Britain Quits the EU

 Divided We Rule: The People Have Spoken - or Have They?

On 23rd June last year Britain voted by a simple majority of 52% to 48% to leave the EU. The method of departure and the terms were left open and unresolved. Perhaps the most important foreign policy decision since 1945, the consequences are huge and complex. Following the swift resignation of Prime Minister Cameron after the result, his successor, the British government and its supporters in the media have repeatedly claimed that “the people have spoken” and that Britain should head straight for the exit without parliamentary or judicial delay or obstruction. 

The government under Theresa May’s premiership, has taken this ‘authoritarian populist’ road, showing no inclination to heal national divisions caused by the referendum. Thanks to the multifarious grievances that led to the ‘no’ vote, it has treated the referendum result as a mandate to do what it likes – to go for a ‘hard’ Brexit - with as little accountability that it can get away with. Those who expressed the view that leaving the EU would be calamitous for Britain or who were concerned about the constitutional process for leaving, have been pilloried as traitors disrespecting the will of the people by the government’s militant wing, the tabloid press. The judges who ruled that Parliament should be involved in the Brexit process were described as “enemies of the people” and as “the judges versus the people”. Those justices, the most senior in the land, who initiated this legal ruling, were subjected to vicious abuse in the tabloid press and by its followers in the social media. 

Why the paranoia? As economist Anatole Kaletsky puts it: “After all, political opposition is a necessary condition for functioning democracy – and nobody would have been shocked if Eurosceptics continued to oppose Europe after losing the referendum, just as Scottish nationalists have continued campaigning for independence after their ten-point referendum defeat in 2014. And no one seriously expects American opponents of President Donald Trump to stop protesting and unite with his supporters.”

The toxic rhetoric has not steamrollered everyone into submission. The former Tory Deputy Prime Minister, Lord (Michael) Heseltine, wrote a letter to Theresa May following her decision to sack him as a Government adviser. This was punishment for him trying to amend the Brexit Bill in the House of Lords so as to give Parliament the final say in a Brexit deal. Heseltine, a lifelong pro-European, told the Prime Minister she had been wrong to sack him from his unpaid role and pointed out that she herself campaigned for ‘Remain’ last year. “The simple fact remains that you have changed your mind since the excellent speech you made in the referendum campaign, arguing that we should remain in the European Union. I have not,” he wrote. 

Former Tory Prime Minister John Major, writing in the ‘Mail on Sunday’ on 19th March declared. “It is time for the minority of ‘ultra-Brexiteers’ – those who believe in a complete break from Europe – to stop shouting down anyone with an opposing view. It is not only unattractive but profoundly undemocratic and totally un-British. Instead, they launch vitriolic and personal attacks on the governor of the Bank of England, judges, civil servants, foreign politicians and other public figures. In doing so, they demean both themselves and their cause”. 

Another former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair declared: “We do not argue for Britain in Europe because we are citizens of nowhere,” he said. “We argue for it precisely because we are proud citizens of our country who believe that in the 21st century we should maintain our partnership with the biggest political union and largest commercial market right on our doorstep; not in diminution of our national interest, but in satisfaction of it.” 

Writer Ian McEwan has described the post-referendum atmosphere in Britain as “foul”. Quoted in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, he said, “16 million Britons wanted to stay in the EU and 17 million wanted to leave, but there exists a small but very energetic political group made up of opaque and impatient people who speak as though half the country were the entire country.” This vocal group of Brexiteers is adamant that the referendum verdict should be binding for the indefinite future and, unlike at a general election, cannot later be reversed. They make the preposterous claim that the people have not only spoken for themselves but for future generations as well. 

The tyranny of the majority vote
American founding father Thomas Jefferson held it a sacred principle that “though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression”. The time-honoured problem, well illustrated by the Brexit process, is how to reconcile democratic majority rule with the rights of individuals and minorities. Should the democratic process be used by the majority to enforce its will on the minority? Or should the rights and interests of minority groups and individuals be acknowledged and protected? The UK government has so far answered ‘yes’ to the first question and ‘no’ to the second. 

There are many minorities in the Brexit process, within the 48% minority who voted to remain in the EU. In the UK itself, England is demographically dominant with 84% of the total population and five sixths of the electorate. The other constituent nations are minorities. Scotland has fewer than 8.5% of the population, Wales just under 5%, and Northern Ireland just under 3%. Whereas England voted to leave the EU by 53.2 % to 46.8% - and Wales by a similar margin - Scotland voted by a large majority to remain within the EU: 62% to 38%, as did Northern Ireland by 55.7% to 44.3%. However, these majority votes to remain in the EU are minorities in the UK as a whole. If these nations are ignored and merely dragged along on England’s coat-tails, the very survival of the UK itself is placed at risk.

Already, the Scottish government is in no mood to be dragged out of the EU by the UK government in Westminster. On the 13th March, Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called for a second Scottish independence referendum to be held by the spring of 2019. She accused Theresa May of ignoring requests for a special deal for Scotland in the Brexit negotiations just as they are about to begin. “All our efforts at compromise have been met by a brick wall of intransigence” she said. Such are the bizarre times in which we live that we see both women locked into a strange danse macabre in which both want to leave one union (May the EU and Sturgeon the UK), while both want to remain in the other (May the UK and Sturgeon the EU). This was bound to set off some Brexiteer double-speak. Matthew Norman, writing in the Independent newspaper, crisply refers to “the buffoons of Brexit – Gove, Boris, Fox, and the rest – who argued last summer that liberation from a union which restricted self-determination justified any risks, but will now counsel the Scots to’keep a hold of nurse for fear of something even worse’. How transparently hypocritical do these people need to get before a residue of self-respect automatically shuts their mouths?” 

He was right. Shortly afterwards the anti-EU tabloid press were warning the Scots of economic disaster if they left the UK – the very scaremongering they condemned in those who had warned of the same if Britain left the EU.

The peace settlement in Northern Ireland in 1998 was built on the EU membership of both Britain and the Irish Republic. The process has been enhanced by EU funding and cross-border programmes designed to bring communities together, north and south of the border. There exists a Common Travel Area allowing free movement between north and south. This is now threatened by Brexit. Britain will be leaving the free trade zone and customs union, and it plans to curtail free movement of people from the EU. It is not clear how a so-called ‘frictionless border’ could possibly be created in such circumstances.

Another important minority affected by the majority vote are the 3.3million EU citizens living in the UK – most of whom were not allowed to vote on the referendum. After Brexit, EU nationals with a right to permanent residence in the UK will be able to stay but the fate of other EU nationals will be determined by the exit negotiations and the will of Parliament. The government has resisted calls to clarify the situation and give certainty. There has been pressure on the government to make a goodwill gesture and reassure these important contributors to the UK economy about their future in Britain. The upper house of the UK parliament, the House of Lords, added amendments to the ‘Exiting the European Union Bill’ seeking to clarify the fate of EU nationals in Britain. However, the government refused to accept any amendment, preferring instead to use EU citizens in Britain as a bargaining chip for negotiating the future of UK nationals living in EU countries. To the shame of the politicians, the distress caused to both sets of expatriates is unlikely to be resolved soon.

The free movement issue is an example of how the poor treatment of a minority can also undermine the interest of the majority. According to the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at University College, London, EU migrants provide a net economic benefit of £22 billion and are net contributors to public finance. The continuing uncertainty will cause some to leave and will discourage those with vital skills from coming to work in Britain. Meanwhile 1.3 million Britons who live and work in EU countries also face anxiety and uncertainty. If they had lived abroad for less than 15 years, they were able to vote in the referendum but when Britain leaves the EU they may find it difficult to get work permits or to start businesses. 

All these different ‘minorities’ in the UK with legitimate concerns about the effects of Brexit have so far been brushed aside. The pent up frustrations of the disregarded in the UK cannot be permanently contained. Once the exit negotiations start to get tough, Theresa May’s government may well discover that, if it has few friends in Europe , it will have even fewer at home.

Article 50 invoked
The legislation empowering the UK government to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was passed without amendment on the 13th March. This gives the government the legal authority to trigger the process of leaving the EU. The government has chosen March 29th to do so. An amendment to the bill giving certainty to EU nationals resident in the UK was rejected by majority vote in the House of Commons. Another amendment would have given Parliament the legal right to have a meaningful vote on any final Brexit settlement with the EU. This too was defeated. 

The Brexit argument for leaving the EU has always been that Brussels is undemocratic and unaccountable and that power should be returned to the democratically elected Parliament in Westminster. In fact, the UK government’s commitment to parliamentary sovereignty has proved highly selective. It has sought during the Brexit process to side-line Parliament at every opportunity. It was only the ruling of the UK Supreme Court that Parliament should be involved in the Brexit debate, that has curbed the government’s autocratic attempts to bypass it. Former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, described their attempt to emasculate Parliament as “acrobatic double standards”

Deal or no deal?
Theresa May declared in her Brexit speech in January, that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain”. Open Britain, an all-party pro -EU parliamentary group said that if Britain left without a deal, it would be choosing the most extreme position of all major trading nations. Its research shows that the EU does not currently trade with any G20 member without some sort of preferential trade arrangement in place. Quitting the EU without a deal “betrays a dangerous complacency” over trade, according to Pat McFadden, a Labour MP who works with Open Britain. He added: “The government is flirting, as a negotiating tactic, with an option that poses huge dangers to UK industry, services and agriculture. This is why it is vital for parliament to have a meaningful say in the negotiations to come, and to have a say on both a free trade agreement and what should happen in the event of no deal being agreed.”

In her speech Theresa May opted for a ‘hard Brexit’ - taking Britain out of the single market so as to gain control of immigration and to escape the authority of the European Court. By so doing she has embraced the agenda of the far right UK Independence Party (UKIP). She has a small overall majority in the House of Commons and risks alienating the majority of her own parliamentary Tory party. Most Tory MPs never wanted Britain to leave Europe at all, but since the referendum result, they believe that the best future for Britain is a ‘soft Brexit’ to remain within the single market and customs union. They are not convinced by the evidence-free optimism of the buffoonish foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and his breezily insouciant colleague, David Davis, the minister in charge of the Brexit negotiations. Like evangelical preachers who ‘have seen the promised land’, both claim a vision of a bright trading future for Britain outside the EU. Former Tory and pro-EU minister, Kenneth Clarke, believes that theirs is an Alice in Wonderland fantasy: “Apparently you follow the rabbit down a hole and you emerge in a wonderland where suddenly countries around the world are queueing up to give us trading advantages and access to their markets, that previously we have never been able to achieve as part of the EU.” Clarke’s view resonates with many. May’s hard Brexit holds no appeal for the 48% of UK voters who chose to remain. Nor is a hard Brexit popular with industry, the City of London and - as we have already seen – with many in Scotland and Ireland. Just as importantly the EU is not impressed. The most charitable explanation for May’s hard Brexit approach is that it is an opening gambit in the negotiation with the EU which, she hopes, will lead to a deal that will ultimately satisfy all her critics. 

Few believe that the formidably complex withdrawal process and a new trade deal with the EU can be reached and ratified within the two year period prescribed by Article 50. Former World Trade Organisation director-general, Pascal Lamy warns that the UK and the EU could spend up to six years of gruelling negotiations to broker a comprehensive free trade agreement. Speaking in London on 17th March he said it will be more costly for both sides if no deal is reached after two years.

The minister in charge of the Brexit negotiations, David Davis, told a parliamentary committee on 16th March that the government could "not quantify the outcome" of leaving the EU without a trade deal. He admitted that if this happened, it would lead to new tariffs and other trade barriers. He also admitted that Britain could lose its financial ‘passporting’ rights and the EU Open Skies agreement, and be forced to impose new border checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. He acknowledged that leaving the customs union could cause long delays at customs in the EU and would probably cost British tourists their access to free European health insurance cards. Asked whether the government had made any assessment of the economic impact all of these changes, he replied that "it is not possible to calculate." 

The Article 50 process may run into obstacles from the start. Elections this year in France, Germany and perhaps in Italy means that Britain doesn’t know with whom it will be negotiating. The political complexion of the new governments will have a huge bearing on the kind of deal, if any, that Britain might obtain. Furthermore, Britain will be expected to honour all its outstanding financial obligations as an EU member. The leader of the influential socialist group in the European Parliament, Gianni Pittella, said that unless there is a “divorce settlement” first, there could be no progress on negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU. “Without an agreement on this and other crucial issues, talks on future relationships between the EU and UK cannot start”, he said.

All member states of the EU, fearful of more defections, are all agreed that Britain should not be better off outside the EU than it was as a member. At a summit in Versailles to discuss the future of the EU after Britain’s departure, French President Francois Hollande said he regretted Britain’s decision to leave but stressed France’s view that the UK could not exit the EU while holding on to any of the perks of membership.

The ethnocentric British media would have us believe that Brexit is as much a preoccupation among EU member states as it is in the UK. In fact the initial shock has subsided but the belief that the UK has suffered a collective nervous breakdown remains. The EU is already beset with huge problems such as the euro, the refugee crisis, instability in the Middle East and the threat from Russia. Britain could have made a useful contribution towards resolving these issues if it had remained in the EU. Instead, its departure makes Brexit one more addition to Europe’s long list of intractable problems.

At this early stage it is impossible to envisage what a Brexit deal with the EU might look like. The fact that it has to be ratified by all member states before implementation makes the UK the supplicant in the process. Once a deal has been reached, it is essential that parliamentary sovereignty in the UK should be recovered and re-asserted, and that the legislature should have a final say on Britain’s future relationship with Europe. This matter should not be left solely to the autocratic Mrs May. If another referendum were held on the specific terms of a final Brexit deal, the electorate might be better able to focus on the complex issues involved, rather than see it as a platform for expressing wider discontents.  

Peter Crisell