Brexit realities dawn in UK
Just over a year after a small majority voted for Britain to leave the EU, new realities are dawning on both the in and the out camps.
On the remain side, Brexit looks increasingly inevitable, but on the leave side, it looks more painful than previously imagined.
”It is still a very polarised debate, but opinion polls suggest that a quite a large percentage of people who voted remain now come to terms with the fact that we voted to leave and that it has to be made to work,” Stephen Booth, from the Open Europe think tank in London, told EUobserver.
Open Europe is officially neutral on the Brexit issue.
”There is an understanding, if not an appetite, for the government to get on with the process,” he said, adding it is very unlikely by now that the UK could stay in the EU.
”There is no real way of turning back, in terms of going back to the status quo before the referendum. Too much has been said and done since then – so that’s impossible,” he said.
The only way of rejoining would be on new terms, which would probably mean deeper integration than ever before.
”That is certainly not something that a majority in the UK would ever support,” Booth said.
He said there would be some form of trade agreement, but that it was still unclear what form it might take.
”Given that the UK has made clear it wants to be out of the single market and out of the customs union, and that the EU’s demands are going to be quite high on issues like the UK accepting the EU norms – that’s going to be a difficult circle to square,” he said.
The EU’s negotiation strategy – of agreeing divorce terms first before moving onto talks about future relations – served two reasons, he said.
Firstly, it added pressure on the UK, and secondly, it dragged out the time until the German federal elections have been held in September.
”There was never going to be any serious discussions about the high politics of Brexit until it was clear who was going to be the next German chancellor,” Booth said.
Last hopes remain
The remain camp has pinned hope on prime minister Theresa May’s promise that MPs would be able to take stock of the final Brexit deal before it enters into force.
“The next 12 months will be crucial,” Stephen Dorrell, the head of the European Movement, a London-based anti-Brexit pressure group, told EUobserver.
“The government’s position is that you either accept the revised deal that comes out of the negotiations, or that Britain leaves the EU without a deal, but there is, of course, a third option, which is to stay in the EU. That option is … finding its way back onto the agenda”, he said.
“If the British people wanted to change their mind, then that’s something that they’re free to do in a sovereign country, provided they did so before March 2019”, he said.
The UK election in June, when the British people appeared to reject May’s vision for Brexit, showed that the mood in the country had changed, he added.
He said people were having second thoughts about the economic cost of Brexit and that young people did not identify with the Tory party’s anti-EU ideology.
”We have created economic headwinds, making it more difficult … to raise living standards and improve public services”, Dorrell said.
“Younger people have been born, brought up and think of themselves as Europeans and then suddenly they’re told by the older generation that they’re going to be cut off from neighbouring countries. It challenges their view of their own identity,” he said.
Happy to go
For leave advocates, the chances of a mutually beneficial Brexit deal were higher than the remain side believed.
Norman Lamont – a former Tory finance minister, whose political experience goes back to the days of Margaret Thatcher, the late British leader and EU critic – told EUobserver that the EU would be shooting itself in the foot if it tried to punish the UK for leaving.
“Some Europeans seem to regard trade as a form of warfare, but actually it is for mutual benefit,” he said.
“I just cannot believe that the Union is so irrational as to want to punish Britain. Anything that is a cost to Britain is a cost to Europe,” he said.
Lamont said it would be “disastrous” for Germany if British people stopped buying its cars because of new trade tariffs.
He added that “pharmaceuticals [from the EU] would have a similar problem, that has also to do with patents. Aerospace [firms] would be affected and there would be issues on farming. Don’t forget that the French are exporters of fruit to this country”.
Lamont did not think much of concerns that a hard Brexit could prompt London City firms to relocate to EU financial centres.
He said that if firms did move, they would go to New York or Singapore, rather than to Frankfurt or Paris.
“It is not easy to create a critical mass of knowledge and talent overnight and you could easily damage yourself by trying to recreate something that is not necessarily easy to recreate,” he said of some EU cities’ aspirations to become the new London.
The EU has said it would push for deeper integration after the UK left, in part because Britain had always resisted political union.
But Lamont said other sovereignist states would block that.
“I think they [EU federalists] will find that Poland, Hungary, and others will suddenly be sounding like the British. They won’t be able to rely on Britain to say it [No deeper integration] first anymore”, he said.
He said Germany and France were also likely to clash on a deeper fiscal union.
”I think Germany will never agree to common insurance, banking insurance, deposit insurance – I don’t think it will ever agree to mutualisation of eurozone debt and I think [French leader Emmanuel] Macron is banking on this happening. We will only make any progress on this if he manages to produce very effective labour market reforms in France, which I think is very difficult”, Lamont told EUobserver.
Positions of strength
Dorrell, from the European Movement group, said Lamont underestimated Macron, who recently stormed to electoral victory, and Germany’s Angela Merkel.
“If Merkel is re-elected chancellor, then a Merkel-Macron team with four clear years ahead of them puts the Continent very much at the top of the political cycle,” he said.
He said that a reinvigorated EU could in the future re-engage with a post-Brexit, but pro-European Britain if nationalist ideology, or what he called the “the Ukip tendency”, by reference to the populist political party, ebbed away.
“We’ve already wasted a year,” he said, referring to schadenfreude on both sides over the past 12 months.
“If I were a European politician wanting to avoid a fissure on the continent, I’d be wanting to know if there was any realistic prospect of a dialogue, if there was anybody in Britain actually interested in that,” Dorrell said.
“If we [in the UK] can show evidence there is a change of mind going on, that the Ukip tendency is in retreat, then that opens the door for dialogue”, he said.
He said the prospect of rejoining the EU one day would always remain on the table.
But he noted that “nobody is going to take the issue to a ballot, to any form of ballot until there is clear evidence that minds have changed”.