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.
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