A new year and a new parliament: what happens next with Brexit

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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13 thoughts on “A new year and a new parliament: what happens next with Brexit”

  1. Thanks once more DAG.

    I have always appreciated your starting from a position of what used to be called “euroscepticism”, since you responded to me once in the aftermath of the 2016 referendum on ft.com (you explained that you were anti-Maastricht Treaty).

    I don’t and can’t disagree with anything you have said, as is often the case, but I do think there is more that can be said in relation to the union of the UK. The fact is, NI has been sold down the river by Johnson’s government. Or at least, the NI Unionists have been sold down the river and have good reasons to feel distrustful of London. Those two facts introduce an unwelcome level of volatility into a delicate situation on the island of Ireland.

    There are also tensions in the position of Scotland in the UK union as well.

    The debate about the future relationship with the EU needs to take account of, and address, these facts as well. Given my perception of the quality of the personnel in government, I have my doubts that this will be the case.

    A happy new year to you and all (or nearly all!) your followers as well.

  2. Thank you again for your thoughtful blog, David.

    We are indeed at a series of crossroads now. It is not in our interests to be distant from the EU, no matter what extreme Brexiteers may think, and that means aligning ourselves to a greater or lesser degree with it. The focus should now be on ensuring that extreme anti-EU rhetoric doesn’t dominate.

    That said, it is a tall order for the PM to call for unity within the country. The aftermath of the referendum has demonstrated that remain views are not tolerated and, like the Civil War, these attitudes have become deep-seated and toxic. The big question is how we can over come them.

  3. Very sensible. An EU plus UK formula would be natural and have many advantages.

    The catch is that the Conservatives have shown no inclination to have a positive relationship with Europe. Quite the opposite. Even the previous government, whose WA had the potential for a working relationship, did not offer eg a preferential migration scheme for EU nationals.

    Labour’s position would offer your suggested arrangement, but they are out of the picture for a long time.

    What could cause the Conservatives to stop being Europathological and switch to rational Euroscepticism?

  4. I share your hopes, but I don’t see how they can be substantially realised without Britain becoming a “rule taker” on customs rules, single market regulations, FoM, budget contributions and EU court decisions. As the EU keeps saying, the weaker the relationship, the fewer the available benefits. This is the costly and unavoidable reality of Brexit.

  5. Three issues emerge from this analysis.
    1) any future relationship is clouded by past one. As any shortfall from previous status quo shows the gap between old and new. This gap is political capital that fuels politics. It is inescapable and it is not remained vs leaver. It is simply a basis to scrutinize any deal.
    2) any future deal, no matter how well negotiated, will be, by default less than existing deal. What can be gained is playing to UK strengths (London and the City) and hoping that can offset losses manufacturing, fishing, and agriculture, and health services. However, that has never been set out in adequate detail nor is it in the broader public mind as obscure by rebalancing the North and other political statements made for campaigning effect and not for what is followed through. This brings us to
    3) On 31 January, 9 of the most 10 deprived areas in Northern Europe will still be in the UK. Up until that date, those areas received money through the EU. In effect that money went there and it avoided any major debates in UK politics since it was part of wider EU contribution. This is now changed. Those areas will have to fight for that money against the demands of London and SE which are the economic engine in the UK. If new relationship plays to London strengths, then by default those areas will get less money despite claims treasury will spend more money in North. In an interesting twist, they will say they have changed treasury spend allocation, because previously it included EU payment to those regions, and now they will get less absolutely even though they will be told and shown they are getting more relatively i.e. relative to old treasury not old absolute levels.
    This means old relationship will switch into north vs south and haves vs have not. The trend is towards larger cities so London will benefit disproportionately so no matter what the EU debate will continue as each vote and budget reflects that reality.

  6. Thank you David Allen Green for a stimulating piece, upon much of which I agree.

    However: whilst true logically that many third country variations exist, I’d be careful about how many are genuinely do-able, nor how much of a bespoke deal we’d get. The trend is for the EU to simplify its third country deals, not add exceptions. See the Swiss renegotiation, on-going.

    I accept that in the short term the case for membership is not carried. However, I’d be very sceptical of the 2016 mandate argument– it is at best a very weak legitimating tool. The process was deeply flawed in framing and corrupt in conduct. We risk sanctifying a dangerous and IMHO undemocratic maneouvre. I have argued this with A Menon, who simply says if parliament wills something, it must ipso facto be ok. I am deeply concerned by this, because what Brexit reveals is that a parliament can essentially massively re-draw a constitution with little restraint and a weak mandate. It’s a classic plebiscitary stunt. Note that neither the Irish nor the Swiss would have accepted the 2016 process as sufficient or well run enough to warrant the changes it will bring.

    I accept that Johnson having won an election strengthens his case to do Brexit. However, this then returns the issue to more normal, parliamentary and party competition, where I think it is entirely legitimate for say Labour to campaign in principle for a return at a future date. After all, it campaigned to leave in 1983, only eight years after a massively more compelling 1975 result.

    Which is not to say that one launches a ‘rejoin now, 2016 never happened’ campaign. Far from it. I agree we need stability and sustainability. But as Brexit was never really about Europe, but about the state of the UK, we have some very difficult days ahead. I think the UK is massively less stable now than any future relationship with the EU can be. I.e. we need to look at the UK’s internal structures even more than any future EU structure. Scottish independence has never looked more likely and further Irish integration of some kind must be entertained.

  7. Very sensible words David, thank you.

    Might the future shape of Brexit be determined more by Mr Trump’s increasingly unpredictable behaviour than anything? I.e. will it soon become necessary politically for our PM to begin putting some distance between himself and the President? The EU may start to look more attractive as a close partner before too long (ironically).

  8. I fully agree. Further the two options are not exclusive of each other: working on a very close relationship is not compatible with a wish to rejoin later. It should make it easier in the future if divergence has been limited.

  9. Happy New Year and Best Wishes for 2020.

    You continue to make a good case for a close EU-UK relationship but mention that there is a “mandate for departure”. Like you, I see no point re-fighting the 2016 referendum but, I would like to explore whether it, or any subsequent vote related to Brexit, has provided a clear mandate for the UK’s exit from the EU. There is no doubt that the EU Ref, the EP election and 2019 GE have been votes for change. I’d say that the 2017 GE was indecisive on both Brexit and UK politics. None of these votes have provided a clear indication of ‘the will of the people’ on the subject of the UK’s departure from the EU. Perhaps that is because none have provided a clear picture of what ‘Leave’ (or ‘Remain’ for that matter) looks like. Certainly, it does not look anything like the ‘Leave’ that Vote Leave campaigned for.

    I must be honest and state that I am not neutral on Brexit. Even if I was, I would still point out that:
    1. 37.4% of the eligible electorate voted ‘Leave’ in 2016.
    2. The combined total of Brexit Party and Conservative votes in the 2019 EP election in the UK amounted to a 39.4% share of the electorate.
    3. The Conservatives won only 43.6% of the vote to gain 56% of seats in the Westminster Parliament in the December 2019 GE.
    4. Some say that >80% of the electorate in the 2017 GE voted for parties committed to respect the 2016 referendum result, failing to mention that each of the main parties promised different, mutually exclusive versions of ‘Leave’.
    So, I am far from convinced that a mandate has been given by the electorate, let alone ‘the people’, for the UK to exit.

    I am encouraged that you recognise the value of a sustainable (but close) EU-UK relationship but disappointed that you suggest that it might be prudent to accept the result and pull together for that relationship. My disappointment doesn’t stem from a disagreement with the logic of your argument but a heart-felt suspicion that Johnson has taken the political success that Cummings has engineered, as a sign that he has a mandate for whatever form of Brexit he decides is best for the UK; whether that’s a close, sustainable one or not. Cummings’ exploitation of the desire and need for change in UK politics really has risked much.

    I can only hope that, by focusing upon the importance and value of a close, sustainable future relationship with the EU, we would reveal that it is not substantially different from EU membership and that we can have the much needed changes in UK politics without exiting the EU – thereby probably saving two important unions!

  10. Yes, the prudent stance now should be to accept that the politics of brexit must be relegated to the past – a past era of political activity that a relative few can be proud of, but that a great many should be thoroughly ashamed of. And certainly not to be forgotten, because it can teach important lessons.

    Regarding what we should start working on, an important and achievable early objective, not directly associated with the future UK-EU relationship, could be to establish definitively the conclusion that direct democracy, via national referendums, is seriously harmful to the constitutional functioning of representative democracy – which is the system that has worked in the UK for many, many years. If the “will of the people” is to try and change the constitution to accommodate both direct and representative forms, that is a task for the people as a whole, requiring a near 100% consensus. However, it is an accommodation that many now realise is impossible, but many others remain to be convinced is impossible.

    There may be a useful role for direct democratic mechanisms but at a local level to decide local political issues, and to serve as valuable input for the elected representatives whose task is to reflect accurately the views of those they represent, in various forums, not just Parliament, and to take decisions in parliament that they honestly believe are in the best long-term interests of all the people, especially those who will not become voters until decades into the future and who are poorly served by the present system.

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