Three months on from Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, it sometimes seems we know no more about Brexit now than we did then. That is despite Theresa May’s insistence that “Brexit means Brexit”—and Boris Johnson’s recent announcement that we may trigger Article 50 in early 2017. No 10 has declined to back Johnson’s claim up.
Look closely, though, and we find some hints. David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, said earlier this month that it is “very improbable” the UK will remain a member of the EU’s Single Market “if a requirement of membership is giving up control of our borders.” Davis also conceded last week that it is possible we will leave the EU with no deal in place, which would mean trading on World Trade Organisation tariffs. No 10 has distanced itself from Davis’ claims too, but given Davis’ oversight of the Brexit process, they are not easily forgotten.
A new pressure group called “Leave means Leave” has formed. Its members are Conservative eurosceptics, and their aim is for Britain to end free movement and leave the Single Market. Jean-Claude Juncker re-iterated recently that there can be no à la carte access to the Single Market. Britain must accept certain rules if it wants in.
This week, the Slovakian Prime Minister reminded us that his own country, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland have the power to veto Brexit deals. Given all this, the passionate pro-European could be forgiven for feeling a bit panicked.
So, is Britain likely to crash out of the EU’s institutions entirely? Or, thanks to our economic heft, are we going to pull something out of the bag? A panel of experts share their views.
Yes—but there’s a silver lining…
Ian Bond, Director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
Britain is heading for a hard Brexit. Theresa May says her priority is to end freedom of movement for EU nationals; the Labour opposition, including prominent “Remainers” like Chuka Umunna, seem to agree that curbing EU migration is more important than staying in the single market. On the EU side, Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia says that Central European countries will veto a deal with the UK if it limits their citizens’ right to work in the UK. More importantly, Angela Merkel told the Bundestag that the UK could not cherry-pick among the “four freedoms” of the single market: free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. The British economy has coped better than expected since the vote; but leaving the single market will maximise the pain of Brexit. The silver lining for Brexiters: as in the 1960s and 70s, a weak economy is likely to lead to net emigration.
A messy divorce was not on the ballot
Craig Mackinlay is Conservative MP for South Thanet
A “messy-Brexit” of single-market membership, partial sovereignty and continued dependence on the World’s only declining customs union was not on the ballot in June and it is not on the agenda now. Simply put—voters were offered a vision of what Brexit Britain would look like and it’s incumbent on the Government to deliver it. Take one simple pledge—Vote Leave said if we left we could ban cruel live animal exports. I’ve got a Bill in the House to do just that. But we can’t ban live exports if we remain within the Single Market or subject to its laws. Single-market rules make clear that bans on animal exports are—as quantitative restrictions—illegal and cannot apply within the union. Live animal exports matter because their emblematic of a series of pledges the public voted for. A grubby compromise cooked-up in shrouded Whitehall chambers would be a betrayal to the public and is not happening.
A quick break could be best
Alison E Woodward is a Professor at the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel
To the extent to which politician’s words can be believed these days, it seems that Britain is going for a quick and probably dirty divorce. It will be hard due to the unique character of Brexit, the complexity of the European agreements and the usual institutional aversion to speedy decisions in Brussels. This means that a hasty retreat of the United Kingdom will inevitably lead to mistakes and unforeseen consequences. It is quite unlikely that Britain will get a better deal than Norway or Switzerland, however interesting its market might be for Italian winemakers and German auto manufacturers. Still, thinking of the example of the 1990 overnight introduction of the Western Deutschmark in unified Germany, it could mean that a dramatic break that is painful in the short run is the best way to move towards a new relationship between Britain and the EU.
It’s politically unavoidable
Uta Staiger, Executive Director of University College London’s Constitution Union
It is the paradox of referendums that they offer a binary choice on a question that has more than two answers. Voters only had one box to tick; it falls to a deeply divided Cabinet to deliver it. Thus, while we know that Brexit means Brexit, we still don’t know what Brexit means. Those who think we can have our cake (Single Market) and eat it (immigration control) simply overlook just how much is at stake for the remaining EU27. Yet with public opinion buoyed, a post-referendum economic slump avoided, and conservative hardliners upping the ante, it is increasingly unlikely that Theresa May trades the prospect of legislative sovereignty and immigration control for access to the Single Market. The government will seek to avoid falling back onto WTO rules, even temporarily. But a “hard Brexit” in the sense of leaving the Single Market and the customs union seems at present politically unavoidable.
Opposition is crumbling
Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for the South West and Green Party finance and economics speaker
In Johnson, Fox and Davis, Theresa May has chosen three hard-line Brexiteers who are aiming to orchestrate an exit from the single market and an end to free movement. Worryingly, opposition to these economically illiterate ideas seems to be crumbling. The recent attacks on free movement from the right in Labour and a lukewarm approach towards the Single Market from the left make the chances of a hard Brexit more likely.
It is totally reckless to reject the Single Market when there is no prospect of a better option for workers or the environment. This is particularly the case when hardliners in the Conservative government want a bonfire of regulations and a race to the bottom on workers’ rights and environmental standards. They are also gung-ho to sign-up to dodgy trade deals and turn the UK into one of the world’s leading tax havens.
It’s complicated Mary Farrell is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Plymouth
A complete withdrawal from the European Union, or negotiation of arrangements on trade access, free movement, and environmental protection from the à la carte menu? Simple question. The UK government’s response cannot be straightforward.
Trade negotiations are never simply about exports, imports, and market access—as WTO negotiations show—and include non-trade related provisions on product standards, health and safety, environmental considerations, consumer protection legislation, and investment. This minefield is one that the UK, with its paucity of trade lawyers, is currently ill-equipped to navigate safely.
The EU is unlikely to negotiate on the free movement of people (intrinsic to the Single Market), while many UK public and private institutions rely on workers from other countries. Add in divided national interests—territorial, sectoral, and political—and the negotiations become tougher. Pity. Common interests in security, terrorism, economic instability, and the migration crisis deserve better.
It’s likely—but we know nothing for sure
Paul Taggart is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex
At this stage of the new “game” of Britain’s exit from the EU there are a lot of pressures for a hard Brexit. A compromise on access to the Single Market when there is an on-going demand for freedom of movement looks difficult. Member states of the EU with significant Eurosceptic parties, such as France and Denmark, have every incentive to make Brexit as unattractive as possible to deter Euroscepticism at home. Germany has seemed to be amenable to a softer Brexit but is looking at election results that make its government look vulnerable. There are parts of the Leave campaign that has always hoped to maintain access to the single market but not at the expense of keeping free movement so if push comes to shove, hard Brexit may be the only way forward. And there are parts of the Brexiteer camp that have never seen access to the single market as important. The Labour Party seems to have other matters on its mind at present. And voters in the referendum were largely mobilised around issues of immigration. Much points now to a hard Brexit. But the only thing we know for sure about the process to come is that we know nothing for sure.