Stop banging on about Brexit: fat chance of that happening in the UK


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

When the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union in 2016, he added that he wanted his governing Conservative Party to “stop banging on about Brexit”. Internal feuding within that party between the supporters and detractors of EU membership had long unleashed a civil war among the Conservatives. The bitterness of the divisions between Brexiteers and Remainers also brought down many a Conservative leader, from Margaret Thatcher to John Major, to Cameron himself when, in June 2016, he lost his referendum by a 52-48 margin, and more recently, Theresa May, who failed to negotiate a compromise with Brussels reflecting the UK’s core trading interests. Yet these Tory leaders were also the actors of their own downfall. Cameron ran a lacklustre referendum campaign in which he seemed unsure of the benefits of EU membership and failed to develop a clear message and narrative.

Any hopes that the Brexiteer victory would put a stop to the British debate on the EU have proved predictably short-lived. The Sunday Times recently published a headline claiming that the new Conservative government under Rishi Sunak would seek a Swiss-style arrangement with Brussels, essentially freeing up cross-Channel trade in goods and services but with no freedom of movement of people. This would remove many of the delays and frustrations of long lorry queues at UK ports such as Dover, simplify the convoluted paperwork and ease the customs checks on goods coming in or out of the UK. Yet, the price to be paid under the Swiss model would be alignment between the EU and the UK on standards for goods and services and greater jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in settling disputes

Government ministers spread out over TV and radio news shows to denounce The Sunday Times story and affirm that Sunak’s government is as committed to making a success of Brexit as its predecessors. The talk was of taking advantage of the ‘Brexit freedoms’: code for being able to diverge from EU norms and standards, and to conclude independent trade deals. Ministers spoke yet again of the “exciting future opportunities offered by Brexit”, although these opportunities always seem to be in the distant future and are never achieved in the present. Over eight years since the referendum and nearly two years since the UK finally left the EU, the Conservatives are having a harder time explaining to the public why they need ever more time to demonstrate Brexit’s true promise. The problem with the long run, as economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out, is that “we will all be dead”.

A recent poll showed that a majority of the British public favours more controlled migration, whereas it was opposition to migration that largely drove grassroots support for the leave campaign in the 2016 referendum

In truth, the government had no choice but to distance itself from The Sunday Times story. Sunak owes his elevation to the post of prime minister to the Brexiteers in his party, huddled together in the European Research Group, which is strangely named because it contains a great deal of ideology and not much research. This lobby group is not as powerful as it once was. It split over the rival candidacies of Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to succeed Boris Johnson, and one of its leading voices, Steve Baker, has joined the new government as a junior minister. Yet any sense of betrayal of the fundamental principles of Brexit, including the end of alignment of rules, freedom of movement, jurisdiction of the ECJ and major contributions to the EU budget, is bound to reunite the Brexiteers and make them cause maximum grief for the new prime minister.

Sunak is dealing with the worst economic situation in the UK since the 1970s. Inflation is rampant at over 10%, poverty levels are rising fast, the trade unions are organising wave upon wave of strikes in the transport and public sectors, there is no devolved government in Northern Ireland and Scotland is pushing to hold a second referendum on independence. The Labour Party is leading by 30 points in the polls. So, the last thing that Sunak and his government can afford right now is Brexit turmoil in the Conservative Party that could force an early general election. Sunak himself was an early advocate of Brexit – a reason he rose so quickly to prominence in the Conservative Party in the first place – but he has a reputation as a pragmatist and as someone who is focused on the UK’s economic interests. Doing what it takes to haul the UK out of a devastating recession is more important than ideological purity. So, the Brexiteers are naturally suspicious of Sunak and they are a group that he will need to manage carefully.

In this light, it is clear that The Sunday Times article did not portend an imminent change of UK policy towards the EU but was more of a trial balloon. The article came from government sources and the intention would seem to be to announce that it is no longer heresy in the UK to have an adult conversation about the country’s relationship with the EU. The public mood has indeed changed, creating both the space and need for such a debate. Two weeks ago on the BBC TV programme “Question Time”, a prominent businessman said that the UK should re-join the EU; he was loudly cheered by virtually the entire audience. Polls show that 60% of the British public now consider leaving the EU as a mistake. Only 23% still believe it was the right decision. According to John Curtice of Strathclyde University, the UK’s leading polling expert, 57% of the population would now vote to remain in the EU were the referendum to be replayed. A recent poll showed that a majority – 60% –of the British public favours more controlled migration, whereas it was opposition to migration that largely drove grassroots support for the leave campaign in the 2016 referendum.

It has become evident to the British public that you cannot solve your economic problems if you turn your back on your biggest trading partner on your doorstep

What has happened to give the British a feeling of ‘buyer’s remorse’?

In the first place, the retreat of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it impossible for the Conservatives to blame all of the UK’s economic woes on the pandemic and the disruption in business flows, investments and international supply chains that it caused. The Office of Budget Responsibility calculates that Brexit has led to a 4% drop in GDP. Few economists dispute this figure and the UK remains firmly ensconced at the bottom of the G7 table for growth. It has become evident to the British public that you cannot solve your economic problems if you turn your back on your biggest trading partner on your doorstep. This reality is publicly recognised by the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, who has spoken of his wish to progressively remove all the UK’s new trade barriers with the EU; he currently is trying to plug a £55bn hole in the UK budget with a mixture of tax rises and spending cuts. Even David Davis, a Tory grandee and the UK’s first Brexit negotiator, has expressed similar sentiments. May was castigated by the Brexiteers when she tried to negotiate a ‘soft Brexit’ back in 2018, keeping the UK in the EU single market and customs union. This is an option that, with hindsight, most Conservative MPs and the country at large would be happy with today.

With 40,000 illegal migrants landing on British beaches in small dinghies from France this year, Conservative claims that Brexit would allow the UK to take back control of its borders ring hollow. Night after night, the TV evening news shows pictures of overcrowding and poor conditions at migrant reception camps in Kent. As COVID-19 lockdowns have eased and travel has resumed, Brits discovered the inconveniences of being stuck in long ‘all passports’ queues at EU airports and of no longer being able to live and work freely in EU countries. Students cannot study in Europe as easily as before, while UK universities are shut out of EU research programmes. Businesses are losing money because of chronic labour shortages caused by the departure of EU workers and the skills shortage has also affected the National Health Service and lorry drivers. For small businesses on either side of the Channel, increased paperwork, health and sanitary checks or the time spent in customs clearance make it unprofitable to continue with cross-Channel trade.

Perhaps these inconveniences of daily life would be forgiven if the ‘Global Britain’ promised by the Brexiteers had emerged. But it has never been defined, let alone implemented. A trade deal with the United States remains a distant prospect and the much-touted deal with India has not yet been concluded, despite many ministers and Johnson making high profile trips to New Delhi. The House of Commons recently published a report on the UK’s trade deal with Australia from which it emerged that ministers had been so keen to get a deal to advertise ‘Brexit freedoms’ that they had given Canberra unfettered access to the UK market for Australian foodstuffs while obtaining far less in return. A study by the Resolution Foundation has concluded that the UK’s openness to global trade and relative position in global markets such as the US, India and China has actually declined by an overall 8% since Brexit. Last week, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was on an official visit to London and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly gave a speech to stress the importance of post-Brexit Britain strengthening its relations with former colonies in Africa and Asia that are now in the Commonwealth.

Migration, too, cannot be solved without European cooperation

Yet EU membership has never stopped Spain from maintaining close links with Latin America, France – which was recently admitted into the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) – from maintaining its territories in the Pacific or the German Chancellor from recently leading a large trade delegation to Beijing. So, it is not clear to the British public how a post-Brexit foreign policy is different from a pre-Brexit one. During the 40 years of the UK’s membership of the EU, the largest British embassy was always the one in Washington. During the premiership of Cameron and on the eve of the EU referendum, the debate was on how much Chinese investment to allow into the UK and on developing relations with the emerging markets in Africa and Asia. So, the Conservative strategy is often to remarket traditional UK foreign policy under the Brexit label. Plus ça change, as they say.

Events in Europe and on its periphery have also pulled the UK back into Europe. The war in Ukraine, where London aspires to play a leading role, has obliged the government to coordinate more closely with European partners in delivering weapons to Kyiv, training the Ukrainian forces and giving financial assistance. The reorientation of the EU’s energy supplies, as it seeks to reduce its dependency on Russia, has obliged London to reconsider its own imports of oil, gas and liquified natural gas (LNG). The Russian threat to pipelines and critical energy infrastructure, platforms and cables in the wake of the sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines has also heightened a sense of vulnerability and the need to work more closely with Europe. NATO commitments too, as the UK reinforces its presence in Estonia and looks to support new NATO members, Finland and Sweden, means more cooperation with European partners to move the army and its equipment rapidly across Europe. As UK defence refocuses on Russia and eastern Europe, the earlier talk of new UK bases in Asia, logistics outposts in Africa or Latin America, or even of the AUKUS pact with Australia and the US has largely disappeared from the media. The UK Ministry of Defence recently withdrew the 300 UK troops from the UN MINUSMA mission in Mali, acting in lockstep with its EU partners who also decided to leave Mali.

Migration, too, cannot be solved without European cooperation. Sunak has reached out to French President Emmanuel Macron to improve a cross-Channel relationship that had deteriorated badly under Johnson. A new Anglo-French deal has been concluded that will see France stepping up its actions against the smuggler rings operating on the French coast and British Border Force personnel embedded in a new coordination cell in France. One of the few notable things that Truss did during her brief 40 days as prime minister was to attend the launch of the European Political Community (EPC) in Prague. Admittedly this is not (yet) an EU institution, but it symbolised the UK’s need to re-engage with a continent undergoing rapid change and to regain a voice – if not yet a permanent seat – at the table. London even offered to host the second EPC meeting.

Re-joining the EU is less the priority for the UK than sorting out a more rational and mutually beneficial relationship with Brussels

Does this new mood music mean that the UK will try to re-join the EU anytime soon? The answer is a clear ‘no’. The Conservative Party is not about to swallow its pride and admit that it was all a big mistake. It will not want to put another divisive issue on top of all the domestic problems that it is coping with at the moment. The Labour Party is no salvation here either, as it has rejected the idea of a second referendum and wants to move on from Brexit. Its focus is overwhelmingly on domestic policy; last week, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, in a speech to business leaders opposed a relaxation of migration rules and said that the UK should do a better job training and upskilling its own workforce. It is a message that many business leaders facing severe labour shortages might find noble but impractical. London also knows that it is highly unlikely to obtain the type of membership it wants. The old formula was negotiated with Brussels over several years and included an annual rebate from the EU budget, not joining the Euro single currency, a raft of opt-outs from EU directives that London feared would endanger its free market economic principles, insistence on maintaining border controls and staying outside the Schengen area, and a sniffy attitude towards EU common foreign policy and defence policies and actions.

The EU will not want to grant this one-foot-in, one-foot-out status to a member state again, for fear of the impact that it could have on other member states with populist governments seeking to distance themselves from Brussels. Brussels would be looking for clear indications that a second UK membership of the EU was not a tactical retreat dictated by temporary economic woes but a genuine and permanent commitment by the UK to be a European nation merging its destiny with its European partners. It may take a generation of Britons living outside the EU to generate such a sentiment. Moreover, even if London did apply for membership, it is unlikely to jump to the front of the queue or resume where it left off. Already there are ten candidate countries waiting to join and the EU is deep into accession negotiations with two of them, Serbia and Montenegro. So, London might not just go to the back of the queue, which could mean a 30 to 40-year wait, but would have to start the accession and screening process from scratch. The EU has a voice and a vote in this process, something that British Conservative MPs and media commentators often forget as they debate the ideal association options from a strictly UK national perspective.

Re-joining the EU is less the priority for the UK than sorting out a more rational and mutually beneficial relationship with Brussels. The Swiss formula is not realistic here. It is not one that Brussels likes, as it is based not on one single framework agreement but on a complicated knot of sector-by-sector accords that have been difficult for the EU institutions to monitor and enforce, where necessary. There are other tailor-made types of association – the Norwegian or the Canadian models, for instance – that the May government explored in its search for a soft Brexit. At this stage, what the UK government and parliament need is not another technical debate on the merits and drawbacks of a particular existing association but rather clear objectives in pursuing a rapprochement with the EU.

London is frustrated that it has not yet been given access to the EU Horizon programme to fund scientific research

The first is easing the reciprocal flow of trade and services and restoring tariff-free movement of goods between the UK and the EU. For this, of course, the UK would need to align with EU standards and norms – something that business is more ready to accept than the UK government, as industry prefers to produce one product for one single market than multiple versions. Yet the reason for not aligning with the EU, namely to create a low tax, low wage ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ off the coast of the EU mainland, is now a more distant vista than ever. UK business taxes are going up and the workforce going on strike clearly prefers EU wage levels and standards of social protection. UK growth rates and productivity levels are too low to make the UK a target for investment in its own right if it is not a bridgehead to a larger EU internal market.

The second objective should be enabling the UK to gain access to EU research and development, space and educational exchange programmes, provided that it is willing to pay into EU budgets. London is frustrated that it has not yet been given access to the EU Horizon programme to fund scientific research. Last week, the UK government has given £400mn to its own national science fund but this palls in comparison to the €55bn allocated by the EU to Horizon. The UK is also seeking access to the data and imagery of the EU Copernicus programme of earth monitoring satellites. It would like too to join the EU’s space tracking system. Allowing British and EU students to participate in the Erasmus academic exchange programme and UK universities to join research consortia with their counterparts in EU countries should also be a key objective.

Facilitating the UK’s participation in EU foreign policy and defence debates also makes sense. London rejected an EU proposal for a security treaty at the time of the Brexit negotiations. Yet, in recent days, the UK has quietly joined an EU Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) project on military mobility previously opened to the US and Norway. Before Brexit, the UK was warming up to the EU’s common foreign policy and defence missions and commanded the EU’s counter-piracy operation, Atalanta, in the Gulf of Aden. The EU is now grappling with security issues that are also top of the UK’s own agenda, including assistance to Ukraine where the EU has used its own European Peace Facility to finance weapons transfers and the training of Ukrainian soldiers, as well as the work on energy security, reshoring vital supply chains and sanctions against hostile states like Russia and Iran.

The real problem here is lack of trust

Indeed, as reports emerge of some EU countries not imposing sanctions on Russia with the necessary vigour, greater UK engagement with the EU could help to put more spine into EU foreign policy implementation. It would be useful if UK foreign and defence ministers could be invited to participate in EU informal Gymnich-style meetings and to join France and Germany in reporting to the EU on matters like the Iran nuclear negotiations or activities in the United Nations Security Council. Cooperation on terrorism or on the hybrid warfare and disinformation activities of hostile powers can also be on the agenda as inevitably must be China and security in the Asia Pacific. The EU could also propose special arrangements with the UK to enable its military forces to participate substantially in EU-led operations.

Finally, the UK must assure a European future for the millions of UK citizens who voted against Brexit, particularly the younger generation. Those Britons who feel a European identity must regain the right to travel freely, live and work in Europe. The UK will not go back to the freedom of movement allowed under the single market. Yet even the Johnson government recognised the need to have more EU workers in the UK economy and dealt with a shortage of lorry drivers by issuing temporary work permits to EU drivers. So, the UK needs to negotiate an arrangement that allows Brits to stay in the EU for longer than 90 days at a time and to gain work and long-term residence permits more easily, subject to paying taxes in the EU but gaining access to local health services and social security. Reciprocal arrangements would allow more EU citizens to spend time living and working in the UK. A one-year initial period of stay would be better than the current 90 days.

The real problem here is lack of trust. The UK government has given Brussels the impression that it cannot be trusted to stick to agreements even when they have the status of binding treaties. The UK has also dangled the sword of Damocles over the EU by threatening to unilaterally abrogate the agreements altogether as a means of wringing more concessions out of Brussels. This has been true of the current bone of contention: the Northern Ireland Protocol regulating the movement of goods between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland in order to preserve an open border between the British province and the Irish Republic – a key condition for peace in Ireland.

Acknowledging the failure of the ‘hard Brexit’ imposed by Johnson and the Brexiteers will not be easy

Faced with opposition to the Protocol from the Ulster Unionists, the UK government has sought to renegotiate this agreement. The EU is willing to make modifications and introduce more flexible customs arrangements while preserving the key principle of the integrity of the EU’s single market. Brussels has shown flexibility by already doing a deal on medicines and pharmaceuticals with London. Yet a new understanding between both sides has not yet been reached and no overall rapprochement between the EU and the UK is feasible until the Protocol issue has been resolved. There is still a draft law winding its way through the House of Commons to allow the UK government to unilaterally override the Protocol. Brussels sees this as another breach by the UK of international law. Another bill before the House of Commons would also strip all EU law out of UK law by the end of 2024, although it has come under a lot of criticism from business for being overly hasty and in many areas unnecessary and impractical.

So, if Sunak is serious about a reboot of the London-Brussels relationship, he could start by withdrawing these two pieces of legislation. He can set a new tone for talks with Brussels by negotiating seriously and honestly and not manipulating the talks to score popularity points with the Brexiteers or the anti-EU populist press, a charge made against his predecessors. Of course, acknowledging the failure of the ‘hard Brexit’ imposed by Johnson and the Brexiteers will not be easy. The Ulster Unionists have blocked the formation of a new power-sharing executive in Belfast and forced fresh elections because of their opposition to the Protocol. The die-hard Brexiteers in the European Research Group will make a lot of noise. Re-engaging with the EU will be a slow, cautious and step-by-step process. Trust – once lost – is not easy to rebuild. So, Sunak’s political skills will be put to the test as he needs to manoeuvre carefully both at home and in Europe. Delivering on agreements will be fundamental to the success of the rapprochement. Yet the alternative is the dawning realisation in Conservative ranks that an anti-Europe party is unlikely to win elections in the UK as the popular mood changes.

Systematic opposition to Brussels and the refusal to acknowledge the costs of Brexit will only fan further the flames of nationalism and separatism in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where there will be sentiments that local interests and aspirations are increasingly ignored by Westminster. Just last week, the Supreme Court in London ruled out the request of the Scottish Assembly in Edinburgh to organise a second referendum on independence for Scotland without the approval of the Westminster parliament. The leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Nicola Sturgeon, immediately denounced the ruling as a denial of Scotland’s right to determine its own destiny. She added that the next general election in 2024 will now serve as a de facto referendum on independence. Yet, polls show that only 48% of Scots currently support independence and this number will most likely go down if the UK government is able to improve relations with an EU that is favoured by two-thirds of the Scottish population.

In conclusion, we must now wait and see if the EU debate in the UK truly takes off despite the efforts of the Brexiteers to stifle all discussion under the pretext that the 2016 referendum was a once-and-for-all irreversible decision. Democracy must allow for choices and respect for those choices, but also for scrutiny of the results and for revisions, corrections and changes. Sunak was chosen by the Conservatives to ditch the disastrous economic policies of his predecessor and to make the UK once again a dependable, responsible actor for the international financial markets. Let us see if he can do the same for the UK’s closest allies and partners in Europe, too. Unfortunately, there is no going back to the past and damage done can never be fully repaired. Even a UK closer to the EU will have to accept to be a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker for the foreseeable future. But repairing as much of the damage as possible is still a noble and worthwhile political undertaking.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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