It has become clear, if it wasn’t before, that there is a fundamental choice between pursuing progressive policies and a hard Brexit. Rather than enabling Corbyn’s Britain – the regulations, state aid and nationalisation desired by many on the Left – a hard Brexit could derail these visions. Leaving the EU isn’t just going to consume government and parliament now, it is likely to dominate the next decade, politically and financially constraining any government in the future.
First there is the all-consuming nature of the EU negotiations. Final agreements on our exit are so far from sorted that the transition period is unlikely to offer sufficient time to fix future political, economic and social ties with the EU – everything from university research to security arrangements and the much-discussed trade deals.
In order for negotiations to take place, Whitehall must undergo a learning process, entailing reorientation and staff increases. Apparently, pre-Brexit, central government had just enough negotiators to deal with Northern Ireland issues if they pooled resources from the Foreign and Home Office. Clearly we are already in a different world with the DexEU and the international trade department, but we know that Whitehall is struggling to cope and lags behind the timetable of transformation. How could any government machine transform itself, its purpose and actions so radically whilst pursuing an ambitious domestic agenda?
Brexit itself is only the beginning. Beyond negotiations with the EU, the UK will need deals with countries around the world, as highlighted by Theresa May’s recent visit to China. This will require full attention of the government and huge teams of negotiators to hammer out similar deals as quickly as possible with multiple countries. We are talking here about Britain sealing deals such as those attempted by Canada or America (TTIP/CETA), whose complexity has seen negotiations and approval of the Canadian deal approach one decade without full sign-off.
Such trade deals don’t just take time. As protests around TTIP showed, trade deals can endanger public services and the ability of governments to support businesses and intervene economically. National services like the NHS and the BBC are threatened because they block competition from the private sector. Theresa May won’t even offer guarantees to protect such national assets.
Capping that are the financial costs of a hard Brexit. Far from the much ridiculed £350m a week, the costs of Brexit are becoming clearer – the agreed ‘divorce’ financial settlement is in the region of £40bn; the predicted £80bn hole in public finance. Additionally, leaving the EU requires a large increase in immigration and customs and the civil service staff to manage additional policy areas like fishing and agriculture.
The UK is therefore faced with a choice. The reality of the time, expense and political energy spent negotiating with the EU and other countries will prevent ambitious attempts to change the UK and respond to the crises highlighted by the Grenfell tragedy and this year’s winter NHS crisis. International trade deals will also endanger our public sector and the ability of any future government to intervene economically and curb the power of international companies.
Whatever you think about Brexit, is it worth abandoning the pursuit of solutions to our country’s pressing domestic crises of housing, the stagnation of wages, the injustice of the ‘gig economy’ or climate change?
Barnaby J. Dye is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Oxford.