In the seven months since the EU referendum, we have witnessed the thoroughly unedifying and depressing spectacle of an outwardly confident but inwardly divided and disoriented UK government – whose direction and tone are now fully set by Leave leaders – being dragged kicking and screaming to confront realities they were either unable to comprehend or desperate to deny.
One item in the first category is the delusion that the UK, in spite of having initiated the most destabilising ruction the EU has ever known and at a time when the EU faces a perfect storm of threatening internal and external crises, is in a strong bargaining position as it prepares for the process that will follow Notification. Hence the repeated insistence that the UK will seek, and has every right to expect, the best ‘deal’ possible from the EU.
Reality is gradually dawning that these negotiations will be complex, tortuous and probably acrimonious, with not the slightest prospect that the UK will ‘have its cake and eat it’. For all the UK’s likely attempts to sow divisions within the EU (watch that space), it will confront EU negotiators and 27 Member States resolutely determined to maintain a unified front in the face of the substantial risks attendant upon Brexit. The EU has every reason, not to ‘punish’ the UK, but to protect its own legitimate interests in upholding its own existing treaties and in discouraging others from leaving.
Leavers most in denial continue to insist that the process of leaving can be ‘simple’ or even ‘quick’, but the more perceptive and honest members of the government – those willing to listen to the harried and under-resourced civil servants tasked to deliver Brexit – privately know better.
Another item that the government has struggled mightily to comprehend, and still does not appear fully to grasp, is that there are, first, the divorce negotiations and, second, the trade negotiations. This distinction was made perfectly plain by EU officials within days of the referendum and has been repeated frequently since.
Yet the government, and even Remainers, still use the singular term ‘deal’ as if these two very different processes were all of a piece. From the EU’s point of view, the only track that must be completed within the allotted two year period is the terms of the divorce: the financial settlement which will determine what the UK will owe to the EU upon departure, the residency status of UK and EU nationals, the future of EU agencies located within the UK, perhaps ongoing security and defence cooperation, and so forth.
It may be that the EU will permit work on the second track – the terms on which the EU will trade with the UK after Brexit – to commence during the 2 year period, but there is no legal obligation on the EU to complete it during that time and it is highly unlikely that it will do so. There is, however, great domestic pressure on the UK government to seal such a deal – or at least, in its absence, to agree on ‘transitional arrangements’ – so as to avoid the ‘cliff edge’ scenario that would leave UK traders in damaging limbo, or to leave the UK trading with the EU solely under disadvantageous WTO rules. The latter scenario, however, looks increasingly possible.
The chief item in the category of realities many sought to deny – this time mostly Remainers, both inside and outside the government – is the illusion that it was politically possible to ‘leave’ the EU while retaining membership of (or ‘full access to’) the single market and the customs union.
Admittedly, the question on the ballot paper left wholly unspecified what ‘leaving’ would actually mean, allowing both sides to indulge in self-serving speculation about what voters ‘really wanted’. Thus Remainers have been arguing strenuously for a ‘soft Brexit’ in which many of the benefits of these two systems would be retained even outside the EU. They have been fondly hoping for some customised version of the Norwegian or Swiss models. But once it finally dawned on them (and it still hasn’t dawned on some) that this would involve reneging on the two central promises of the Leave campaign – restoring control over EU immigration and removing the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – that dream died.
Sadly, the argument that, because many who voted Leave didn’t anticipate leaving the single market and the customs union, they can’t be taken to have supported a ‘hard Brexit’, doesn’t wash. It seems clear that the two promises I just mentioned were foremost in the minds of many Leave voters; they were crucially what enticed them to vote Brexit. They must, therefore, live with the consequences of the way they voted, even if they did so ignorantly. This is one of the ‘disciplines of democracy’ that voters themselves must reckon with. Leavers made their bed and they must lie in it. Regrettably, however, so must the rest of us – and, as usual, the poorest, on both sides, will go to the wall.
Another item in the category of truths under denial has been the outrageous presumption on the part of the UK government that it could launch a process by which UK law would undergo a comprehensive and radical change merely on its own executive authority (the anachronistic ‘royal prerogative’), without the approval of the body in which highest legislative authority resides, namely Parliament.
From the EU’s point of view, the decisive defeat of the UK government at the Supreme Court on 24 January is of little consequence and perhaps only serves as a source of mild amusement. From a UK point of view, however, it is of momentous importance that such an audacious bid for what a former distinguished Conservative minister once termed ‘executive dictatorship’ has been firmly slapped down.
Like many on the Remain side, I expect that Brexit will leave the UK (quite possibly) economically weakened and (most certainly) diplomatically disenfranchised. But from a Christian point of view – according to which governments are appointed to serve much larger moral purposes – those are not the worst outcomes.
The saddest consequence of Brexit is that, out of a combination of culpable ignorance and narrow self-interest, we will have walked away from participation in a structure of institutionalised cooperation which, in spite of its grievous defects, was the best available means by which the UK government could make its own contribution to the promotion of regional and global justice, peace and freedom, especially for the most vulnerable.
Christian Remainers – and indeed Leavers – need to think hard about how they can nevertheless help keep the UK as engaged as possible, both with a now further damaged EU and with other (also fragile) international bodies by which those goals can nevertheless be advanced in a world increasingly fractured by menacing populist and ethnic nationalisms. And because the UK government will have contributed substantially to that damage, we must urge it to repent of its attitudes of superiority and insularity and take up those tasks with a renewed posture of humility and solidarity.
About the author
Jonathan Chaplin is Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE), Cambridge, a member of the Cambridge University Divinity Faculty and a Senior Fellow of Cardus. He is a specialist in Christian political thought. His latest book, co-edited with Gary Wilton, is God and the EU: Faith in the European Project (Routledge, forthcoming).