31st January 2020
Today is the last day of the United Kingdom being a member state of the European Union – at least for some time, if not forever.
That said, there is remarkably little that will change immediately.
This is thanks to the selfless and deft actions of many Members of Parliament – many of whom no longer have seats – in ensuring the United Kingdom averted a “no deal” Brexit.
Because of elaborate withdrawal arrangements – the hidden wiring of Brexit – there will be substantial continuity until at least 31st December 2020.
This hidden wiring will allow Brexit supporters to revel in the lack of immediate adverse effects – even though many Brexit supporters opposed the withdrawal arrangements as long as possible.
In a way, they have managed to have their cakes and to eat them.
But the lack of sudden drama does not rob today of all significance.
For today is the day when the referendum mandate is discharged, and things can start afresh
The referendum question back in June 2016 was:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
And at 11pm today, local time, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union.
Of course, some Brexiters insist there is a lot more to the mandate than the simple question of membership: taking back control of money, laws, borders, and so on.
But such things must be written in invisible ink, because the referendum question does not expressly include them.
The referendum question as posed was on membership alone.
And at the end of today the United Kingdom will no longer be a member.
There are those – perhaps they are already typing comments below – who will dispute that the referendum was capable of giving rise to a mandate, or will aver that the mandate was invalid because of corruption and illegalities.
As a “mandate” here is a political rather than a legal concept, this is an argument without end – and it is now an argument without any point.
To the extent that there was doubt as to the political validity of the 2016 referendum the December 2019 general election result has settled the matter.
No doubt, like a Civil War re-enactment society, there will be those who sill want to re-fight – even re-litigate – the 2016 referendum.
But to those it must be said there are real political battles – battles the outcomes of which are very much up for grabs – ahead.
There is now a clean battlefield.
And that is because the mandate has been discharged.
When a mandate has been discharged, it comes to an end.
The thing which was mandated has been done, the mandatory order is fulfilled.
And when a mandate comes to an end, it has no further purchase.
The United Kingdom’s future as not a member state of the European Union is capable of having many shapes and forms.
The only requirement is that the United Kingdom not be a member state of the European Union.
These outcomes can range from the united Kingdom becoming the North Korea of the North Sea…
…to a relationship so close to the European Union that, but for the technical legalistic question of actual membership, is remarkably similar to the current position – even on freedom of movement.
And between these two positions are an infinite number of other possible arrangements.
The referendum result, in and of itself, does not rule out any one of these non-membership outcomes.
Here the speech this week of Michel Barnier is the most important development of the week – other than the fact of departure.
The EU is proposing an Association Agreement – which means common institutions and processes.
And because of Boris Johnson’s insistence on there being a relationship deal in place by the end of this year, the case for such an agreement is compelling – as it will remove the need for bespoke co-decision, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for different areas.
Every regulatory and structural issue can then be handled within the Association Agreement’s framework.
And in turn the structure, institutions and processes of the Association Agreement can then provide a sustainable basis for a long-term relationship between the United Kingdom and European Union.
(A relationship that can endure until and unless a later political generation ever has an undisputed mandate for the United Kingdom to rejoin.)
Nothing here should be a shock – for all this is set out in the Political Declaration , accompanying the Withdrawal Agreement.
And the embryonic institutional apparatus is provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement.
Both of which have been endorsed by by the government and its Brexit supporters.
(Though they may not have read and understood what they were signing up for, as with the earlier joint declaration.)
Of course, there is no inherent reason why at the end of this year the Withdrawal Agreement will morph seamlessly into an Association Agreement.
But there is no inherent reason why it will not either.
Both outcomes are now perfectly possible, as are many others.
And that is because today the mandate has been discharged, and things can start afresh.
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