As the date when we leave the EU draws near, three major positions on how we should handle Brexit have emerged. One is to take the withdrawal agreement Theresa May has hammered out with the EU. Another is to walk away from the negotiating table altogether, and leave the EU without any deal. The third is to have a second referendum with the possibility of our staying in the EU after all. The Cambridge Globalist offers arguments for all three of these positions, each written by a member of the Globalist’s editorial team.
Why we should take May’s deal
Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement has been maligned as an attempt to appeal to everyone. The claim is that it pleases neither Brexiteers nor those who voted for remain. However, it is the pragmatic nature of the deal that makes it the best option available to the UK.
The UK voted to leave the EU. As such, any reneging on this would be seen as an incredible betrayal by generations of voters. It is wishful thinking that people will change their minds in any second referendum: polls have shown that if anything people are more entrenched in their respective bunkers.
Therefore the responsibility of the government is to deliver a deal that upholds the result of the referendum and that has a minimal negative impact on the economy. May’s deal strikes this balance by ensuring that we leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of justice and EU government institutions, whilst maintaining frictionless trade with the continent.
Crucially, the deal avoids the need for a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or within the UK. Any deal that started the transition period with a looser association with the EU would mean the UK absconding on its responsibilities to the Good Friday Agreement. This could well lead to the re-ignition of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, any deal that implied a hard border would not be acceptable to the EU and we would be left with a no-deal exit. Indeed, attacks on the deal coming from Brexiteer ideologues that are advocating a disorderly exit from the EU are inadmissible, both because of the negative economic impact of no deal and because of the implications for the Northern Irish peace process.
Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the objections to May’s deal is that they seem to overlook the basic fact that the deal only governs the basic terms of withdrawal. There have been angry demands from MPs that the deal did not have sufficient detail about the future relationship between the UK and the EU, but the future relationship is to a large extent up for grabs. The strength of May’s deal is that it guarantees the rights of EU citizens and a frictionless Irish border during and post the transition period, whilst leaving many options open for negotiation.
Whether you are an advocate of remaining within the Custom’s Union or a looser arrangement based on agreed regulatory standards, the important thing that May’s deal achieves is the conditions for negotiation. The non-binding statement on the future relationship is precisely that, non-binding.
There is nothing inherently objectionable within Theresa May’s withdrawal deal. We can argue all we want about Theresa May’s planned deal, but we are not at that stage yet. MP’s should vote through this deal to get us across the line. It is inevitable that if we are to have Brexit we will need a close relationship with the EU; it is only those who have not yet realised this that oppose the deal.
So far, Brexit has proven immensely poisonous to British political discourse and we require a way forward that can forge a middle way. What is happening in the UK is now becoming comparable to the toxic culture wars of the United States; the huge rifts in society, exposed by the vote and the subsequent public debate need healing. Crashing out of the EU would go no way towards achieving this aim and neither would a second referendum, which would cause immense public distrust in politics. Real statesmanship is about compromising one’s position for the sake of the national interest. In a time of crisis like this we need our MPs to be statesmen.
Why we should leave with no deal
When the British people voted to leave the European Union, three things were foremost in their mind; sovereignty, trade, and immigration. They voted to take back control of our laws from Brussels, not only to free the economy from burdensome and needless red tape, but also on the principle that the United Kingdom should govern itself, rather than be ruled by distant EU bureaucrats who have no connection to the country. They voted for a Britain which unfettered from the EU would be able to strike bold trade deals on our own terms with countries around the world. And they voted to stem unlimited EU immigration to the UK. You don’t have to be a leaver to support a Brexit on these terms – you just have to be a democrat. The only Brexit which can deliver all this is at the moment a no-deal Brexit. There are two options apart from no-deal: May’s deal or a second referendum with the not so secret hope we’d end up staying.
May supports the UK essentially replicating EU product standards post-Brexit in the hope this will foster continued trade with the continent. This would leave us a rule-taker not a rule-maker – we would continue to comply with EU law for fear of losing some access to EU markets. That leaves us with even less sway over EU policy than the minimal influence membership already grants us. Theresa May promised in her Lancaster House speech to end the jurisdiction of the ECJ over the UK, but if as May envisions we end up mimicking EU standards on goods, we would functionally have to obey ECJ rulings anyway.
May’s deal also fails on trade by essentially keeping us in the EU for two more years during which time we cannot sign trade deals with other countries. If the Irish border issue is not solved in that time all the UK would have to become part of the customs union and would not be able to leave again until the EU allows us to do so! That could permanently stop Britain drawing up new trade agreements with emerging economies. If we can’t change EU product standards that would also put off new trade partners. So May’s deal would leave us trapped in a customs union with the stagnating and dysfunctional economies of Europe, like those of Italy and Greece, severely limiting the trade we could rather be doing with fast-growing economies in Asia and Africa.
Finally, May’s deal although it may nominally limit immigration, presents a grave risk of actually not doing so. If the EU decides that a soft border in Ireland entails free movement of people across the border, then EU migrants could enter the UK by such a route.
What about a second referendum? That would amount to a shameful disregard of one of the biggest democratic exercises in UK history. The ‘elite’ of this country may see themselves as citizens of nowhere and see EU immigration a source of cheap workers rather than as competition for their jobs, but that does not give them the right to overturn the will of the people, however much they might disdain it. We need to deliver on the Brexit that was voted for, not stay in the EU or settle for Theresa May’s milquetoast compromise.
That leaves us with a no-deal. Some might predict chaos for the UK economy, but the EU wants access to our markets as much as we want access to theirs. A new, fair EU-UK trade deal would be in everyone’s interests and so is highly likely. Besides the forward-looking, dynamic economies of the world are not across the Channel but in the East and across the Atlantic – they are who we should be forging new partnerships with, not the politically failing, sclerotic EU. Donald Trump has made it clear he is open to a trade deal. We were told not joining the Euro would doom the British economy, we were told by the IMF that austerity would crash the economy, but we stuck to our guns and are better off for doing so. We’ve resisted Project Fear before – we must do so again.
Why we should have a second referendum
At this crucial stage in the Brexit chronicle, a second referendum is the best option, regardless of the result.
The popular conception that a second referendum is exclusively a ‘remainer’ policy is not useful. Of course remainers see it as a chance to reverse the decision of 2016, but theoretically the results of the referendum could legitimate a no deal exit as much as remaining in the EU. Even Nigel Farage has even endorsed a second referendum, believing that it could yield an even stronger mandate for Brexit
It could be argued that David Cameron should never have called for a referendum in the first place, but after involving the public in 2016, how can politicians turn away from the people at this crucial juncture? Not one of the 33.5 million people who went to the ballot box in 2016 can claim that they knew what Brexit would look like. We know now. We know that we cannot have everything that was promised, and we know where the EU will not budge. Membership of the single market with restrictions on free movement? No. Maintaining the territorial unity of the United Kingdom with a soft border? No.
The only way the government’s next steps can be legitimate is if they are sanctioned, once again, by the public. ‘May’s deal represents no one’, ‘the public have changed their mind’: these statements are so often referenced, yet so vague. Let’s find out what the public thinks and if their opinion has changed, let’s change course.
To those who say that a second referendum would be a stich up giving Remainers another chance: this isn’t a game, it is the future of the United Kingdom and at the moment that future looks bleak. It is unbelievably patronising to suggest that members of the public cannot digest the new parameters of the debate and, if they still believe in Brexit, vote on their conviction.
To those who say it undermines our democratic institutions and could lead to a never-ending cycle of revisiting democratic decisions: in normal times perhaps, but these are exceptional circumstances. Democracy did not begin and end with the 2016 referendum. The circumstances have changed immeasurably since the Conservatives won a slim victory in April 2017. May’s majority rests on 10 MPs from the DUP and her deal contradicts pretty much the only policy they have ever believed in, the territorial integrity of the UK. Can we really say that this mandate is still valid?
There is precedent for a second referendum in Europe. In 2008, the Irish people voted against approving the EU Lisbon Treaty in a narrow result. However, in 2009, new negotiations meant the deal looked better for Ireland and another referendum was held that year, giving a clear decision in favour of joining.
The concern that a new referendum unleash a fresh batch of the toxic mixture of prejudice, misinformation and disillusionment is valid. Yet, should we not learn from the mistakes of the first referendum, rather than place ourselves in a strait jacket due to the ghost of 2016. It could be a chance to direct the debate over the UK’s membership of the EU in a more constructive direction. This time everyone would be aware of the key issues and more importantly, of what is within the realms of possibility. It could become very interesting if a party or group dares to acknowledge the EU for where it is valuable and vows to push hard for reform where it is flawed. It could be a breath of fresh air after ‘Project Fear’ circa 2016.
There is little doubt that a second referendum would be an absolute ordeal for the United Kingdom, but what other option is there? The difference is that this time the British public will go to the ballot box with their eyes open as to what their vote will mean.