In his debut column JAMES BALL explores the dangers of a soft Brexit and the implications for Remainers
Eighteen months on from the Brexit vote, you could be forgiven for believing the UK might be limping towards a finishing line over leaving the EU.
Getting to this point has required a series of humiliating concessions from Theresa May. Where once the EU could ‘go whistle’ for an exit bill, there’s now £40-£60 billion from the UK on the table.
As May came into power, leaving the EU’s supreme court – the ECJ – was a red line, it’s now on the table as the decider of issues affecting EU citizens living in the UK. And when it comes to the issue of the Irish border, the UK appears to have conceded the province could have some form of special status, distinct from the rest of the UK.
On all three issues on the table for the first phase of negotiations, the UK seems to have blinked first, raising at least the prospect of moving on with talks early next year. But here’s the problem: this series of climbdowns doesn’t mean the UK is approaching the finishing line of negotiations – this is what we’ve had to do just to get to the starting line. The race ahead looks exhausting.
Ministers like to talk about the next phase of the Brexit process being a negotiation of a future trade deal, itself a fraught process which will take several years, but in reality, it’s only talking about talks. The next phase sets up the terms of future talks, and the status of the UK during them – what we usually call a ‘transition’ or ‘implementation’ period. The UK has had to make a lot of concessions just to get to the negotiating table, much as Remain supporters warned back in 2016.
The prospect of getting to serious negotiations on our future relationship with the EU raise some serious questions for Remain supporters too, though. The row over a potential special status for Northern Ireland – which seemed like it could even include continued single market and customs union membership – led leaders of other Remain-supporting areas to ask for a similar status. Soft Brexit feels like it might be back on the table. The problem is soft Brexit is a pretty terrible option all-round.
Being in the single market keeps almost everything about the EU which Leave voters disliked. Single market membership requires keeping freedom of movement, leaves the UK unable to negotiate its own trade deals, keeps the ECJ in charge of large areas of UK law, means annual payments to the EU budget, and would require the UK to carry on turning EU directives into UK law.
Even worse, the UK would no longer have any formal say over those rules (though would still be consulted), meaning that for the first time the Leave claim that EU laws were ‘imposed’ on the UK would be entirely true.
This version of Brexit could easily lead to a slow stagnation for the UK, as each time new EU rules affecting major sectors of the UK economy get introduced, the UK has no seat at the table – would other countries really make no attempt to shift things even a little in their favour?
To most Leave supporters, that delivers virtually none of the big reasons they voted for Brexit: no new control over immigration, very little addition sovereignty, and certainly no extra £350 million each week for the NHS. This is the big Brexit dilemma: what seems like the best Brexit option to many in terms of minimising the damage Brexit could do is also clearly the worst for the people who voted to leave.
This risk is compounded when Brexiteers have already been pursuing a narrative of ‘betrayal’ for months. While a cliff-edge, no-deal Brexit would clearly be owned by Brexiteers, responsibility for the consequences of staying in the single market – soft Brexit – would likely be dropped at the feet of Remainers.
Fair or not, this tactic would likely work, which means advocates of soft Brexit need to be ready for it.
Planning for it means a few stages: the first is to make sure soft Brexit is not framed as a great outcome, or the best one. It’s a status which is clearly worse than EU membership, but potentially less damaging than other versions of Brexit. Its advocates should be careful not to oversell it.
Another issue would be to work out how to win over Leave supporters to this version of Brexit, which does nothing to address the reasons they voted as they did. ‘You won, get over it,’ might be a tempting line, but to make the option tenable – and poll reasonably well – some Leave supporters will need to back soft Brexit.
The temptation for many Remain backers, faced with a series of choices they never wanted, will be to leave things to the Brexiteers – but a botched Brexit could sabotage the UK for decades.
Given the government’s wafer-thin majority and cavalcade of crises, getting to any version of Brexit without another election looks like a slog, but the path to a soft landing is still a particularly distant one.