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.’
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.