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03 Feb 2020

UK-EU Relations


Dawn, 24 June 2016. College Green. That small patch of grass opposite the Palace of Westminster.

A flag-waving group of men – Nigel Farage and co – celebrates raucously. An ashen-faced Jeremy Corbyn arrives to tell the prime minister that article 50 should be triggered immediately. A senior FT reporter runs past, gasping that “the PM’s resigned and it’s only the third story on our website”.

And so, the post-referendum odyssey began. In the sun, on the Green, with everyone going bonkers.

It’s been three and a half long years, in which we have learned a number of things about not only Brexit but also ourselves.

First, breaking up is hard to do. The problems we have faced in trying to leave the EU stand as a testament to how right the Brexiters were all along: this isn’t a simple trading block, it is far, far, more.

And disentangling the relationship has likewise proved far more complicated than many people – including most high-profile Brexiters – ever imagined.

Think of Northern Ireland and those endless debates over backstops and borders. Think of the power wielded over Theresa May by a party few in Great Britain had ever heard of, let alone understood.

And at the same time, we’ve come to understand that our most treasured institutions are perhaps more fragile than we’d suspected.

From the apolitical civil service, vilified and abused by politicians who should know better, to judges, attacked from parliament and on the front pages of the tabloid press.

From the devolution settlement, buttressed by a Sewel convention that, like Jack Sparrow’s pirates’ code, turns out to be more “guidelines than rules””, to the sovereignty of parliament, neatly sidestepped by the government, who closed it down for a while.

Much of what we have taken for granted about our country now appears vulnerable.

Which brings us to the politicians. Many of the problems we have faced have stemmed from the dysfunctionality of our politics since that June poll.

It was the inability of the cabinet and then parliament to agree what they wanted, not the failure of civil servants, that was largely responsible for the Brexit impasse.

Olly Robbins became an unfortunate scapegoat for others’ incompetence. Civil servants didn’t fail their political leaders. Quite the contrary.

And divisions were compounded by the low calibre of many of those in the top jobs. You might have thought that a leader of the opposition would understand what article 50 was before recommending its triggering.

But no. Corbyn shot from the hip. Speak in haste, don’t repent ever.

As for the former prime minister, where to start?

First, she painted herself into a corner by turning a soundbite (“control over our borders, laws and money”) into negotiating red lines.

Second, she prioritised Conservative party unity over forging a national consensus.

And third, she called an unnecessary snap election that left her a hostage of the Democratic Unionist party and European Research Group.

You might also have hoped that the resident of 10 Downing Street would be capable of making difficult choices and explaining fundamental tradeoffs.

Yet May persisted in asking for the impossible: frictionless trade while leaving the single market and customs union.

And just consider the other abject nonsense we’ve had to tolerate.

The pointless adjective war of that first summer – hard Brexit, soft Brexit, clean Brexit, chaotic Brexit, managed Brexit, red white and blue Brexit, dog’s Brexit.

And then the real rubbish: “no deal is better than a bad deal”; “a jobs-first Brexit”; “a second referendum to overcome division” (I ask you); and, of course, “get Brexit done”.

Failure, of course, was not confined to those in positions of influence. Honourable mentions go to those who either wanted to prevent Brexit or to “soften” it.

The former ran perhaps the least effective campaign since, well, the campaign against Brexit in the referendum. The latter – allegedly determined to deliver Brexit, but a soft one – distinguished themselves by voting against precisely that on 29 March 2019.

Of course, support for the third meaningful vote would not have guaranteed a soft Brexit – let’s not forget the stalwarts of the ERG and their endless capacity to cause trouble.

But the May deal offered far more to those interested in retaining close ties with the EU than anything that’s going to be on offer now.

So yes, we’ve all had a lot to deal with. We’ve lived through three tumultuous years, during which we’ve hardly covered ourselves in glory. Yet while it’s tempting to look back on that morning of June 2016 as day zero, it wasn’t.

Many of the changes we’ve seen subsequently have been years in the making. Labour was losing “leave” seats long before Vote Leave was a glint in Dominic Cummings’ eye.

In 2010, the 62 seats lost by the party in England and Wales that have not been regained since, have an almost identical “Brexit profile” to the 54 fresh losses in 2019.

Moreover, while lots has happened – the period since the referendum has ended the careers of two prime ministers, eight cabinet ministers and over 80 MPs – we shouldn’t assume this churn is the new normal.

Four years hence, as we turn our minds to the next election, politics may have repositioned itself around a more traditional left-right axis; a berated and battered civil service may have retained its core values; Scotland may not have voted for independence from the UK.

Who knows, we may even have devoted some time, energy and money to dealing with the UK’s underlying problems: pervasive inequality (entrenched by austerity and neglect of key public services) and stagnant productivity.

And, of course, a majority government may have made parliament reassuringly boring again. But beware. Boredom is a dangerous thing.

The choices stemming from Brexit are arguably more significant than the choice to leave in the first place. How paradoxical if, at the moment when the real decisions are being made, our interest starts to falter.

By Professor Anand Menon, Director of the UK in a Changing Europe. This piece was originally published by the Guardian.


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