Us Remainers should get our priorities right

Over twenty years ago, William Hague, on becoming the first openly Eurosceptic Tory leader, argued that the UK should be in Europe, but not be ruled by it. What Hague meant by ‘in Europe’ was, as far as I recall, never defined, but in the context of the UK formally leaving the EU, the only cause left for Remainers’ is to ensure that the UK remains ‘in Europe’. 

Currently, the Government is travelling in the opposite direction. First, the only Brexit which Johnson is prepared to negotiate is a hard Brexit, call it Canada ++ or ‘Australian terms’ or whatever. 

Second, the Brexiteers belief in the opportunities awaiting a ‘global Britain’ - always a fantasy - now looks doubly unrealistic in the face of rapidly decelerating global trade and the growing threat of protectionism. Reversing these directions should be the priority for pro-Europeans.

It has been the consensus view since before the Withdrawal Act was even passed, that twelve months is insufficient to negotiate a comprehensive agreement on the EU/UK future relationship. It follows that all that could ever have been agreed by the end of this year, was a basic trade deal. The delay caused by the Covid crisis means that any deal is likely to be even more basic.

All the signs are that a basic trade deal will be done by December 31st. The alternative is trading with the EU, the UK’s largest and geographically closest trading partner, on WTO terms. This would be political suicide and Johnson knows it; using the possibility as a threat is a crude negotiating ploy. Obtaining even a basic trade deal will involve the Government in several U-turns, but the EU will make enough concessions for Johnson to claim a victory, just as he was able to do over the Withdrawal Agreement.

Time has been wasted by the campaign to extend the transition period. In my view, it has been both futile and counterproductive. An extension would lead inexorably to the hardest of Brexits.

A basic deal trade in December, still leaves years of negotiation of a series of bilateral deals in which pro-Europeans can work with other parties and with interests in the EU, EFTA, EEA, the universities, security services etc to deliver a softer Brexit. Such an approach would have majority support both in Parliament and in the country. In neither has there ever been a majority for a hard Brexit or for trading on WTO terms.

During the ‘withdrawal debate’, those arguing for a soft Brexit floated several options; the UK could join EFTA, or it might remain a member of the EEA. Labour wanted to remain inside a customs union with the EU. None of these options ever had sufficient traction, nor was there the time to work through the detail. However, what was established is that a close future relationship between the EU and the UK demanded an institutional and legal framework. One that, if the ‘sovereignty issue’ was to be buried, needed to be wholly separate. 

The EU will need to be persuaded. Its experience of complex, ad hoc relationships has not been good, e.g. with Switzerland, while both EFTA & the EEA are within the jurisdiction of the ECJ - a stumbling block for the UK. The question therefore will be whether the UK, joined possibly by other European countries, has enough to offer, in terms of the size of its economy, its role as a financial centre, the contribution it can make to Europe’s security, the relevance of its historic relations to the US and the Commonwealth, coupled with its geographical proximity, to persuade the EU to agree to what would amount to a parallel set of institutions with separate lines of accountability and legal recourses. 

As Remainers have consistently argued, the global threats from climate change, mass migration, nuclear proliferation, the rise of Asia, and so much else, demand that the UK aligns itself with the continent of which it is geographically part. Of the alternatives, going it alone is laughably hubristic, while becoming attached to the US’s apron strings is as undesirable as it would be humiliating. The fight to remain ‘in Europe’ is only just beginning.

By Robert McFarland - Former BOC Group executive

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