Making social science accessible

23 Aug 2018

UK-EU Relations

A key feature of politics is the notion of the possible. Usually, we think about that in terms of the future: what’s the range of possible options available to us and how can we pursue them?

But it’s also about the present: we need to know where we are now and what state we’re in, before we can decide about what should happen next.

Of course, our present situation is a subjective construction, built from what we choose to see and what values we overlay thereon.

Brexit is a case in point. A moment’s glance around will take in a world of different opinions about where we are, whether that’s good or not and what we should be doing about it.

This summer has been instructive in the way that those opinions have been shifting and recalibrating.

On one side, we have the continuing efforts of campaigners to push for another referendum. That push has been focused on getting popular approval on the outcome of the Article 50 negotiations, but also shades into offering the possibility of abandoning Brexit altogether, although this latter element is spoken sotto voce.

By moving to talk about getting the deal voted upon, campaigners have seen an opportunity to develop from the low levels of confidence in the government’s handling of the talks. With money being poured into better understanding the public’s mood, and some small shifts in attitudes, this is a line that will be pushed hard in the coming months.

On the other side of the debate, we find assorted elements of the Leave campaign making increasing noises about remobilising to secure the decision made in June 2016. The collaboration of Nigel Farage and Leave Means Leaves (the successor group to the Vote Leave campaign in the referendum) on a new round of activities points to concerns about the form of Brexit being pursued and a riposte to those arguing for another referendum.

This is perhaps the more noteworthy activity, for it seems to run against the consistent line of Leave groups since the referendum that the decision was made and it must be abided by. Certainly that has been the most basic part of the government’s policy too: people voted to leave, so leave the UK must.

That remains an axiom of policy, so it might appear strange to then feel a need to go out on the road to reassert the point.

But this brings us back to the matter of the possible.

All of the summertime activity is really about the future; more specifically, the closing months of this year.

By the end of 2018, the UK and the EU have to find agreement on the terms of withdrawal in order to get that ratified and in place for the 29 March 2019. That means we are now entering the hot phase of talks, when the big decisions have to be made and – more pertinently – the big compromises are likely to surface.

As such, it makes sense for all those interested in shaping that agreement to mobilise now.

By so doing, they can remind the government of the constraints under which it might operate. For the Leavers, that means the weight of the original referendum result and of the repeated commitments to take the UK out of the single market and the customs union. For those who want a softer outcome or a reversal, the pressure of ambivalent public opinion and of a House of Commons that is deeply divided is intended to stress that failing to maintain extensive ties with the EU might risk the defeat and fall of the government.

In short, everyone is now setting out their game plans for the autumn, laying down markers in the hope that the government will be influenced by them.

Whether that matters, however, boils down to two factors.

The first is Theresa May. Famously unwilling to open up key decision-making beyond her immediate circle, the track record suggests that she will pursue her own course until it becomes practically impossible so to do. Then means that those now circling will have to add a lot more pressure within the Conservative party or in the Commons to make a clear impact.

The second is the EU itself. All too often in the process, British politicians, activists and campaigners have treated this as a solely British affair, forgetting that Article 50 is a negotiation with another party. Moving Theresa May is one thing, but it comes with no guarantee that the Commission or the 27 member states will accept a change of course at this late stage.

There still remains a range of possible outcomes to Article 50, from no-deal to a relatively soft transitional status. Which path within that range the UK takes is sufficiently unclear that we will only see more pressure from all involved in the coming months.

By Dr Simon Usherwood, Deputy Director at The UK in a Changing Europe.


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