In a speech delivered in October, I called Brexit the ‘most unhinged example of national self-sabotage in living memory.’ Some thought then that my words were an exaggeration, perhaps part of Project Fear. Sadly the sentiment was, if anything, underplaying the national crisis that is now upon us. A crisis that seems to have no workable solution; no answer that can deliver.
Brexit will have a major negative impact on most parts of the UK economy.
If we look at my area – Higher Education (HE) – the direct damage Brexit will inflict will be profound.
EU funding has been central in supporting so much of the world-leading, life-changing research that HE delivers. There are very real concerns that the UK is already receiving less from European grants than it formerly did.
However, even more than funding, the central issue for HE is one of attracting and retaining key academic talent. Russell Group figures show that there has already been a 9% fall in non-British EU students starting postgraduate research courses in 2017-18. We have also seen a fall in applications for certain academic posts in the last few months.
Attracting that key academic talent will also depend crucially on having a post-Brexit immigration regime which is fit for purpose. The HE sector quite rightly points to the huge contribution which non-UK EU citizens make.
In my own University, 21% of our academic colleagues come from other parts of the EU, and they make up 13% of the whole workforce. The HE sector is no different from many sectors which rely on the skills and the ingenuity of our EU colleagues.
This is why many sector and business representatives have expressed concerns about the £30,000 salary threshold which might apply to both EU and non-EU nationals wanting to come to the UK after Brexit.
It’s worth thinking about how many of the outstanding researchers and leaders in their field who now call the UK home would simply not have been able to get here in the first place, if this had been the policy in the last decade. It’s worth thinking about the counterfactual of how much poorer – in economic, social and cultural terms – the UK would now be.
Turning now to the deal which has been negotiated by the UK government and the EU, few believe that the deal has any chance of getting through the commons. So what options are left, or likely…or even possible?
Extreme Brexiteers are calling for a ‘no deal’ Brexit. The language of no deal has even morphed into a ‘managed no deal’, perhaps to give a veneer of respectability to what should be an unthinkable prospect. But calling for a managed no deal is like calling for a managed apocalypse. An orderly armageddon. No deal would mean chaos, upheaval and disarray.
In truth, there are only two realistic options open to the UK at this point: a Norway-style deal – accepting each of the four freedoms, plus a customs union to avoid a hard border in Ireland. Or a People’s Vote with the option to continue our membership of the EU on the ballot paper.
An EEA+ or Norway+ style deal is clearly the ‘least-worst’ type of Brexit, while still not coming close to the benefits of EU membership. It would be relatively simple to negotiate, leaving the Withdrawal Agreement relatively unchanged and modifying the Political Declaration to reflect the new direction.
The obvious problem with Norway+ lies in the government and the Leader of the Opposition accepting freedom of movement, and the benefits it would deliver. In addition, there is no doubt that the EU would insist on much tighter level playing field conditions if the UK were to remain in the EEA.
It would also, given the concerns of other EFTA/EEA countries, perhaps require a ‘third UK-only pillar’ to be negotiated within the EEA/EFTA structure. This would need years of negotiation.
This means we would leave the EU on the current Withdrawal Agreement, with uncertainty persisting throughout the transition period as negotiations continue. A future UK government might also renege on a Norway+ intention expressed in a Political Declaration which is not legally binding.
In recognising much of the political complexity in the Norway+ option, there is a much simpler opportunity on the table. Which is where increasing numbers of politicians and non-politicians are converging. A people’s vote.
Arguments that such a vote would be undemocratic are barely serious – there could be nothing more democratic than allowing the people of the UK to speak clearly on what is the most important issue these islands have faced since 1939. There also seems to be growing public support for the public to have a say on the final deal, given the impasse in Westminster.
Either of the options set out above will require political leadership of a kind which has been sadly missing from the two main parties at Westminster throughout the process.
It will require a Prime Minister that recognises she can no longer afford to play to the hard Brexit gallery. If her government proposed Norway+ or a second referendum, it would be almost impossible for the Leader of the Opposition not to fall into line.
It would be easier for Mrs May to take the People’s Vote option because accepting Norway + means accepting freedom of movement, whilst a People’s Vote could be characterised as ‘taking her deal to the country’ in the face of a stalemate in the House of Commons.
The Brexit imbroglio is about many things, but at its heart is the social, economic and cultural wellbeing of this country. If there were to be a second referendum, the focus of any campaign ought to be on what we all have to lose in trade, investment, jobs and freedom of movement.
But we must also focus on the more powerful messages of what we all gain from being part of the EU. A positive focus that was sadly lacking in June 2016.
By Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow.