6th January 2020
A new year – happy or otherwise – does not really mean a fresh start in respect of lingering concerns.
And an emphatic general election result, with a substantial majority, does not mean the inherent problems of Brexit have gone away.
The two inherent problems of Brexit are that a complex and slow task cannot be treated as if it is simple and can be done at speed, and that although there is a mandate for departure there is no consensus on what happens next.
And so as we enter the new year, and as we enter this new parliament, those two issues remain; they have not gone away.
But something has changed.
The UK is now (virtually) certain to leave the EU and that departure is set for the end of this month.
There is now no political or legal way of forcing a further delay, although there is a possibility of a delay for logistical or technical reasons.
It is over.
Remain has lost.
For what it is worth, I have always professed to be neutral on the ultimate question of Brexit.
This stance has often been derided, or at least doubted, especially when I am pointing out the many mistakes and misconceptions of Brexiters.
And it is correct that I am not neutral on whether Brexit should be botched or not.
The important word for me here is “ultimate’ – what I am getting at is that I do not care about the formal question of UK’s membership of the EU.
I am more interested in the substance of the relationship than its legal form.
And as the examples of Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, Canada, and so on, show, there are a variety of ways a “third country” can have a relationship with the EU.
At one extreme, there could be absolute isolation: a North Korea in the North Sea.
On the other extreme, there could be Brexit in name only, with “EU plus UK” becoming a standard phrase in international affairs, with the UK and EU carrying on much a before with shared institutions, albeit with the UK technically outside the EU.
Either is possible, as are all the positions in between.
But the important thing is that the new relationship should be, if possible, on a sustainable basis.
The new relationship may need to last longer than the UK’s actual membership of the EU; and it may need to last even longer than that.
Of course, as Remainers become Rejoiners, there is the prospect of a hurried re-entry if the politics of Brexit change.
But this may turn out to be wishful thinking.
And the problem with such wishful thinking is that it could be at the cost of getting a sustainable new long-term relationship.
If Remainers-Rejoiners keep focused on the next heave, others will be going about shaping the long-term relationship.
And in my view, there is something to be said for a close UK-EU relationship with UK technically not a member – and not only in policy terms, but as fulfilling the 52:48 referendum mandate.
There is a good prospect for such a close relationship – but it is not inevitable.
The desire of Johnson not to extend the transition period means that the UK (once again) will be likely to have to accept what is offered by EU.
There is (probably) not enough time for UK to develop a distinct counter-policy.
The withdrawal agreement provides for joint institutions and decision-making, which could be the embryonic basis of the future relationship.
Building a sustainable (but close) relationship should now be the priority for those who care about good UK-EU relations.
Instead, of course, many are going to carry on fighting and re-fighting the 2016 referendum, hoping that somehow the result can be reversed.
Perhaps it can be – nothing can be ruled out – but a prudent approach would be to accept the result, and start working on influencing the future relationship.
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I will be spending less time on Twitter in 2020 as I want to move back into longer-form writing.
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