Making social science accessible

29 Oct 2019

Politics and Society

UK-EU Relations


Nearly 40 months after Theresa May first told us “Brexit means Brexit”, the UK has still not decided what it means. That will be decided in the next election.

We may be getting closer to the end of phase one. If the Liberal Democrat and SNP approach succeeds the next election would be fought with Britain still a full EU member, in another extension.

If the PM gets his way tonight, we may be in the transition “implementation” period provided for in the withdrawal agreement.

In the first case, the Liberal Democrats can still fight for revoke and remain; the Brexit Party for a “clean” no-deal Brexit. The Conservatives would fight for their deal — and Labour for renegotiate and referendum.

The full spectrum of Brexit options would still be available to a baffled and weary electorate.

And in this case everyone would expect Brexit to be one of the big election battlegrounds.

If we are out, and in transition, there is a problem for the Liberal Democrats — rejoin is a much tougher ask than remain.

The Brexit Party will be forced to argue that we pay all that money in the withdrawal treaty and still opt for no agreement at the end of it. Many of their supporters seem to think that Boris Johnson has landed a good deal.

But while orderly withdrawal takes “remain “ and “clean break” off the table, the big issue of the UK’s post-Brexit future would still be unresolved. There is a big choice for voters to make.

The Conservatives will need to spell out their Brexit vision. They want freedom from the EU — something that most economists think comes at a price as it puts barriers up to trade with our biggest market.

They claim there will be benefits from that freedom: but they have yet to tell us what they want to do with that freedom. Lots of new trade deals: but what compromises will they have to make to land them? Freedom to diverge on regulation — but how and where?

If it’s only freedom to diverge upward, there was not much EU law standing in the way. So where will they do things differently? Do they want less regulation? Or just different, more UK-appropriate regulation?

Labour will offer a different Brexit vision. Whatever provisions are added to the EU withdrawal agreement bill, and whatever is in the current version of the political declaration on the future relationship, a new government can change direction on the future relationship.

It could still negotiate a much softer Brexit: more access — but at the price of more obligations. Labour has talked a lot about a “strong relationship” with the single market, but never said what that means. It has never spelled out whether it has given up its 2017 manifesto promise to end free movement.

It has talked about UK influence in the EU after Brexit — but proper participation is reserved for insiders, not those in a looser, Norway-style relationship.

Labour will need to put its competing vision of the sort of Brexit it would aim to negotiate on the table, even if it finally intends to offer that up against staying as a full EU member in a referendum some time next year.

So wherever we are in the process, the long-term shape of Brexit will still be up for grabs in an election.

But it’s not clear that the public or the press will see it that way. The refrain of “Get Brexit Done” may mean there is a low public tolerance for talking even more about Brexit. Any general election is always about a multiplicity of issues — not always those planned by the parties, as Mrs May found.

Journalists may grasp the chance to finally move on — rather than explore the detail of what really makes the difference between the “best-in-class free trade agreement” offered by the Conservatives and the Labour alternative of “a strong relationship with the single market” — and fail to ask whether either of the expressed ambitions is actually negotiable with the EU.

We may find that our long-term future relationship with Europe is an afterthought in an election fought over who is better placed to deal with the end of austerity, or who will tackle underlying problems of the economy and society that have gone undiscussed while we have indulged in four years of Brexobsession.

But, in or out, we really ought to have another Brexit election.

By Jill Rutter, senior research fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally featured in the Times Red Box


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