish Tories (who may themselves decide to form a separate party). Both groups are opposed to a hard Brexit, which probably means a free-trade deal has to be agreed. This will be difficult or impossible to achieve from scratch within the Article 50 time frame, so the EEA alternative may be the only realistic option now available. The more extreme Leavers see this as a betrayal, scarcely Brexit at all in their view, but though it means continuing payments to the EU budget it does start to address many other issues, including: much of the power of the ECJ over our own Supreme Court; our ability to negotiate trade deals with countries outside the EU; some limits to freedom of movement; avoidance of being sucked into the European super-state, which is still the EU’s target (and for the leaders its raison d’etre); and give some time needed to establish the UK as a successful, fully-independent country.
We can argue about whether a two-step solution is best but it may be the only one that can be agreed, perhaps even with Labour and the SNP. “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly” (Macbeth) – the reduction of uncertainty alone might override any theoretical advantages of other solutions; “… but this blow Might be the be-all and the end-all here” – the next government cannot determine how long this stage will last since it cannot tie the hands of future parliaments, and the great fear of determined Leavers is that we may never leave the EU completely.
We believe the EU has become a deeply-flawed and harmful project that we need to step away from quickly. Originally inspired by good motives it needs a total redesign, reflecting what has changed and what we’ve learnt in nearly century since its principles and objectives began to be formulated after the Great War. This isn’t happening. If we now have to disengage in two stages we must remember that democracy has steered us to this solution, regardless of whether we like it personally. We should celebrate the stark contrast with the anti-democratic way the EU itself operates.
Of course the hung parliament has given some in the House of Lords the idea that it can frustrate the elected parliament over Brexit since the Government has no mandate. That would be undemocratic as well as untrue. Parties representing the overwhelming majority of MPs gave manifesto support to Brexit, this has not been a second referendum on EU membership.
Meanwhile the EU has tied the hands and feet (not to mention the minds) of its negotiators by issuing a Directive stating that there must be “sufficient progress” on the divorce terms before any new agreement can even be discussed. If that includes the UK agreeing to pay anything like £80 billion without knowing what it would buy the UK Parliament might baulk or the Prime Minister not survive the Party’s revolt. Yet “sufficient progress” is meaningless in practice.
No one can yet forecast whether there is a middle ground that can be agreed before the sand runs out on Article 50 (which could anyway be reset if all parliaments agree). If not, the hardest of Brexits might be the true result of the UK election.
It’s interesting that May’s party won 42.5% of votes on a platform promising a “firm” Brexit whilst Macron’s in France won a “landslide” with 15% of possible votes on a platform deeply committed to further EU integration (with Germany paying for it – a popular if unrealistic expectation). Yes, we know these percentages aren’t properly comparable but they are revealing in their way. The UK electorate was fired up about the issues at stake (not just EU related ones); the French electorate were mostly turned off.
Whilst we (this blog’s authors) strongly believe that Britain must leave the EU we are equally firm about striving for achievable goals rather ideological ones, a key reason for why we oppose those of the EU. Since more than 80% of voters chose a party with a stated commitment to leaving (the Liberal Democrats being the main exception) it would be great if those parties could now agree a common, or at least a minimum, base line. Many are calling for that; we’d like to hold our breath but that could be fatal.