European Affairs

Perspectives--Brexit is Not Inevitable     Print

PaulAdamsonBefore British Prime Minister Theresa May called her snap and ill-advised election pro-European Brits had their work cut out fighting the dominant prevailing wisdom of the inexorability of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU – the so-called “Brexit”.

Arguments to bolster that prevailing wisdom included: (1) the need to respect the “democratic will” of the electorate; (2) May’s Conservative Party colleagues, not to mention the pro-Brexit media, would not stand for anything less; (3) the machinery of government (including the setting up of a new “Department for Exiting the European Union” with a cabinet rank politician, David Davis, at its head) was now tasked with “delivering Brexit” and (4) the asserted irrevocability of the EU Treaty based procedure for leaving the European Union, the now famous Article 50.

If this were not enough, senior Conservative Party politicians, with the Prime Minister at the forefront, used every opportunity to claim that “there was no going back” joined in a relentless Greek chorus by the anti-EU commentariat in the mainstream media and elsewhere.

To make that seeming irreversibility even more entrenched, a number of opinion polls had been indicating that a number of “Remain” voters now appeared to accept the referendum result and simply wanted the government to get on with the withdrawal process. This in turn enabled Brexiteers in parliament and the media to assert that the majority in favour of leaving was even greater than when the vote was delivered.

The British General Election of 8 June has changed all that. Disappearing – although not entirely extinct – is the bold (or fatuous depending on your point of view) assertion that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. This was always a dubious claim - even making allowances for strident rhetoric for campaigning purposes - since “no deal” is not exactly “delivering Brexit” which Prime Minister May promised when she became Conservative Party leader last summer.

So the battle lines appeared to be a “Hard Brexit” (simplistically, leaving the EU’s single market and customs union) and a “Soft Brexit” (with ongoing membership of the single market and, possibly, the customs union), at least during a still to be negotiated transition period – or “implementation phase” as Mrs May prefers to call it. But these battle lines are not between the (just about) governing Conservative Party) and the official opposition Labour Party; they are between the “Hard Brexiteers” and “Soft Brexiteers” in each of them.

So in this week of the first official talks in the Article 50 divorce proceedings (practically on the first anniversary of the referendum vote) we have also been able to witness a newly ascendant Philip Hammond, the finance minister, not just saying that “no deal would be very, very bad” but also that the economy has to be the top concern in these talks – unsubtle code for challenging the Prime Minister on prioritizing EU immigration controls over everything as the government’s orthodoxy. Not to be outdone, a not insubstantial group of Labour politicians have publicly challenged their party’s leadership by stating that staying in the single market has to be the primary objective of the Article 50 talks.

And this against a backdrop where the economic consequences of Brexit are becoming increasingly apparent – even if some analysts might claim that not all the bad news can be laid at the door of Brexit. The latest inflation figures have climbed to 2.9%, and in an environment of wage stagnation for a considerable time this translates into a significant drop in living standards. Businesses are beginning to go public on their future investment and hiring plans in the UK and the future does not look rosy.

So it is not altogether surprising that a recent opinion poll indicated that a majority (albeit small) of British voters would now elect to stay in the European Union and a bigger majority (again, still quite small) want a second referendum on any deal that the British government can strike with its EU partners.

Anyone – not just Brits – who until now has been bemused, saddened and/or anxious about the UK’s departure from the EU should take heart from the fact that the likelihood of that departure diminishes with each passing day.

Paul Adamson is founder and editor of E! Sharp