Treat Brexit in isolation and we’ll get nothing else done

Brexit matters. On that at least, the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos agree, though they clearly disagree on its implications. For the Liberal Democrats, the most effective form of collaboration with our European partners is provided by membership of the European Union. The Labour and Conservative manifestos, in contrast, claim to focus on how to deal with the implications of Brexit.

Only to a degree, however. All three parties dance daintily round the tricky issues. These include, inter alia, when freedom of movement might end (Conservatives), how to reconcile single market membership with ending free movement (Labour) or how a second referendum could be squeezed into the already ridiculously tight Article 50 timetable (Lib Dems).

Then there are specific areas of policy where Brexit will be a significant issue. Think of healthcare. Brexit raises several issues here. First is our ability to attract sufficiently qualified staff to work in the NHS if it becomes harder to recruit from the EU. Second is cross-border provision – will EHIC (The European Health Insurance Card) continue to work, and if not, will anything replace it?

Finally, the impending departure of the European Medicines Agency raises questions about pharmaceutical regulation post Brexit. Who will be responsible? And what will the impact be on the UK pharmaceutical industry?

As for foreign policy, grand statements of liberal principles characterise all three documents, while both Labour and the Tories seem to have simultaneously stumbled across the principle of “Global Britain”. What this means in practice, however, is anyone’s guess. There is no sense of prioritisation amongst the various ambitious objectives outlined.

Leaving aside such specific problems, perhaps the most striking element of all three documents is the way in which Brexit is treated as a separate issue, a challenge to be confronted and overcome.

So, there is a section on Brexit, how it should be approached, and what it should mean. After that, it’s business as usual when it comes to schools, hospitals, tax, and the other issues that dominate our elections.

This is problematic for several reasons. First, economic. Almost all economists, including pro-Brexit ones acknowledge that leaving the EU might entail short term economic costs as the economy adjusts. Given the likelihood that the UK will leave both the single market and the customs union, these costs might be significant. The economic impact of a Brexit on WTO terms is estimated to be a reduction in GDP of about 3 per cent. Cutting migration may well exacerbate this.

The second reason Brexit cannot be treated in isolation concerns capacity. Anyone keeping track of what is going on in Whitehall will appreciate the degree to which Brexit is hogging the attention of the civil service – and the process hasn’t even really started yet.

We need to make sure thousands of pieces of EU legislation are safely transferred into national law, and these will often need amendment, so we can replace EU authorities with appropriate national ones. In addition, we will need primary legislation in areas such as immigration, trade, customs controls and so on. Equally, we have to ensure we have adequate regulatory structures to take the place of their EU counterparts.

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it should serve to underline the scale of the task ahead. And in addition, Brexit will involve delicate and highly technical negotiations between London and Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh. Bringing back powers from Brussels is one thing. Deciding where in the UK they should be returned to is quite another.

These tasks are achievable but will require careful planning and considerable resources. Frankly, it is hard to see how much else can be accomplished while all this is being done.

Can we really expect ambitious plans for schools, or the NHS, or anything else for that matter to be rolled out during the next few years? I certainly do not. But none of the manifestos takes such diminished capacity into account.

Indeed, rather than displaying modesty in the face of such challenges, the Conservative manifesto is arguably the most statist and interventionist produced by a governing party in living memory. Labour has made an even sharper break with its own recent past, proposing a massive expansion of state control of the economy, direct and indirect, including the reversal of several of the major Thatcher-era privatisations.

Immediately after the referendum, much criticism was levelled at the Government of David Cameron for failing to consider the implications of a vote to leave the European Union. Almost a year on, much the same could be said of the party manifestos ahead of the General Election. The majority of the next parliament will be a post-Brexit parliament. It will have to deal with the implications of one of the most important and difficult decisions that Britain has ever taken. What a shame that the parties haven’t properly factored it in to their plans.

Anand Menon is director of The UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs King’s College London. For further analysis of the parties’ manifestos read The UK in a Changing Europe’s Red, Yellow and Blue Brexit: The Manifestos Uncovered. This piece originally featured in Times Red Box.

 

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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