Brexit will no longer be a significant event

The former Chair of Vote Leave says that Britain has wasted a good opportunity

March 26, 2018
Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker speak to the press in Brussels last week. Photo: Monasse Thierry/ANDBZ/ABACA/ABACA/PA
Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker speak to the press in Brussels last week. Photo: Monasse Thierry/ANDBZ/ABACA/ABACA/PA

Theresa May speaks to the press in Brussels last week, watched by Jean-Claude Juncker. Photo: Monasse Thierry/ANDBZ/ABACA/ABACA/PA

Many Prospect readers no doubt voted “Remain” in the June 2016 European Union referendum. How do those of us who voted “Leave” now feel about how the Brexit negotiations are going?

At least in my case, I voted “Leave” on balance. While recognising that there were advantages to the UK from continuing EU membership I thought they were outweighed by the cost, lack of control of our laws and borders, our involvement in the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies, the centralising trajectory of the EU, its lack of democracy and the constraints on whom we could trade with outside the EU.

In the light of the 2016 EU referendum result, my view was that the best way ahead was for the UK to come out of the Single Market, the European Economic Area and the Customs Union and to offer to trade with the EU as a third country, hopefully with a comprehensive free trade deal like the one with Canada in place, but with World Trade Organisation terms as a not-preferred but crucial fall-back. This would then need to be combined with maximum co-operation with the EU27 on everything on which it makes sense to work together, but on an inter-governmental basis rather than as part of a unifying political project. Especially if trade between the UK and the EU27 continued on a tariff free basis, I don’t believe there would be any significant diminution in its volume.

My problem now is that I don’t think that this is the direction in which we are heading. Two major things have gone wrong. One is that the order in which it was agreed that withdrawal should be discussed bogged us down on Ireland, citizenship and money when we should have started by discussing trade. The second has been the election of a House of Commons in June 2017 which is not prepared—at least at the moment—to contemplate WTO terms. Once this became clear all the negotiating cards fell into the EU27’s hands.

The result is that we will probably finish up with a deal with the EU27 which won’t really satisfy anyone, but which—to be fair—also won’t be regarded as a disaster either by most Leavers or Remainers. Few MPs are ready to denounce the outcome of the June 2016 referendum completely, so the UK almost certainly will leave the EU—but perhaps in name only. As a result of the sort of compromises for which we are heading, we will still be largely bound by the rules of the Single Market and the Customs Union and still in the CAP and perhaps the CFP as well. At the same time, because we will no longer be full members, we will have lost most of the influence we might have had on the way the EU develops.

Will this sort of soft Brexit make much difference to the UK’s future economically or in other ways? Probably not. We will neither prosper much more than we otherwise would have done, as Brexiteer optimists hope, but nor will we suffer the decline which Remain pessimists fear. We will pay a bit less, have a bit more control over our laws, our borders, our trade and maybe our fisheries. We will have rather less influence in EU counsels.

Is this all a seismic change? No, life will go on very much as before. Is it important that we secure the best deal we can? Clearly the answer is yes, but, if we are heading for the sort of compromise outlined above, Brexit won’t be such a significant event after all.