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25 Mar 2019

Relationship with the EU


It’s hard to resist seeing the EU response to the UK government’s last Brexit request as an exasperated adult struggling to deal with a willful and confused teenager. The teenager can only say what he doesn’t want, but threatens to act irrationally if he doesn’t get his own way.

Brexit is much more than a family squabble, but the analogy is helpful. The adults in Brussels are now putting the teenager on the spot: it’s time to grow up. Either take what is on offer (Mrs May’s deal) or propose an alternative, sensible, way forward very quickly. Otherwise you’re out of the house.

It’s clear, however, that the ultras in the Conservative party will not take what’s on offer. These recalcitrant teenagers are ready to walk out, even if it means sleeping on a park bench. The question for the rest of us is what is the mature alternative? What would a grown-up do now, and how?

The only rational alternative is, as Donald Tusk put it, for the UK to take time out to rethink its whole Brexit strategy. That means remaining in the EU for a prolonged period, a year or more, and taking the issue out of the hands of the squabbling teenagers in Westminster, and putting it back in the hands of the people in a measured, well-organised, deliberative process in which all options have to be on the table. Gordon Brown proposed such a process a while back.

All options include whether the UK wants to be like Norway, Canada or Turkey, but also whether the UK now actually wants to remain. For three years now, government and Parliament have been struggling to find a way to leave that pays some heed to the (very real) economic concerns of those who wanted to stay.

Throughout, that has been made impossible not merely by the Prime Minister’s weakness but by the increasingly irredentist attitude of the Conservative right. They are determined to sleep on that park bench.

So it’s time now also to consider whether there is a way of remaining which could address the concerns of those who wanted to leave. Remain voters, largely acquiescent so far to the result of the referendum, are now on the march, a million or so people in London at the weekend.

Over five million (at the time of writing) have petitioned Parliament that Article 50 should simply be revoked. If, after taking time to listen to the considered views of the population, Parliament proposes some form of Remain route for the country, then another referendum would be needed.

Delay means holding European elections. The Tory and Labour parties will hate this, but voters may think they deserve it. It carries risks too: Faragist candidates will no doubt be fielded, though so might Remain ones.

It seems increasingly unlikely that Mrs May can lead the change in the UK’s behaviour from that of a wayward teenager to that of a responsible adult. If not, power will have to be taken from her hands by Cabinet or Parliament. Could the adults please come into the room?

By Professor Jim Gallagher, former Scottish civil servant and member of the Gwylim Gibbon Policy Unit at Nuffield College, Oxford. 

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