My colleague Iain Martin, makes many excellent points in his most recent piece for Reaction (“How does Brexit collapse and how does the UK stay in the EU exactly?”). Bascially, though, his argument boils down to this: Brexit is happening. It cannot be stopped. Those who are trying to prevent it are deluded. Any attempt, at this stage, to slam on the brakes would result in utter humiliation for Britain.
He is right on all counts. As a card-carrying Remoaner, I am not overly concerned about the humiliation that would undoubtedly ensue from any reversal of policy. In my opinion, we would get over the shame and derision, which would be of our own making anyway. But, were we to take back Article 50 (assuming such a thing is possible), we would essentially be applying for readmission to the club and could expect to lose a large part of our previous no-claims bonus. The budget rebate, membership of the single currency, adherence to the Shengen accords, acceptance of Ever Closer Union: all of these would be back on the table. The chances of Brussels (still-less Paris) acting out the parable of the prodigal son are just about zero.
However, I think that Iain underestimates the strength of buyer’s remorse that has gripped a large section of the British people. From everything I read, voters are deeply worried that by digging our heels in and rejecting all compromise, the Brexit we end up with will be a pig in a poke. It is one thing to say, yes, let’s get on with it, quite another to pretend that it is we who have the upper hand and Europe that is the supplicant.
What matters now is that we do the job right, which means remaining in the Single Market via the European Economic Area. I am not alone in thinking this. As Iain says in his piece: “More likely [than walking out or getting everything we ask for] is a difficult negotiation and a series of compromises, leading to a three-year transition deal and the EEA and Efta.”
Exactly. If only the Tory and Labour front benches would get off their high horse, Britain could yet esccape the worst of its folly. But will they? Can they? Just today, Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, spelled it out for anyone prepared to listen, specifically, Theresa May, David Davis and Jeremy Corbyn. Unless we remain in the Single Market, British businesses selling into Europe will face hold-ups at every turn. It won’t just be tariffs, it will be safety and standards checks and lorry inspections, and issues with passports. The City of London will be frozen out of its current role oiling the wheels of the Eurozone. Airbus (which on Wednesady secured a multi-billion euro deal with Saudi Arabia) will have to examine the future of its factories in the UK. In short – and Barnier was speaking with the authority of both Angela Merkel and Emmanual Macron – there will not be a “frictionless” border between Britain and the EU. When the cake has been eaten, it will be gone forever.
Which brings me back to the EEA. Under the type of arrangement currently applied to Norway, Britain would no longer attend EU summits or meetings of the Council of Ministers, and we would no longer have representation in the European Parliament, the Commission and the Court of Justice. We would be outside the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, and we would be free to make our own decisions on climate change and the environment. Michael Gove and his ilk wanted rid of all of these impositions. Under EEA rules, they would once again be masters in their own house.
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There is, of course, a downside to all this – chiefly (at risk of repeating myself) that we would no longer attend EU summits or meetings of the Council of Ministers and would no longer have representation in the European Parliament, the Commission and the Court of Justice. Decisions on tariffs and trade would be taken in forums in which we played only a walk-on part. Free movement of labour – the biggest item on the Ukip agenda – would, moreover, probably continue much as now, meaning continued discomfort for Nigel Farage on his way to and from London and Cudham. If that is your principal – indeed only – source of concern, then the EEA option is not for you.
On the other hand, British exporters would be happy; the City of London (our biggest source of foreign earnings) would be ecstatic, and British and European truckers, as well as holidaymakers, would continue to enjoy the ease of movement that is their right today. What’s not to like?
Yes, but what about all those Poles, Lithuanians, Romainians and French persons who have set up house in Britain in recent years, speaking their stupid languages and taking our jobs? Well, according to David Davis, Philip Hammond and Boris Johnson, they are welcome whatever happens – even if we cut and run with no deal. What’s more, we need them. The NHS needs them, Our factories and ports need them. Our farmers need them. And most of them make far more of an effort to learn English that English expats ever make to speak “foreign” in countries that have been their homes for many years.
The fact is, a lot of the sting has gone out of the debate on immigration since the referendum. Without Farage spitting his venom, the British people look to have recovered much of their composure. We need to build on this. We need also to convince Europe that it is not just the UK, but the entire continent of Europe that needs to get its act together on immigration.
I remain an unrepentant Remainer. But, like Iain Martin, I accept that Brexit is a done deal just waiting to be done and that the chances of Britain staying in the EU are practically zero. What we need now is a realisation that the negotiations in which we are engaged are history in the making and that nothing more important for the well-being of the British people will happen in our lifetimes. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the United Kingdom as a proud and independent nation lasts for a thousand years, we can still say: well done us, we made the best of a bad job.