Soon we will finally be able to have an informed debate about Europe

Why the fallout from Brexit may prompt a long-overdue reckoning

December 14, 2020
Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay

Cheer up. I bring good news. The Second World War will soon be over.

To be precise, it will be over for Britain. It ended long ago for the rest of Europe–not just the fighting but dealing with its aftermath. For most of western Europe, the biggest step towards shaping the future was signing the Treaty of Rome in 1957. For Greece, Spain and Portugal, it was shedding fascism in the mid-1970s. For eastern Europe, it was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But so far, Britain has had no such moment of liberation, catharsis or soul-searching. We won the war, after all; our democratic institutions survived unscathed: why agonise over our national destiny when all we need to do is preserve, and occasionally tweak, our valued traditions?

The harsh reality is that this comfortable habit, and the absence of a massive national crisis, has prevented us from adjusting properly to the post-1945 world. Even our relationship with Europe has been a 70-year exercise in evasion, from our decision to keep out of the Coal and Steel Community (the forerunner to the Common Market) in 1950, to the referendum victory for Brexit in 2016. Advocates of a principled partnership with Europe, such as Edward Heath and Roy Jenkins in the 1970s, had their voices drowned out by those whose approach to Europe was purely transactional and, as a result, fragile.

In the 1975 referendum on whether to stay in the Common Market, the biggest single argument was about the price of groceries. We voted for cheap food, not a new future for our continent. Indeed, in its leaflet delivered to every home, Harold Wilson’s government fudged the issue of sovereignty:

“[One] anxiety expressed about Britain’s membership of the Common Market is that Parliament could lose its sovereignty, and we would have to obey laws passed by unelected ‘faceless bureaucrats’ sitting in their headquarters in Brussels. What are the facts?... Membership of the Common Market imposes new rights and duties, but does not deprive us of our national identity… No important new policy can be decided in Brussels or anywhere else without the consent of a British Minister answerable to a British Government and British Parliament.”

In the event, that is not quite how things have worked out. Many decisions are now taken by a system of qualified majority voting, especially in the operation of the Single Market. The irony here is that the Single Market was a triumph for Margaret Thatcher’s vision of a liberal trading system; and the UK enthusiastically supported majority voting in order to prevent other countries using their veto to protect their own uncompetitive industries.

Moreover, the veto is a tricky weapon. Member states often use it not to actually block policies they dislike, but as a bargaining counter in which they only accept a less-than-perfect policy in one area in exchange for a decision in another area they are keen to promote. The EU is a diplomatic ecosystem of compromises and alliance-building, negotiations and deals—just like many families, clubs, offices and cabinet meetings.

If the victors in the first referendum downplayed the way British sovereignty would evolve, the victors in the second referendum four and a half years ago denied the dangers that Brexit would inflict. At least Boris Johnson has, for once, been consistent:

“Everybody’s suddenly wrangling about the terrors of the world outside. Actually it will be wonderful… there are plenty of people who now think that the cost of getting out would be virtually nil and the cost of staying in would be very high.” (Interview on BBC1 in March 2016, before the referendum)

“Don’t you worry about a thing cos every little thing is gonna be all right… Our policy is to have our cake and eat it” (as Foreign Secretary, interview with the Sun, 1st October 2016)

The same month, David Davis, then Brexit secretary, agreed. He tweeted: “There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside.”

Then there was Liam Fox’s memorable boast in July 2017 when he was trade secretary: “The free-trade agreement that we will have to come to with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history.” 

Two months ago, with an agreement, far from easy, looking as if it might be impossible, Johnson issued this statement: “With high hearts and complete confidence we will prepare to embrace the alternative. And we will prosper mightily as an independent free-trading nation, controlling our own borders, our fisheries, and setting our own laws.”

That’s one prediction. Here’s another. Regardless of whether we end up with a thin deal or no deal, jobs will be lost. Many prices will rise. Investment will fall in industries that rely on frictionless trade, such as automotive, aerospace and pharmaceuticals. Farmers will suffer. The City of London’s pre-eminence will be at risk. Many benefits to British companies and universities of co-operating across Europe in science, technology and medicine will be lost. So will access to free, or almost free, health care on the continent. Criminals who escape across the channel will be harder to extradite. Our “special relationship” with America will fray, as Washington deals more with Brussels and Berlin than with London.

At present, these things (and it’s only a partial list) are as certain as any prediction can be; but they have not yet been experienced. We are about to enter that brief, deceptive interlude between tumbling over the cliff edge and crashing onto the rocks below. When we land, the pain will expose the lies we were told since the Brexit referendum, and clarify the choice that we have ducked for 75 years.

Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers obviously dispute that analysis. They hope that their rosy predictions will come true and that the Bank of England, Office for Budget Responsibility, the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress and the National Farmers’ Union will all be wrong. We shall see.

Either way, we can then have an informed national debate at last, based on experience rather than myths and empty promises. We can then decide definitively how we wish to live in an era in which economics and technology are shrinking the world and blurring borders. Which do we value more: our freedom to differ or lasting arrangements for joining forces with others? Do the benefits of sovereignty outweigh the costs? If they do, then the argument will be over, however much this upsets pro-Europeans.

However, if Brexit turns out badly, we may want to change course again. Is that such a shocking idea? Next June will mark the fifth anniversary of the 2016 referendum. Had it been a general election, we would be due to choose a new government, with the option of booting out the old one. Whatever criticisms could be levelled against a fresh referendum any time after the middle of next year, anti-democratic isn’t one of them. As David Davis famously said in 2012, “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”

Already, YouGov finds that far more Britons say we were wrong to vote to leave the EU than say we were right. In the past four weeks, four consecutive surveys have put the “wrong” lead at 10 per cent or more. It is the first time since the 2016 referendum that the gap between the two sides has been so big, so consistently.

The politics of rethinking Brexit would be messy but should not be impossible. The EU is likely to be as keen as us on a closer relationship. An eventual return to membership cannot be ruled out. In short, we are entering the second half of the Brexit drama. The final curtain has not yet come down.

In the next few years, one way or another, we shall come to a conclusive decision about our long-term place in Europe. The Second World War will then be over for us, too.