By John Mills
Why are the Brexit negotiations looking so difficult? The fundamental answer is that the people who run the country – the political elite – have never fully accepted the result of the June 2016 EU referendum.
Most of them still pay lip-service to the way the vote went but in practice they are working for a Brexit which is so soft as to be almost indistinguishable from continued membership. Unfortunately, whether or not this could be squared with the referendum result, they are seeking an outcome which is unlikely ever to materialise on anything like reasonable terms for the UK.
Throughout the current negotiations the EU27 has never been willing to accept the significant derogations from the Single Market and the Customs Union which a very soft Brexit would entail - and for good reasons from their perspective. Both the Single Market and the Customs Union have been created over a long period, involving compromises and a delicate balance between the interests of all their constituent member states. The primary concern of the EU27, as Michel Barnier, their negotiator, has repeatedly made clear, is to preserve the Single Market’s and the Customs Union’s security and stability. Making significant concessions to suit the UK’s interest is not part of his brief.
How could we have avoided getting caught the trap we are now in, involving making concession after concession to get the talks on substantive issues, particularly on trade, under way? The UK should never have agreed to the EU27’s negotiation sequence, bogging down on Ireland, money and citizenship, before anything else could be discussed. Instead, we should have started by telling the EU27 that we were willing to trade with the EU on WTO terms – but with the intention of this being replaced with a free trade deal covering all industrial goods and as many services as possible. At the same time, we should have made it clear that we would withdraw from the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy, and expand our trade links outside the EU as quickly as we could.
The UK would then have been out of the Single Market and the Customs Union, in control of our borders, no longer liable to pay large net sums to the EU every year, outside the control of the European Court of Justice except where we might agree that it made sense for this to be allowed, and free to strike our own free trade deals. This could have been combined with our maintaining relationships with the EU27 in all the many ways in which it makes sense for us to co-operate – but on an inter-governmental basis rather than as part of a political project. This would have provided nearly all UK exporters with access to the EU27 market on only slightly more complicated terms than exist at the moment. It would have been an outcome which satisfied Leavers while providing Remainers with most of what they cherished most deeply.
None of this happened partly because of concessions made by the UK at an early stage on the order in which the Brexit negotiations were to proceed, but much more crucially because of the outcome of the June 2017 general election. Any possibility of the UK being content to trade on WTO terms disappeared once it became clear that there was no the parliamentary majority for this course of action. This left the UK with no fall-back position if the EU27 suggested unreasonably harsh terms, - a looming prospect which we are now in grave danger of sustaining - as all the cards fell into the EU27 negotiator’s hands.
The Prime Minister’s Mansion House speech showed that the government is still intent on trying to achieve a Brexit negotiation outcome which combines UK access to the Single Market, outside the Customs Union, with a relatively frictionless border. It is trying to generate sufficient goodwill among the EU27 to make this possible, without the UK having any of the leverage needed to make this outcome one which the EU27 have little alternative but to accept.. The problem then is that the deal eventually on offer from the EU27 may be so poor that a combination of dissatisfied Tories plus nearly all the Labour Party may vote it down.
The reason why we may face this predicament is that Parliament reflects much more accurately the views of the London political elite than those of a majority of people in the country. Most of these people feel unable to ignore the outcome of the June 2016 referendum, saying that they accept the result, while being unwilling to do what needs to be done to make effective the decision then taken. This is why we face the prospect of being nominally outside the EU but in practice under its control, still paying heavily for the privilege but with no say on the way it develops. This is hardly what the 17.4m people who voted Leave in the EU referendum wanted or thought they were going to get.