Making social science accessible

08 Jun 2018

Politics and Society

UK-EU Relations

Britain has made many gifts to its own citizens and the world: the steam engine, radar, parliamentary democracy, the National Health Service, Banksy, Shakespeare and Harry Potter.

A hard Brexit, where Britain leaves the single market and the customs union, is not a gift to the British people or the world. It is a gift only to political extremists.

Some of our most popular literature writes of epic struggles of good prevailing over evil: Hobbits thwarting Sauron or the boy who lived dispatching Voldemort. The architects of a hard Brexit – Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and their conduit Theresa May – may not be evil; but they dabble in a lot of fantasy.

Most of their Brexit promises have evaporated. They told us that negotiating a new trade deal with the EU would be a breeze. They condescended that concerns about the economic damage were silly and that our National Health Service would have plenty of extra cash. And they complacently asserted that the Northern Ireland peace agreement would not be endangered.

Many of our favorite stories teach us that individuals such as the Brexiters may initially prosper but ultimately they are damned for their irresponsible and reckless actions. However, at present, the normal laws of gravity exert little downward pressure on their lead parachutes of opportunism and hubris.

British politics is caught in a vortex created by the 2016 Referendum and now finds itself in near constantly febrile, frenetic, and bizarre state. The majority of MPs are attempting to deliver Brexit despite knowing that it will damage the country.

The government’s own assessments are startling. If the UK secures continued access to the single market through membership in the European Economic Area, long-term growth will be 2 percent lower than current forecasts.

The government’s preferred option of a comprehensive free-trade agreement with the EU could lead to growth over the next 15 years which is 5 percent lower. And the ‘no-deal’ situation in which Britain returns to World Trade Organization rules, the UK’s growth would be reduced by 8 percent over the same period.

In the first and least damaging scenario, Britain might be able to secure an agreement which resembles Norway’s deal with the EU which affords it membership of the single market and the customs union. However, while this agreement may be one of the least economically damaging options, it would satisfy no one.

For the hardline Brexiters this arrangement would turn the UK into a “vassal state” (to quote Jacob Rees-Mogg) where it would have to continue paying into EU coffers, accept some degree of free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

While for Remainers, Britain would be half in, half out, without a seat at the table to shape the rules. Years and hundreds of millions of pounds would be spent negotiating an exit only to secure a deal that is worse than the status quo.

The Conservative Party’s hardliners won’t be able to stomach this. For them a swift amputation is the only option. For them Brexit is an article of faith even as their promises have disintegrated like a stiff breeze carrying off a mound of dust on a windowsill.

Yet, ultimately, the means matter less than the ends. Once Britain is ‘free’ from the EU they would have a better chance of ripping up hard won legislation on improving working conditions and environmental laws and turning Britain into the low-tax, minimal regulation paradise of their fantasies.

For some on the hard left, Brexit also offers the opportunity to throw off the constraining shackles of the EU, which they erroneously perceive to be incompatible with their agenda of renationalizing key industries and advancing the welfare state. For those hoping to end austerity, Brexit will likely entrench and accelerate it further. Britain’s middle and working class families would most likely suffer the consequences.

The fact that Brexit will likely mean more austerity suggests that those on both the hard-right and hard-left share something in common: Brexit is the once in a generation crisis to usher in drastic reforms mostly under the radar while everyone is too discombobulated to notice.

This is why a people’s vote on the proposed final Brexit deal with the EU is critical. It remains one of the last safety valves to check the unnerving momentum towards a needlessly damaging outcome that weakens the country.

Yet the timing is astoundingly tricky. By October, Britain and the EU27 are meant to finalize a withdrawal treaty governing the UK’s departure from the EU, arrangements for the transition period and a statement of intent outlining in broad strokes what a future relationship could look like.

Parliament is meant to have a vote on these elements yet given the short amount of time, this vote won’t be remotely meaningful as there unlikely any clarity on the future deal. As the EU (Withdrawal) Bill returns to the House of Commons on 12 June the onus is on MPs to push for a referendum via an amendment which would need to be held before the scheduled day of departure on 29 March 2018.

The support for a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal is building. There is growing support among parliamentarians from different parties including those whose constituents voted for Brexit. Student organizations representing almost a million young people studying at UK universities and colleges have also joined forces demanding a referendum on a final deal.

At time when populists and an ascendant illiberal politics continue to gain ground around the world, British voters should call on their MPs to lock in this safety net. A meaningful parliamentary vote complemented by a people’s vote would be healthy reminders that our democracy and its checks and balances on government are working and that the British people continue to place a premium on the rule of law and fair play.

It would also show our allies and adversaries that Britain is again prioritizing pragmatism. In an interconnected work where cross-boundary problems like terrorism and climate change require close cooperation, Brexit threatens the UK’s ability to contribute to managing these issues.

A hard Brexit would only satisfy political extremists. A pragmatic approach which takes back control of the agenda and guarantees a people’s vote could alleviate the pressure and limit the potential damage. This would be an extraordinary gift not just for Britain but likely the world.

By Guy Edwards, research fellow at Brown University.


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