Brexit: a one-way ticket in a Eurostar

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Robert Cox
Robert Cox

Senior Advisor to the European Community Humanitarian Office (1993-1998) and former European Commission Representative to Turkey

By the eve of January 31st, the Remainers’ resistance to Brexit had effectively died. “Brexit, the most pointless, masochistic ambition in our country’s history, is done” said the anti-Brexit Guardian. Any lingering hope of a reversal was killed by the Tories’ electoral victory, definitive if thin: 14 million voted for the Tories – in other words, just 29% of the registered electorate.

Premier Johnson – earlier given his premiership by 140,000 party members – predictably greeted victory with rhetorical hyperbole, “We can now move forward as one country – with a government focused on delivering better public services, greater opportunity and unleashing the potential of every corner of our brilliant United Kingdom.” Which doesn’t answer the fundamental question of: what stopped you earlier? How did EU membership hinder such great ambition?

Can we now move on from Brexit? The short answer is “no”. In the first week of February the battle lines of negotiating the future EU-UK relation were brutally drawn. Johnson categorically excluded any form of “alignment” with the EU’s regulatory matrix. The Commission recalled that continued British access to the European single market was conditioned by respect for EU norms in competition, state aid, environmental standards, labour market norms etc.

Making the opponent look like an oppressor, is inherent in negotiation tactics and acceptable – provided it remains tactical

Johnson suggested an “Australian-style” new relationship as a model for a future relationship. A puzzled Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recalled that Australia does not actually have a trade deal with the EU. The EU-Canada pact is also a model that frequently pops up in London’s Brexit-jargon. So does Norway (which, however, accepts alignment). One must forgive the British public’s bewilderment.

Overshadowing British desire to reclaim sovereignty is EU insistence that the European Court of Justice be final arbiter in disputes over application European law. This is a red rag to the radical Brexiters’ bull. Further lurking in the legal undergrowth is a Tory desire to repeal the Human Rights Act, British law implementing the European Convention on Human Rights.

Grandstanding or phoney war, making the opponent look like an oppressor, is inherent in negotiation tactics and acceptable – provided it remains tactical.

The implications of a ‘hard’ Brexit for British domestic politics, as the negotiation drags on, will increasingly bite

Constantly interfering with the politics of Britain’s final withdrawal from the EU is the chimera of substantial trade deals with third parties. Particularly with the United States. But this too is running into trouble. Some ‘continental’ observers surmise that London is preparing a stronger, cosy relationship with Washington. However, that scenario is coming under pressure due to disagreements with the US over issues as far-ranging as Huawei, chlorinated chicken or the Iran nuclear deal.

The difficult stuff starts now. British ministers are banned from talking to the BBC, itself under threat. The abrupt sacking of Sajid Javid, a competent finance minister, in a Byzantine political scuffle, has ruffled nerves. He is replaced by a former derivatives trader at Deutsche Bank… The implications of a ‘hard’ Brexit for British domestic politics, as the negotiation drags on, will increasingly bite.

The Celtic fringes mutter and grumble. The Scottish Nationalist Party thinks it has the wind of independence in its sails. Perhaps. Scottish, like English people, are politically cloven. In an Irish electoral earthquake, voters have “destroyed the familiar political system in an attempt to make it ordinary”, getting rid of the two great anomalies of Irish politics, the purdah of Sinn Féin and the duopoly of two parties born of the Civil War. Some Northern Irish voters wonder what a possibly more statesmanlike Sinn Féin might offer them. Brexit and related job threats have few friends in Ulster.

New northern Tory MPs are likely to stray from the traditional party mantra of ‘globalism and tax cuts’

In England all but 3 of the 58 seats the Tories gained in December were from Labour. These new boys and girls want to get re-elected. Dysfunctional housing markets, threatened educational standards, delapidated infrastructures, urban decline overstretched defence capacities challenge neo-liberal recipes of politics – as they do throughout Europe. New northern Tory MPs are likely to stray from the traditional party mantra of ‘globalism and tax cuts’.

Looking ahead? What now matters is for the EU of 27 to become a demonstrable success story. That alone will keep the younger people on Europe’s side as they grow older, both in the EU and in a post-Brexit Britain vulnerable to doubt. For a start the EU shares responsibility for not letting the negotiation get bogged down in trade and tariffs. The Commission’s negotiation mandate embraces wider issues too. It must stick to them for citizens’ sake.

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