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The current public debate on Brexit is hobbled by flawed language and largely irrelevant distinctions. Commentators ask whether most Cabinet ministers are swinging behind a “soft” or “hard” Brexit, even though a “soft Brexit” (staying in the Single Market and, apparently, also the Customs Union) is impossible and a “hard Brexit” (leaving the EU immediately, by repealing the 1972 Act and resiling from the EU Treaties, without seeking any new trade agreement with the EU) is favoured by almost precisely no-one. Debating whether we should pursue the impossible or the inconceivable is not productive.
Again, in respect of any new trade agreement with the EU folk ask if we should pursue a Norway-type, Canada-type, or Swiss-type deal. But the UK’s deal has no chance of being remotely similar to any of these. It’s like asking whether we want our military forces to be more like Caesar’s army, Cromwell’s army or Emperor Palpatine’s army. It’s just not a productive basis of analysis.
Third, talk of “access” to the Single Market is hopeless on both sides. One set of people use the term “access” as if the only way to sell anything to businesses and consumers in Single Market countries is to be a member. The other set say “everyone has access to the Single Market” as if being a member of the Single Market made no difference and as if everyone who isn’t a member of the Single Market has the same “access” (e.g. as if the US and Turkey have the same “access”). Talk of “access” made some sense during the referendum debate, when one was trying to convey the idea that we would still trade with the EU even after we left. Now we are definitely leaving, so we will definitely not be members and definitely will have access in some form, talk of “the need for access” is just empty – there’s no question of our not having access, so saying we need it is pointless.
What we do need is a new language and a new set of distinctions, so we can debate Brexit properly. Here are three.
Do we want a new geopolitical partnership, and if so with whom?
The first question for debate is this. We are leaving the EU, our main geopolitical partnership. When we leave, should we seek some new geopolitical partnership to replace the EU or do we prefer, instead, to rely on the rich web of diplomatic, commercial and social connections the UK built up over centuries even before it joined the EEC? Are NATO, the Commonwealth, the WTO, the Anglican Church, the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Patent Organisation and the rest enough?
Part b of this first question is the following. If we think we might want to pursue a new geopolitical partnership to replace the EU, is that a new geopolitical partnership in Europe – perhaps a new partnership with the EU or perhaps beyond the EU to other European countries or perhaps with other countries that will follow the UK out of the EU? Or is it a new geopolitical partnership outside the EU? Perhaps focusing on Europe made sense in the age of the Warsaw Pact – Western Alliance standoff, but for tomorrow’s world we need some new partnership with someone else entirely?
We really need to make some progress in debating this question before we can begin to work out what we want to do with the EU post-Brexit. Journalists should make sure they understand where politicians and other commentators stand on this question before they inquire about others, because where people stand on other questions is likely to be determined very significantly by where they stand on this.
If you want some terms to describe these three options, we can call them the “UK-only” option, the “New European Partnership” option and the “New non-European partnership” option.
Which sectors are the priority in trade negotiations, either with the EU or with non-EU countries?
In the Single Market, we face no tariffs on exports to our EU partners and there is a commitment, in principle, to strip away other non-barriers to trade in all other sectors. Our political debate is thus used to the key distinction having been: trading within the EU means no (intended) barriers; trading outside means barriers. Maybe there is a bit of a distinction grasped between “goods” and “services”. But beyond that very broad brush, the sector the goods or services come from that are being traded is in general only of secondary interest.
But once we leave the EU, that blanket idea that all sectors are, in principle, to be regarded the same will lapse. Global trade and global trade deals involve very different kinds of arrangement in different sectors. When we leave the EU, neither the EU nor the rest of the world will treat our beef and our motor cars in remotely the same way. Neither should we assume that the same principles will apply to trade in financial services and in IT, let alone the same detail.
Before one starts to think about it, the natural assumption might be that the sectors that are the priority are those in which most people are employed in the UK, or that have the highest volumes traded. But it only takes a moment’s thought to see that that is not obvious at all. It might be that trade in the largest sectors is the least controversial or that it would face little to no barriers even without any negotiation. Then the priorities might be the sectors where negotiations would be hardest.
Another possibility is that certain sectors are very politically important in the UK, say because the firms involved tend to be located in depressed areas or because the firms are much the largest employers in the regions where they are based.
A third possibility is that certain existing trade deals or deals that are likely to come quickly already favour certain sectors, so the focus for new trade negotiations might be on other sectors so as to spread prosperity and to be politically fair.
Accordingly, debate should no longer be about whether we should “seek a deal” with the EU or non-EU countries but, rather, whether we should prioritise a deal over, say, cars or financial services or IT or agriculture? And are politicians willing to trade a better deal in some sector for a worse deal in another? Are they prepared to justify doing that to representatives of the worse-treated sector?
When immigration is controlled, will that restrict numbers only for particular types of immigrant or when there is particular pressure on the system, or is the intention to significantly restrict migration on a long-term basis?
Reflecting the nature of the EU, a key debate has been whether immigration should involve free movement or whether numbers should be materially restricted over time – as if the only options were open borders or low numbers. Well, since we are leaving the EU (and the Single Market), we will no longer have open borders with the EU (though we might yet have open borders with non-EU countries). The question then is not really “will we have open borders or cut numbers”. Instead, the question is over what “controlled borders” is intended to mean.
One kind of controlled border is a quota. We could say: Anyone from the EU (barring criminals etc.) can come in, no questions asked, if you are among the first X applicants per year. Beyond that you have to fill in a form and show why it would be valuable to us to let you in according to some criteria we’ll call Y. The key question in such a system is “How do we set X and Y?” Is the idea of X that it is set high enough that, most of the time (say, most years) everyone who applies gets in and it’s only if there is some spike in applications that we start to worry about Y at all? (This would be some variant of an “emergency break” system.) Or is the idea that X is set so low (perhaps even at zero) that most (or even all) applicants have to prove their value?
When we come to Y, the key question is are the criteria fairly relaxed, so that it is only a few sorts of applicants we are trying to exclude (e.g. perhaps those with no job and not much prospect of getting one), or are they intended to be stricter so only a few applicants (e.g. perhaps some workers with particularly difficult-to-secure skills) are allowed in? Or something in between?
Details of implementation – e.g. is it a points system or are the criteria set in some other way – can be of some political interest, particularly if the system is seen to be cumbersome, unfair or ineffectively enforced. But before we get to those details, the first and key distinction is whether the overall intention of the system is that numbers should be generally restricted (so, in most years a non-trivial number of potential immigrants are turned away) or is it that numbers should only be restricted at peaks or sudden spikes?
The three sets of issues I have explored here are of course not the only important questions to debate about Brexit. But they do seem to me to be three areas in which our current political debate is confused and the common terms and distinctions drawn in the media are unhelpful. I hope I’ve aided in addressing that, just a little, here.