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Brexit and Article 50 negotiations: what it would take to strike a deal

In the end, the decision for the UK to formally withdraw its membership of the European Union passed with a reasonably comfortable majority in excess of 1¼ million votes. Every one of the 17.4 million people who voted Leave would have had their own reason for wanting to break with the status quo. However, not one of them had any idea as to what they were voting for next. It is one of the idiosyncrasies of an all-or-nothing referendum that you can campaign wholeheartedly against the reproduction of existing conditions whilst sidestepping altogether the responsibility of saying what you would put in their place.

And so we arrive at where we are now, but where that is precisely is anyone’s guess. The full implications of Brexit will not be known until after Article 50 has been formally triggered, the UK announces the role it envisions the EU playing in its new mode of insertion into economic globalisation, and the European Commission and European Council of Ministers confirm whether they find that role acceptable.

In the meantime Theresa May and her economic ministers have tried to govern through reassurance. They have been repeatedly signalling to the rest of the world that the UK remains open for business and that the existing outward-facing orientation of the economy will not change. Indeed, on strictly economic matters they are hinting that they will be asking for something approaching the status quo mark two. This is what the Government thinks powerful economic interests want to hear. British businesses that trade overseas certainly do not want to relinquish their current priority access to the EU’s half a billion consumers; many foreign direct investors only set up in the UK in the first place because of the right of free entry into the European single market; and UK-based banks want to retain the ‘passport’ rights that allow them to operate without restriction across the EU. If they are all to get what they want out of the Article 50 negotiations, then the globalisation of the UK economy in the post-EU era will need to look remarkably similar to the globalisation of the UK economy prior to 23rd June. Yet this would come as a mighty disappointment to many Brexit voters who have felt let down by the preceding elite consensus in favour of a globalisation that they have experienced as accelerating economic insecurity.

It therefore appears that the route to a deal passes through something that proved impossible during the referendum campaign itself. The May Government needs to know what it wants to ask for before invoking Article 50, but irrespective of what that turns out to be it seems to require reconciling fundamentally irreconcilable positions. The UK is currently economically divided to such an extent that the image of a gaping chasm is hard to dismiss. There are those who do so badly out of the current mode of insertion of the UK economy into globalisation that the EU referendum became their sole means of crying, ‘Enough!’ There are also those who do so well out of the existing state of affairs that they are likely to simply walk away from the UK if things change too much. The choice for the May Government is either to ignore the claims of the former group, which would leave it vulnerable to the accusation of acting as if the referendum had never happened, or to ignore the claims of the latter group, to which it is closely aligned politically and otherwise lionises as the country’s indispensable ‘wealth-creators.’

EU sign
EU United Kingdom problem by Elionas2. Public domain via Pixabay.

It is therefore highly unlikely that everyone will receive the outcome that they think reflects what they voted for on 23rd June. Perhaps this is merely the nature of an all-or-nothing referendum, but it does back the May Government into a corner. It is inconceivable that it will present as its favoured negotiating position something that does not feel like a definitive Brexit, because the Prime Minister will be eager to keep off her back the unholy trinity of UKIP nativists, her own rowdily anti-European backbenchers, and the country’s right-wing media tycoons. In relation to continued access to the European single market, though, she will hope that she can pull off the smoke-and-mirrors trick of negotiating something that feels like a definitive Brexit but in practice does not act like it.

However, the omens are not promising. Access to the single market that replicates an EU member’s terms of entry comes with significant costs attached.

In the most straightforward sense it is necessary to pay what might be seen as a subscription fee for those terms. Current precedent suggests that the fee will be almost as high in per capita terms as the contributions that the UK has recently been making to the EU budget as a full member state that has a guaranteed seat at every decision-making table. As so much fuss was made during the referendum campaign about how much money Brussels siphons off from London, the subscription fee for full access to the single market is likely to be a deal breaker on its own. This is before anyone from the UK Government begins to talk to Commission officials about finding a common ground on single market access, which the latter have already made clear will entail accepting the existing treaty obligation to respect the free movement of people. They have appointed to the role of chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier, a two-time Commissioner with the reputation throughout Whitehall as a hard-core federalist. This will ensure that treaty obligations will not be up for discussion from the Commission’s side. At the same time, however, May has already signalled that she is interpreting the referendum result as a decisive rejection of the principle of the free movement of people.

It thus becomes prudent to contemplate that there might be no available compromise between competing visions about the preferred way ahead.

Featured image credit: Chess king match by SteenJepsen. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Joe Thorpe

    It was made quite clear from Cameron that it was all in or all out. No in between, no extra negotiation & re-vote. Out would be out with no going back So it strikes me that we didn’t care what we faced down the road we just wanted out. We wanted a return to being able to elect people like Jeremy Corbyn if we wanted to & then for him to have a free hand to carry out his agenda which will never be the case by our being governed by people & their party which never appeared on a ballot paper in the UK. The EU is run by a Politburo, you can’t even be a commissioner unless you pass the vetting stage to establish you are of the same mind at all those that have come before.

  2. Scott LeTourneau

    The whole concept of “the free movement of people across borders,” has proven to be a signal disaster for European culture. Brexit isn’t about money grubbers trying to save their financial empires. It’s about saving European heritage. Let it happen.

  3. Christopher Blackmore

    “In the end, the decision for the UK to formally withdraw its membership of the European Union passed with a r…”

    Nope. The result of a consultative referendum is not actually a decision. The decision has to be made by our MPs, who are supposed to vote for what they think is good for the country.

  4. chris choi wickham

    With respect to Professor Watson, I find it impossible to agree that a 1/4 million is a comfortable majority in a referendum of such importance to the UK.

    In June, during the lead up to the EU referendum Richard Dawkins commented as follows:
    “How should I know? I don’t have a degree in economics. Or history. How dare you entrust such an important decision to ignoramuses like me? I, and most other people, don’t have the time or the experience to do our due diligence on the highly complex economic and social issues facing our country in, or out of, Europe. That’s why we vote for our Member of Parliament, who is paid a good salary to debate such matters on our behalf, and vote on them.”
    Richard Dawkins, surely, like Bertrand Russell before, a contemporary exemplar of a Great Briton in his search for truth, went on to say after the referendum in July that
    “the bar should be set higher and that the Leave camp should have received much more than 50 per cent of the vote for Brexit to be triggered”, adding that “Another way to guard against flash-in-the-pan spikes is to specify that there shall be a second vote, after a cooling off period: two weeks, say, of sober reflection on the consequence if the first vote for radical change were to be upheld.”
    Dr Dawkins went on to say the the vote to cut ties with Brussels had left the nation ” deeply and venomously divided” and that Remainers would be seen as “good losers” if a second referendum was held and the UK voted to Leave twice.
    He said: “If the result were to go the same way twice, we would all have good grounds for accepting that the people really have spoken their mind and truly favour the huge upheaval that is Brexit.
    “Even staunch EU loyalists would then swallow our misgivings and unite behind a Brexited Britain.
    “We would become good losers, prepared to pull our weight, and loyally make the best of it. Surely a second referendum now is the answer – not after months if not years of angry and bitter words, uncertainty and stress while the terms of exit are debated and quarrelled over .
    If Richard Dawkins has the insight and humility of a great mind to say all this, why dont we heed his words?
    There is a faint chance that good may come out of the referendum because the referendum made clear how divided and unfair our society is but the debate had no mention of the way in which the establishment and media have betrayed us through their arrogance and hoity toity condescension over the years towards the EU or, as Alan Johnson pointed out, that the EU project was essentially a noble one.
    To this writer, at any rate, the Brexit result was in great measure caused by a lie, namely the £350 million NHS Lie.
    Why should Great Britons lie down and be slaves to a Lie ?
    We need to wake up, smell the coffee and demand a second referendum now.
    Why do we have to submit, as is happening with the NHS, to being put on the waiting list and endure worry and uncertainty for months if not years?

    Chris Choi Wickham

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