Why we should expect a poor Brexit, and why we’ll survive and thrive afterwards

Most of those voting in the referendum wanted to leave the EU, but most of those in charge of the country wanted to remain. Most are therefore trying to enact something they don’t really believe in. When humans (and I loosely include MPs in that category) make strong commitments to a position (“remain”), it is extremely hard for them to back down and work hard for the opposite. At the end of the day, a successful Brexit means they were wrong, and humans prefer to reinforce their positions rather than attack them. So emotionally it will suit a lot of those in charge of delivering Brexit if it turns out to be a bad result, because it shows they were right all along.

Don’t get me wrong: the same would be true in reverse. I’m human too. This is human nature, albeit very unfortunate in these circumstances.

Then there was that disastrous election fought by Theresa May (and almost nobody else) on a platform to deliver on Brexit (without any details), which was easily countered by Labour also promising to deliver on Brexit (with more but contradictory details, essentially promising to end free movement while retaining it, to stay in the single market while exiting it, etc). In reality only the Lib Dems had an anti-Brexit stance (and did badly); the two main parties gave nothing of substance on Brexit and the election was fought by Labour on other issues, and not at all by the Tories, resulting in a hung parliament. This makes getting anything through parliament that much harder.

But the biggest problem is the EU. Despite utterances to the contrary their actions have throughout been clear: If we’re nice to the UK then others might follow, so we mustn’t play nice. EU: “We want €60bn divorce settlement!” UK: “You’re having a laugh mate!” EU: “In that case we want €100bn!…”

As I’ve said elsewhere, Brexit could, should, and (I believe) ultimately will work to the benefit of both the UK and the EU. But the EU aren’t playing that game, nor are they going to over the next two years.

The stupidities of the €100bn figure are multiple. Firstly there’s no legal basis for any figure at all. There’s certainly no legal basis for one that high – as has been confirmed even by those in the EU, yet it won’t go away. It appears to include all UK liabilities (often inflated or unexplained), but takes no account of UK assets. It appears designed to make a lesser figure (say €40bn) seem reasonable, but only serves to cause tension and to set expectations on the EU side that will be dashed even if €40bn were agreed upon.

Secondly, bearing in mind that this is supposed to be about existing UK commitments, the higher the “bill” the greater the justification for Brexit in the first place. If we’ve already committed to €100bn of EU spending, then that makes that £350m/wk bus-side figure (<€20bn) seem pretty insignificant. In other words, that’s (by definition) €100bn we’d already committed to and would have paid if we stayed in too, so getting out saves further similar figures in the future.

Thirdly, it frames the whole debate wrongly. It leads to divorce analogies (which is silly in this context: if this were a divorce we’d take the whole EU+UK assets and split them down the middle; the idea that somehow the UK are so much stronger than the rest of the EU that they need €100bn of support from us is ludicrous). We should be trying to part as friends.

But framing is all, it seems. The UK wanted to agree the rights of UK/EU nationals before Christmas, but were blocked by the EU from doing so (not until after Article 50, then nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and now in direct contradiction nothing can be agreed until the bill has been agreed). Yet the EU like to portray the UK as the bad guys here. The EU insist on ECJ juristiction over any agreement (which they don’t have over any other deals between the EU and other independent nations); the only argument that could be made for this is if the UK retains influence over the ECJ, which would be absurd.

And in the end this is why negotiations will continue to go badly and why the deal (if there even is one) will be rubbish. It’ll be crafted by people who in many cases have reason to see it fail, then voted on by far more who want it to fail.

And yet…

This whole process will do more damage to the EU than to the UK. The UK is quite capable of standing up to bullies, and the EU attitude will crystallise opinion towards the Leave side far more than any referendum could have done. In the meantime, businesses will get on with life. If we don’t get a good trade deal then it’ll be German car makers who lose out more than UK ones, and the UK will be free to take whatever approach it likes where the German government will be constrained within the EU frameworks. And at least Germany has a strong say over those frameworks; the lesser countries that face similar issues will have fewer choices.

In the last election, Jeremy Corbyn was able to capitalise on Theresa May shooting herself in the foot at every opportunity. This is a big factor in why we go into the negotiations weaker than we should be. But yet the EU are following TM’s strategy and shooting themselves in the foot, albeit in a longer term and less obvious way. The UK will, in that same longer term, benefit immensely at the EU’s detriment.

It shouldn’t be this way. Whilst it is, I firmly believe that the UK will come out of it more strongly than the EU. But this isn’t a zero-sum game; both sides can win here. It therefore gives me no pleasure to believe I am on the only winning side.

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