Why it is possible to be neutral about Brexit in principle – and how this may even be a good thing

25th January 2021

Yesterday the question came up on Twitter as to whether it was actually possible to be neutral about Brexit.

The contention is: surely the obvious problems of the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union are such that nobody with any knowledge of the subject could be neutral on the topic.

One could be objective (or purport to be objective) – this contention goes – but nobody could any longer be ‘neutral’.

There is some attractive force in this contention – and it is certainly true that nobody could be indifferent as to how this calamitous Brexit has come about and is proceeding.


As someone who is (or purports to be) neutral on Brexit in principle it seems to fall to me to explain not only why one can be neutral on Brexit in principle but also why it may be a healthy intellectual position that should be shared more widely.

Note here the words ‘in principle’ for they are doing some heavy lifting.

What is the principle?

The principle is straightforward, and it was stated in the referendum question itself:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

The two answers to this question were:

“Remain a member of the European Union”

“Leave the European Union”

The principle is about whether the United Kingdom is a member state or not a member state of the European Union.

And so this is the ‘Brexit in principle’ that I am neutral about.


The ultimate question of Brexit is that of formal membership of the European Union.

That is what the referendum question was about.

But this question of formal membership tells you nothing directly about whether a country is part of the Single Market: some countries participate in the Single Market without being members of the European Union.

And the question of formal membership also tells you nothing directly about whether a country is part of a customs union with the European Union.

It is perfectly conceivable for the United Kingdom to be in an association agreement with the European Union, participating in the Single Market and the customs union, and with shared institutions and mechanisms, without being a formal member.

And depending what happens with the current trade and cooperation agreement over the next five or ten years and so on, that is perhaps what the United Kingdom will end up with.

It may well be that such an association agreement will prove to be more enduring and sustainable than the forty-seven years the United Kingdom lasted as a member of the European Economic Community and the European Union.


Against this view is a powerful argument based on convenience: if the United Kingdom wants to be part of the Single Market and a customs union then it may as well be part of the European Union, where it will also have the right to influence policies and decisions.

There is a lot to be said for this pragmatic argument.

But that is what it is: an argument from pragmatism, and not from principle.

Indeed, after forty-seven years as a member state, there is certainly a compelling argument that any Brexit was always going to be far more trouble than it was worth.

And that is partly why I have been so critical about Brexit: a deep and lingering question of, well, what is the point?

This botched Brexit in practice has been an expensive and time-consuming exercise in placing the United Kingdom in a worse trading position that it was to begin with.

And so yes, in practice, any Brexit born in the political conditions of 2016 was likely to not go well – and indeed the one we had turned out quite badly.



Being able to show how something has gone badly in practice tells you nothing directly about the principle.

And here I admit I am indifferent to all political unions, and not just the European Union: they come and go, rise and fall.

The United Kingdom itself, in its current form of Great Britain and six counties in the north of Ireland, is not much older than the European Coal and Steel Community, the supranational forerunner of the European Union (and on this point, see this post here).

And Great Britain itself is an improvised political union born in the particular circumstances of the early 1700s on this wet and windy island in the north Atlantic, and which has no absolute and eternal purchase.

Political unions come and go.


Whether the United Kingdom should now seek to (re-)join the European Union it formally left in 2020 is now a question which, on any view, is of keen political controversy.

Some will say that in no circumstances the United Kingdom should (re-)join: it is and should always be a (supposedly) ‘sovereign’ nation.

And others will say that, as a matter of principle, the United Kingdom should be part of the European Union both because of what the European Union stands for and because of its substantial benefits.

But there will be others, especially as the hectic political years of 2016-21 recede from view, who will not approach the debate from either of these absolute positions.

They will instead want to work forwards from questions of what works and what are the benefits, rather than backwards from an absolute commitment to ‘sovereignty’ or to membership of the European Union.

And this is where neutrality – as well as objectivity – in commentary is a good thing: nothing on this blog, or my stuff elsewhere, has the preconceived notion of the United Kingdom necessarily staying outside or quickly (re-)joining the European Union.

Of course, partisans for and against the European Union can be detached and objective – both a remain and a leave commentator, if intellectually honest, will recognise the same predicaments.

Not all partisans are hyper-partisans.

But it is also possible – and I aver a good thing – for a commentator on Brexit to not be committed to having the United Kingdom forever either in the column of formal members of the European Union or on the list of countries with other relationships with the European Union.

(And indeed to also not be committed to the United Kingdom as a political union.)

The question is what works in practice and is sustainable.

There are many things not to be neutral about – the absolute importance of universal human rights and the sheer horror of populist authoritarian nationalism – and it may be that certain political configurations are better placed, in practice, in dealing with these things.

There are certainly strong pragmatic arguments for the United Kingdom to be a member of all sorts of international associations.

But on the question of whether the United Kingdom is (again) a member-state of the European Union or has some other (perhaps more sustainable) relationship is an ultimate question on which being indifferent is not necessarily a bad thing.

Indeed, given the uncertainties and challenges ahead for the United Kingdom after Brexit, neutrality on this ultimate question is perhaps better than the alternative of commentating from a preferred end-position.

And the debate about Brexit and its aftermath may even be healthier.  


If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary please do support through the Paypal box above, or become a Patreon subscriber.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, or of £4.50 upwards on a monthly profile.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.


You can also subscribe for each post to be sent by email at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).


Comments Policy

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome. 

63 thoughts on “Why it is possible to be neutral about Brexit in principle – and how this may even be a good thing”

  1. You raise a number of interesting points in this blog, and I can’t – and shouldn’t respond to them all in the space afforded in a comment box.

    The key point, however, must be the weight we attach to the concept of ‘principle’. Fairness is a principle, as is justice (not necessarily the same thing) and any of us may well add other qualities to that list. The ‘principle’ that is relevant in this context, however, is surely patriotism, or more broadly allegiance. Of all the many clumsy and wrong-headed words and actions of Mrs May as PM (soon, of course to be eclipsed in these dimensions by her successor) none, I suspect, hurt more than her accusation that British people who did not place allegiance to the UK above all other values were ‘citizens of nowhere’.

    If, on the contrary, we believe that ‘patriotism is not enough’ and that we have a higher responsibility, to the good of all people, as a matter of principle, then it is possible to argue that membership of the EU, as of the UN and its subsidiaries, is a matter of principle. We may also believe, as a matter of principle that, if we hope to benefit from aspects of the EU such as its single market and its freedoms, we should do so as members – not just ‘so that our voice is heard’ but so that we can fully accept responsibility for its actions, both good and bad.

    This is the point that was never made by Cameron and his campaign, which insisted that membership of the EU was purely transactional. We would lose £X billion, or maybe £2X or more by leaving (probably true) but that invites the response: “As a matter of principle, that’s a price worth paying.”

  2. An interesting and challenging viewpoint. I certainly agree that the leading Brexiteers appear to have taken a concept (mainly a concept anyway) sovereignty, defined sovereignty such that it means that it can’t be exercised other than by withdrawing from all international agreements, and then been utterly unpragmatic from thereon.

    It was interesting that they campaigned both for this sovereignty and pragmatic (and mendacious) things like £350m per week for the NHS and stopping Turkey joining the EU.

    I am not at all sure that promoting any concept into an absolute ends well. I can believe in liberty without believing that nobody should be imprisoned. I can believe in making our own decisions without believing also that compromising with others is a good thing.

    1. But they haven’t defined it as withdrawing from all international agreements, only ones which involve the EU. They are quite happy to support NATO as an example. Other Brexiters are keen to sacrifice sovereignty to trying to become a member of a Trans Pacific Trade Partnership.

      1. I agree. That is because the logic of their position – that decisions can only be made by us, and never by anyone else even when we have chosen to sign up to joint decision making – would require withdrawal from NATO, and therefore they have chosen not to follow their own logic.

      2. Margaret


        In order to achieve what in my experience is the common Leave interpretation of ‘sovereignty’ ‘the ability to make all our own laws, control all our own decisions and have the power to act free of foreign courts & foreign interference’, the UK would have to withdraw from a long list of Treaties, Agreements, Conventions, Protocols etc. etc.

        Of course ‘sovereignty’ lies in the retaining authority to do so, not as a result of having done so, which would leave us a very sad & isolated nation indeed.


    2. Dan

      The greatest irony of the Leave argument, was:

      ‘only by invoking its right, as a sovereign independent nation to leave the EU, can the UK regain its status as an independent sovereign nation’.

      Of course they never worded it that way, or connected the two, but that’s the reality.

      In my experience, there is also a routine misunderstanding over the role of Article 50, which leavers were encouraged to think of as an ‘application’ to leave the EU, somehow conditional upon the EU’s acceptance.

      In fact, the Letter triggering Article 50 ‘gave notice’ as to the UK’s intention to leave, and did not require the EU’s permission to do so.

      If people had understood that difference, they might have understood, had they wanted to, this was a practical application of the UK’s ‘sovereignty’.


  3. I think a more pertinent question (given the problems we are seeing this month) is whether it is possible to be neutral about leaving the single market, given that there is the overwhelming evidence that being in a stable trading block with your closest neighbours is a good thing. Once that is agreed there are essentially two options available to the UK: Being inside the EU with opt outs or being outside the EU with opt ins.

    1. I’m not sure that being inside the EU with opt outs will be available now, certainly not all the opt outs we had before.

      1. Admittedly I don’t know the process of accession. I assume it is possible to join the EU without joining the eurozone? (like Poland and Croatia) And it is possible to opt out of things like the common asylum policy?

        1. Jim

          As things stand, the UK would NOT be forced to join the Euro/Eurozone.

          Let me clarify:

          All new members must commit to joining the Euro.

          However, to adopt the Euro a member much achieve the EU’s ‘convergence criteria’.

          How they do so and when they do so, is entirely at the discretion of each individual country, with no time limit set in the Treaties and no sanctions for not achieving the criteria.

          This is how Sweden still retains its currency. As do several of the 2004 intake.

          Therefore it is an unenforceable commitment.

          That may change in the future, but it would require unanimous agreement for those terms to be amended.


          1. One problem is that it would be hard to run a rejoin campaign on the basis that “we will commit to joining the Euro, but won’t actually do it because we can postpone indefinitely”.

            Domestically, anti-EU campaigners could then argue that there would be no way to prevent a future government adopting the Euro, regardless of any promises made during the campaign.

            And from the other side, would the EU be willing to accept the UK back on the basis of such a campaign? In addition to the bad faith of making a commitment with no intention to follow through, such a campaign would also demonstrate a refusal to commit to deep integration. It would be a reminder of the UK’s often hostile attitude towards EU institutions.

            Perhaps a way could be found, but I think it is important for rejoiners to be realistic about this issue.

          2. Jim Woodwrath

            A pleasure.

            Simon West

            I concur with your point about running a rejoin campaign on the “basis that “we will commit to joining the Euro, but won’t actually do it because we can postpone indefinitely”.”

            I was merely describing the situation as it stands.

            I’m not suggesting there should be a rejoin campaign. Certainly for the foreseeable future.

            Brexit must now be allowed to play out. It’s the only way to know for sure what the consequences will be.

            As for whether the EU “would be willing to accept the UK back on the basis of such a campaign” ? Who knows?

            However, those ARE the accession terms currently in place, which would I imagine need to be applied to all Applicants equally?

            It is for the Membership to decide on whether to take on new Member States, not for the EU Institutions, a distinction it’s important to make whenever talking about such things.

            Hence Bulgaria is currently preventing the opening of EU-accession talks with North Macedonia.


          3. Anthony Cary

            “And de Gaulle blocked us throughout the 60’s”

            He did indeed.

            But as we know, past performance is not a reliable indicator of the future. :-)

          4. Hi Philip,

            > As for whether the EU “would be willing to accept the UK
            > back on the basis of such a campaign” ? Who knows?

            You’re right to query this. I should say I’m no expert. It would be interesting to hear informed opinions on this point.

            > However, those ARE the accession terms currently in place,
            > which would I imagine need to be applied to all Applicants
            > equally?

            Since any member state can block an accession application (as well as the European Parliament), I don’t think one can say that every country gets equal treatment.

            In other words, satisfying the political and economic criteria (the ‘Copenhagen criteria’) is necessary but not sufficient.

            My concern is that a UK attempt to rejoin with the clear intention of staying outside the Eurozone would be blocked by one or more member states. They may feel that letting the UK join in such circumstances would undermine the long term commitment to deeper integration across the entire EU. But again, I’m not expert, and could be wrong about this.

          5. Simon West

            “In other words, satisfying the political and economic criteria (the ‘Copenhagen criteria’) is necessary but not sufficient.”

            You’re absolutely right of course. It should have been self-evident, but I missed the point.

            (Although the criteria in question is the ‘Convergence Criteria’, not the Copenhagen Criteria)

            “My concern is that a UK attempt to rejoin with the clear intention of staying outside the Eurozone would be blocked by one or more member states. They may feel that letting the UK join in such circumstances would undermine the long term commitment to deeper integration across the entire EU. But again, I’m not expert, and could be wrong about this.”

            Given current circumstances that would be understandable.

            However, the whole purpose behind the ‘convergence criteria’ is to protect existing Eurozone Members by preventing the adoption of the Euro by any nation that might prove a destabilising influence.

            One might argue therefore, it would actually suit both the Membership and the UK for us to remain outside the ‘zone’?


  4. My view from the outside, is that Brexit is like a risky business decision and that overtime it might pay off. A prudent business person would plan it carefully and hire bright brains to give it the best chance of success. So far GB has not done so, therefore the prospects of success are narrowing. People in 20 years time will ultimately know whether it was a success or a mistake.

  5. When you enter in to a harmonious marriage, you find that you have a lot of sex, but only a psychopath gets married in order to have sex

    The reason you get married is because you have shared ideals, shared goals, and a real desire to grow closer

    The problem with the UK’s relationship with the EU is that it has always been portrayed in the UK as transactional

    The focus of virtually all discussion has been on trade

    The UK has been the psychopath in this relationship

    1. “The problem with the UK’s relationship with the EU is that it has always been portrayed in the UK as transactional”.
      Well said, Paul, the inspiring existential principle – the founding principle of the Ventotene manifesto – has never entered the Brexit debate.

      Perhaps there’s a reason why the French still often refer to Britain as “une nation de boutiquiers”, or the Italians as “un Paese di bottegai”, probably (and hopefully) not in a derogatory sense as much as a matter of fact.

  6. Hi David, patriotism and EU membership are not contradictions. Look at the enthusiastic members like the Dutch waving their orange flags with patriotic fervour and a self belief bordering if not on arrogance then at least smugness. Perhaps neutrality is by definition an unprincipled for post-Brexit brits. Like Switzerland in the WW2 neutrality may have been beneficial from a pragmatic point of viewed historically it certainly does not look principled.

    1. I don’t think DAG suggested what you have implied.

      One of the things that is happening to the discussion (not here – out in the wider media, eg the BBC) is that it is being taken as an axiom that the UK has gained sovereignty by leaving the EU. It hasn’t. It has exactly the same sovereignty, and has chosen not to pool it. It has less power and less influence than it had.

      In my view, it is more patriotic to want to use your sovereignty productively than otherwise. And that is both a principle and pragmatic.

  7. The distinction between principle and practice is meaningless if it is deployed in support of a neutrality which in practice will make any future decision of principle impossible.

      1. But it is. Your stance on neutrality of principle can only have as a practical effect reducing the capacity of mounting a Rejoin campaign seeking to reverse a decision you have defined as one of principle. Your neutrality is thus at worst a sham, or at best an elegant evasion of the essential issue, unless, as you hint, but do not really make explicit, that issue will be of England and Scotland (and Northern Ireland via re-unification) re-joining the EU as separate entities and not the UK, which I would agree seems unfortunately to be by far the most plausible scenario.

  8. I agree with this – but I have two questions.

    First, you say, ‘there are many things not to be neutral about’. How do you decide what those are? Could ‘internationalism’ be one of those things? Or (given where you start with this) membership of the single market, or the idea that having a close trading relationship with our near neighbours is, in principle, a good idea?

    Second, in the context of the re-join debate, you ask ‘what works and what are the benefits’ (elsewhere you talk about a relationship which works in practice and is sustainable). For whom? I think it makes a big difference if you approach these questions from an individual perspective, from the perspective of ‘the UK’ or ‘the EU’ or their governments or citizens, or from a global perspective. In fact much of the debate is about what the appropriate perspective is for these questions.

    1. Hi Phil

      Nice to see you here.

      My responses (if not answers):

      1. Nobody has an ideological commitment in every possible debate. There are issues which you and me and everyone are neutral about, and which vary from person to person. Being neutral on some issues but not others is the norm. As such, one does not necessarily ‘decide’ which issues to be neutral about. I happen to be neutral on this issue but I am not conscious of ever having decided to be so, and so I cannot give an account of any such decision. On the particulars: yes, I am a fan of the single market.

      2. In previous posts I have set out expressly that there are a number of debates: domestically and between the UK and EU. Just yesterday I blogged:

      “…there are two constituencies that those who seek for the United Kingdom to (re)join the European Union need to win over.

      The first is the United Kingdom electorate which needs to be won over to settled and sustained support for full membership of the European Union (without the benefits of the United Kingdom’s previous opt-outs).

      The second, and perhaps far harder, will be winning over the European Union.

      A belief that once the United Kingdom sorts itself out, that (re)joining the European Union would be straightforward is just a variant form of British (or English) exceptionalism.”

      This blog can be blamed for many things, but it is alert to the fact that there is more than one constituency to be addressed on any post-Brexit debate.

  9. I think your approach works well from the point of view of someone who is simply “British” (and I’m aware that label comes with baggage). But many of us aren’t ‘simply’ anything, or rather are complexly several things. I have Irish, English, French and a smidgeon of Scottish ancestry and am married to a Belgian, have children and grandchildren who are variously Irish, English, Scottish, Belgian and Dutch. I find it impossible to think in terms of anything other than Europe, or to contemplate the degree to which I am cut off now from my European roots with equanimity. This cultural, emotional side of being European is harder to address from a purely pragmatic point of view; moreover, even from a ‘what works’ viewpoint, European solidarity is important to our futures. The wound left by its loss gets in the way of hard headed pragmatism.

    1. “I think your approach works well from the point of view of someone who is simply “British”’ is both false and presumptuous. And because that accusation is false the rest of your comment falls too.

      Rather than basing your comment on your misreading of the identity of the person who wrote the post, your comment could have been made in a better and more compelling way.

      1. Er, I wasn’t imputing mere Britishness to you, merely saying that I felt your argument would play better with someone able to take a solely British viewpoint. And I’m quite certain I could have made my point better; sorry to have riled you, especially as I thought your post was helpful and sensible.

  10. With a research interest in European regulation, I have thought about remaining neutral, but that is like accepting being a subject rather than a citizen. Brexit seems to have gone downhill already as a regulatory project. There are obvious inefficiencies in the ‘red, white & blue’ tape now to be seen, but more so in the departure from the pluralist rule-making framework, and we have yet to see if or how lawmakers and regulators will be able to neutralise extraterritoriality. So, as a individuals, much will depend on keeping up the cooperation with neighbours in spite of UK intransigence, perhaps as a neutral, but more easily as a partisan. Although there is the possibility of transitioning eventually to an association agreement with the European Union, which you mention, the economics suggest that market integration will anyway remove the inefficiencies of institutional fragmentation, perhaps involving much bolder innovation in international frameworks, with the transformation of the political structures of the EU and the UK, new regional institutions for dealing with climate change, and so on.

  11. Well, I guess it is possible to be neutral “in principle” to the question of whether the UK should be a member of the EU or not, just as it is possible to be neutral in principle to the question of whether (say) abortion should be legal or not.

    I’d tentatively suggest that fundamental principles involved in each case are so strong (sovereignty versus cooperation, say, or right to life versus personal autonomy) that the Lagrange point between them becomes an unstable place to stand, once one is perturbed from that theoretical place of perfect neutral balance and considers the practical results.

    The UK long had a reputation in the EU for pragmatism and common sense (as opposed to taking theoretical positions and standing on principle): not letting an aspiration for unachievable perfection get in the way of what is by and large good enough and works in the real world.

    The rediscovered or invented “principle” of sovereignty – that we must stand stand in splendid isolation on our sceptred island, behind our moat defensive against the envy of less happier lands, on our fortress built by nature against infection and the hand of war; else consider ourselves “vassals” of a faceless European bureaucracy – comes at a high cost. I hope it is worth it.

  12. Perhaps considering Brexit in principle risks ignoring the likely consequences of leaving in relation to domestic politics

    The quality of our Vote Leave government has had massive repercussions for the current situation, far beyond our relationship with the EU

    And yet the Trumpian nature of this cohort was clear from the outset, their ‘alternative facts’ approach was never hidden

    The only surprise was the length of time it took them to oust the non-believers and seize power

    I suggest considering Brexit in principle is to overlook many of the inevitable ramifications 

  13. “Political unions come and go.” This implies that membership of any particular political union (the EU or the UK of GB & NI) isn’t in itself a matter of principle. But I wonder whether one’s attitude to particular political unions can be derived by applying principles to the facts as they arise from time to time, rather than being purely a matter of pragmatism. For instance, could one adopt a principle that one should always seek to be involved in political institutions that make decisions that affect ones life – provided that the institutions have democratic legitimacy, operate according to the rule of law and uphold human rights? Another might be that one should seek to strengthen institutions that maximise the chance of a peaceful balancing of conflicting interests amongst different groups sharing the planet? It would be very interesting to read a blog on your views on the principles that you would apply to determining a position on membership of particular political unions (and other international arrangements?)

  14. I don’t understand why participating in democratic decision making about the laws that govern the UK is “pragmatic”. I would think that, if the UK had opted for something like a Norway option (to use the old shorthands), they would have made a mistake of principle, not pragmatism. They would have ended up in the exact same position as before, except without a vote. And that would have been a mistake on principle. Pragmatism and convenience have nothing to do with it. Norway itself is strictly worse off as a result of its decision not to join the EU but to adopt all of its laws, and no one who understands the situation Norway is in could disagree.

    All other possible Brexit outcomes inevitably had aspects of the Norway problem – being subjected to laws you have no vote in – combined with pragmatic problems concerning international trade and commerce. Any Brexit solution either made the UK much less democratic or much poorer, or some combination of the two. Where is the pragmatism?

    1. AFAIK Norway’s decision to be in the Single Market but not the EU does possibly have advantages. One may be that the annual cost of remaining in the SM is less than that of being a full EU member. Another is that Norway, by not being in the EU Customs Union, can make trade deals independently of the EU.

  15. Great article.

    Brexiters, when pressed on the sovereignty question, will express disquiet about being “subject to European law” or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

    The principled problem with various halfway-house Brexits you can imagine (out of the EU but retaining membership of Customs Union and/or Single Market) is that you don’t address this fundamental concern. UK would remain subject to important EU rules, and jurisdiction of ECJ. But, having left the EU, it would have lost its voice in the setting of those rules.

    Personally, I would have preferred one of these softer forms of Brexit post 2016. I think the UK would have been economically far better off if we had gone down one of those routes. But even I can see that the status of being a “rule taker” is not likely to be politically sustainable in the UK for any length of time. Other countries do tolerate various versions of that predicament (including Norway and Turkey). But I cannot see it being a sustainable solution for the UK given our political culture.

    If you are going to be “principled”, you can be in favour of the current status of the UK, or you can be in favour of EU membership, but it is difficult to accept any “halfway” status.

    Dire as the UK’s current situation is, it has the merit of not being capable of labelled “not Brexit” or “fake Brexit”. This is the real deal. The question for the public is whether it is better, in the round, than EU membership.

    To me, the answer is obviously not. But then I was opposed to Brexit in principle in the first place; maybe I am biased. It will be interesting to hear the counter argument, ie that the current set-up is better than EU membership. So far, I’ve not heard any such arguments, convincing or otherwise.

  16. Thank you, David, for trying to lower the emotional temperature and suggesting a practical way forward.

  17. I respect your neutrality, and understand the argument. But you make the point that: ” if the United Kingdom wants to be part of the Single Market and a customs union then it MAY AS WELL be part of the European Union, where it will also have the right to influence policies and decisions.”

    You call this a “pragmatic argument” and a question of “convenience”.

    Surely it is a matter of democratic PRINCIPLE that the government should have the right to influence policies and decisions that will bind its citizens within a Single Market and a customs union? If we choose to be within a Single Market and customs union with our closest neighbours and largest market (which IS a pragmatic decision, I will allow) then surely it is not that we “might as well” be members of the full European Union, but that we *should* be so, as a matter of democratic principle?

    1. The problem with that take is that the countries that are part of the single market but not part of the EU are democracies.

      1. Indeed. And if I were a Norwegian I would be very uncomfortable – (as its politicians are) – with the situation in which the country finds itself. That is why the Norwegian Government has consistently argued for full EU membership, as a matter of principle.

        But Norway is a small country. It could be argued that its situation is just about bearable because its ability to “shape” EU law would in any case be very limited. Also, EU/EEA procedures have been developed to try to limit the affront to democracy (though they are far from satisfactory).

        I do not think it would be bearable for the UK to accept similar rule-taking obligations – and I still see that as a matter of principle rather than convenience.

          1. Yes. I acknowledged them when I spoke of the right to shape decisions.

            You call them “perfectly conceivable for the UK”.

            I do not think, however, the ‘decision shaping’ rights enjoyed by members of the EEA *should* be considered perfectly conceivable for a country like the UK (and I assume that Switzerland stayed out of the EEA for precisely this reason, as a matter of democratic principle).

            That said, in our current diminished circumstances I would swallow my principles (as the Norwegians have) to accept EEA/EFTA as a staging post back the full EU membership to which I think that the UK should aspire. [In practice, I think we are making ourselves rule-takers in any case, as we aren’t large enough to create our own regulatory ecosystem.]

        1. But rejoining the EU would also entail ‘rule-taking’ in a different form, as the UK would lose control over its monetary policy (assuming the UK were to join the Eurozone).

          Perhaps it could be argued that one form of rule-taking is acceptable while the other is not, but this seems to be more of a pragmatic question rather than one of principle.

          (One could aspire to rejoin the EU without ever joining the Eurozone, but it would probably be difficult for the UK to be admitted on that basis.)

          1. Surely it’s only ‘rule-taking’ if you don’t take part in the decisions (for example, if the UK were to join EEA/EFTA).

            Joining the Eurozone would involve pooling our sovereign control over monetary policy (a pragmatic decision).

  18. A great blog and an excellent thought experiment. Among many valuable observations, the key question that stands out for me is “what is the point of brexit”? We need the government to set out *its* vision of brexit.

  19. ‘The ultimate question of Brexit is that of formal membership of the European Union.’

    The ultimate outcome was no continuing relationship with the EU. The No Deal Brexit. The deal has many ongoing relationships. If as it seemed possible, the EU and UK had failed to conclude a trade deal and the situation in Ireland had not been covered by any side arrangement – could anyone still be neutral about Brexit?

  20. Reading Charles Grant’s “Delors” is fascinating – no doubt how strong Mrs Thatcher’s – and Britain’s – position in Europe was 1989-1991 and how little strategic purpose or tact Mrs T used to work for an alternative to Maastricht; she and Delors had more in common than either admitted. Secondly, visiting the Commission in 2006-7 I was struck how officials there felt that Britain was then the strongest of the big Three (peak Blair) – one senior official warned us that if we didn’t have a strategy to offer for Europe, France or Germany would always bounce back and provide one sooner or later.

  21. There seems to be this deep need on the part of a lot of remain supporters for those who supported Brexit to repent and disavow Brexit in any form. It’s not enough, apparently, for them to be unhappy with the end point negotiated by the government; they have to declare that there was never any possible vision of a future for Britain outside of the EU which is more prosperous than within it.

    But by just about any measurable standard, as a matter of principle, this is untrue. The countries with the largest economies in the world are outside the EU. The countries which consistently come out as having the happiest populations with the best work-life balance, include a mix of EU members and non-members. Likewise the countries which have the best track records on human rights.

    There is no single metric which clearly demonstrates any distinct benefit to being an EU member compared to those countries who exist happily outside of the EU. So on this point, it’s hard to see how you could be anything other than neutral. In principle.

    Of course it’s very easy to point to the ways in which the things we value in the UK are safeguarded by being an EU member. But removing safeguards doesn’t automatically mean that those things must get worse. There is no reason why any of the benefits of being an EU member couldn’t have been retained outside of the EU, but for the fact that those making the decisions chose to abandon them. We could have stayed in the single market, we could have retained freedom of movement, we could have continued cooperation on security, science, education, and so on. The only argument is that the UK would be left as a rule-taker not a rule-maker, but even that isn’t strictly true; the EU defines the minimum baseline – any country is free to set the standard even higher if it chose to do so. All we lose is the right to go below those standards.

    Even now, even after everything that has happened, there remains the possiblity that in the future, maybe 10, 20 years from now, the UK could end up in a better position than it would have had as a member of the EU. I acknowledge that as someone who argued fiercely against leaving, who voted remain and am still convinced that on balance we’ll always be worse off. But not because Brexit was a fundamentally bad idea in principle, but because of the UK’s utterly dysfunctional political class; something which has absolutely nothing to do with the EU.

    1. ‘The countries with the largest economies in the world are outside the EU.’ Why focus on a unit of comparability that fits just one version of the observables, in this case a preference for nations rather than economic unions or currency blocs? My understanding is that the EU is the largest economy in the world, with a GDP per head of €25 000 for its 500 million consumers, as well as the world’s largest trader of manufactured goods and services, the highest ranking in both inbound and outbound international investments … and there are other ‘measurable standards’.

      1. Well, I didn’t just focus on one aspect – that’s surely what you’ve done above. But even by that measure, you’re ignoring that the individual member states (which control their own domestic budgets) may fare better or worse. There are many EU member states who fall below that level of €25k per capita; some far below it.

        My point is simply that there is no single identifiable benefit to being an EU member state which can’t also be gained outside of the EU. With the only exception being membership (and thus a voice in) the EU’s various governing and regulatory bodies.

        A country outside of the EU can be just as prosperous as one inside the EU. The benefits of EU membership – even in terms of the direct relationship with the EU – can be attained outside of the EU. The only barriers to achieving that kind of a relationship are those thrown up by the UK’s government. It’s simply a matter of political will. Which is a separate issue to the overall question of whether a Britain post-Brexit could ever be as prosperous as one within the EU. Because on the face of it there are no tangible reasons why that could not be the case.

        The fundamental failing of Brexit was not Brexit in principle, it was a political decision to frame Brexit as an end state which was positive in and of itself. Whereas the reality is that Brexit was a process by which Britain would transition from its current (former) state, to a new one. And the challenge was always going to be in determining what that new state would look like. That’s where everything fell to pieces. But even given where we are today, Brexit need not be a catastrophe from which Britain can never recover.

  22. It seems to me that the closer one gets to neutrality, the more absurd seem:
    a) the amount of time and effort that has been spent on Brexit;
    b) the intensity of drive for Brexit displayed by its advocates; and
    c) the lack of granular consideration of what type of Brexit was desirable, beyond the binary leave or remain.

  23. Interesting challenge. Where I struggle slightly is that “in principle” is a much abused phrase (not necessarily by you in this post). Many things are nice in principle, but when faced with reality, the position necessarily ends up rather different. So the “in principle” argument only has validity if the thing being considered is realistic.
    To make a crude example using a remain/Brexit example, if someone were to tell me that they believe in unicorns in principle, I would not give them much credence because the evidence points to them not existing.
    It seems to me that the job of politicians should be to examine principles which people agree on and work out not only how to deliver them, but if they can be delivered.
    There was never any debate about what brexit should look like, so no serious debate about whether any versions could be delivered.
    And so this leaves everybody to interpret what the question actually means, which unfortunately varies enormously. My own view was that the end result of a yes vote to leave could only ultimately result in a very hard brexit.
    In that case, the principle I took a view on was hard brexit versus staying in the EU.
    Others may take the view that alternative end points were possible, but the plausible end point of the question is critical.

  24. It seems to me that you have assigned any consequences of the decision of whether or not to be in the EU to ‘pragmatism’.

    On that basis, like you I am neutral on the principle. Indeed, the only people who are not are for or against no matter what the consequences. (Such people clearly exist).

    It was thinking through the likely consequences which made me come down strongly on one side of the argument. Watching the hugely damaging result of our decision, and the way it has been implemented by people who only appear to have ‘a principle’ has not changed my mind.

  25. In my mind, the question is how far you can stretch the term “in principle”. There are two aspects to this

    1. Does “in principle” encompass clearly “cakeist” and practically impossible scenarios for leaving?

    2. Is it reasonable to compare countries that have never entered the EU with the situation of a country contemplating departure?

    If you say “yes” to (1) then the phrase loses any meaning because you’re taking impossible scenarios as seriously as possible ones. This kind of impossible scenario is the lie sold to us by the Leave campaign. But if you say “no” then the “in principle” idea has to take into account the practical range of scenarios we are talking about, and the benefits and drawbacks of each. Is there a Brexit option that does not involve a net loss?

    The answer to that question ultimately depends on what you value most, and so there is no objectively right conclusion. But in the tradeoff between sovereignty and ease of trade (which is how the debate has to be rationally framed) the fact is that living next door to a much larger economic power means that our political freedom of action is de facto curtailed whatever de jure arrangements are made regarding our sovereignty.

    The logical consequence is that our trading arrangements should have a much greater weight in the consideration. And here is where we have to address question (2). Unlike the other non-EU European countries, we have been members of the EU for nearly 50 years and members of the single market since its foundation 27 years ago. Our economy has adapted to that status. To erect trade barriers is to cause great disruption which the other countries will not suffer because they are not attempting to move backwards, they are already adapted to their present state.

    The least disruptive Brexit would have been to remain in the single market & customs union. But that would have provided a noticeable reduction in our political freedom of action in that outside the EU we would have little influence over the rules by which the SM operates.

    But the hard Brexit we have gone for is more disruptive and will remain so even once the software systems for customs declarations have been sorted out, and yet our freedom of action may still be circumscribed – we will have little influence over the evolution of the EU and little opportunity to strike more advantageous trade deals independently.

    So is an “in principle” neutrality sustainable when there are no practical options that would justify it? I would suggest no.

  26. I think being neutral on political unions is fair enough because political unions, as a general category, are beside the point. They aren’t the thing that really matters. What really matters for individual liberty and economic well-being – making the assumption that those are the big things we should take a principled stand to achieve – is achieving dispersal of power as opposed to concentration of power.

    I would argue that one should take a principled stand against concentration of power. It is not something one should be neutral on. In case of any proposal for any specific political union creation or dissolution proposal, what matters for me is whether it reduces the concentration of power. Since I believed that being in the EU had a tendency to disperse power, it was not over-centralised, I am/was happy for Britain to be in it. I was against Brexit because it concentrates power in a way that is bound to be used to the advantage of those in power and against the rest of us. On the other hand, the Soviet Union was bad because it acted as a concentration of power, not a dispersal of power.

    My opinion on this is strongly formed by the book https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Why_Nations_Fail. The main criticism of this book is that it is excessively focused on the one point, when other things matter too. Surely that is correct. But it doesn’t alter the strong demonstration this book achieves that concentration of power is very bad.

    Many people talk about sovereignty as though it was self-evidently a good thing. But sovereignty is so easily a cover for concentration of power. Many of the best things that have happened to this country have been reductions of sovereignty – Magna Carta, The Glorious Revolution, etc.

  27. David.

    I am forever hitting that automatic assumption, one has to be either a ‘Remainer’ (pro-EU) or a Leaver (anti-EU) and as a result routinely have to define my position, which is: ” I am not pro-EU, but I am vehemently opposed to THIS Brexit.

    To explain further.

    I am in greatly in favour of the view, the more that binds nations together, the less chance there is of conflict between them.

    In this, I have no doubt the EU has been an unqualified success. But there is much about the institutions which form the EU that troubles me.

    Therefore, I was not against the principle of leaving the EU If Vote Leave could demonstrate an honest & viable vision of what would replace it.


    While they clearly persuaded enough people to dislike, distrust, or even hate the EU, they palpably failed to produce any such vision.

    Instead, we have a form of Brexit imposed through misrepresention, manipulation & misconduct.

    So, ambivalent l as I may be about the EU and on the question of Membership, I find it impossible to be neutral in any way about THIS Brexit.

    1. I agree. Any supranational organisation (or indeed any political party) will be good and bad at times. THe EU is no exception. Only true tribal believers see nothing wrong in their party’s or referendum position. But this Brexit has produced the worst of all worlds with no saving graces.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.