In 2015 and early 2016, David Cameron and his officials attempted to renegotiate Britain’s position within the EU. For all the grand talk of creating a new form of membership for non-euro EU members, their key objectives were much more retail: first to secure the ability to control immigration (overwhelmingly the key one); second, to gain some protections for the UK’s financial services sector from new regulation geared towards the needs of the Eurozone.
As we all know, Cameron’s renegotiation failed to secure anything of substance, but he decided to back Remaining in the EU anyway, and then lost the Referendum.
Now, the referendum result was decisive (e.g. in a US Presidential election it would probably have produced a margin of 40 or more electoral college seats), but it wasn’t huge. It’s quite plausible — indeed, it has been said many times even by leading Leavers — that if Cameron had secured a more comprehensive renegotiation, we would have voted to Remain.
We voted to Leave, and leave we will. But if you were part of the collective mind of Cameron’s team, you might with some justice believe that if you could engineer a “departure” that was effectively equivalent to being in the EU but with Cameron’s renegotiation objectives secured, that would not only be desirable from your own point of view (after all, that was precisely what you tried to bring about before the referendum), but also might be accepted by the British public (since it would probably have carried the referendum), at least once it was in place.
That last point (acceptance by the public) is not straightforward. After all, we did vote to leave the EU, so saying “I know we voted to Leave, but now we’re going to stay but on renegotiated terms” might trigger a great deal of opposition, even if those renegotiated terms would have carried the referendum at the time. So one would have to have a public stance of being absolutely definitely leaving.
How, then, to get to a not-really-leaving outcome, but with the renegotiated bits secured? The obvious way would be to say to the British public, in effect “We really, really tried to properly leave, but those beastly Europeans, the rotters, wouldn’t let us. We’re so sorry it turned out like this, but what else could we do? We couldn’t have no deal at all, otherwise we’d all starve and run out of medicine and the planes wouldn’t be able to take off and we’d all die of cancer, and no-one seriously wants any of that.
“Maybe we should have done some preparations to make sure that didn’t happen, but who could have guessed the EU would be such irrational fiends? Now I guess we’ll just have to accept a deal that involves effectively staying in the EU, except with a bit more control of immigration and not participating in the EU’s formal decision-making mechanisms (e.g. in financial services). I’m not sure how we’ll live, but we’ll perhaps find a way to muddle on through, eventually.”
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Meanwhile, those same British negotiators would be saying to the EU “We’re going to leave the EU, leaving all the rules for goods and services and food and fish and migration and security. But we’ll opt back into the ones on security. [Time passes] Oh no! You forced us to stay in the market for goods! Oh, no, you forced us to stay under the common rules for (non-financial) services and fish and agriculture! How masterful you are! How dapper! How stern and resolute and cunning and unified and rule-based! You crushed us with your disdain! We’re so humiliated! The EU must be the most magnificent and powerful and assertive and sexy organisation in the world… What’s that you say? Immigration? Financial services rules? Come on, now – you must let us have some scraps from the table of your victory feast, so we can sell the deal internally.”
Through this route, by a total coincidence, the place the negotiation ends up — with the UK trading its notional “influence” over other Single Market rules (which would have been pretty worthless, anyway, once Eurozone states caucused and systematically outvoted us) for additional control over immigration and financial services regulation — is exactly what the British hoped to achieve from the renegotiation before the Referendum.
Viewed in this light, the “hapless capitulation” of May’s negotiating team suddenly starts to look like a certain low cunning. The thing is, though, the EU isn’t stupid. It may well see through this victory-through-surrender strategy and reject it. If an EU member could secure additional migration control and additional sovereignty for its leading industry via such shenanigans, pretty soon everyone would be doing it.
That means that, just when things are looking darkest for Brexit — for the only real measure of “success” and “failure” of Brexit is whether we actually leave, and as things stand it appears to be our government’s intention to fail to leave — we may, irony of ironies, be rescued by the EU.