Arguing to rejoin the EU now isn’t credible – 2020 needs to be a year of realities

John Howarth
© Jess Hurd/Another Europe is Possible

Since 2015, Britain has been a fantasy island.

Our politics have been mired in a series of unrealistic Brexit-centred constructs. At 10.05pm on December 12th, with the ‘lost decade’ creaking to its close, the landscape changed. The certainty of the UK’s exit from the European Union’s institutions on January 31st demands political reality from government and the opposition alike. Pragmatism must become the prevailing ideology in the coming months. Too many people have too much to lose should our elected leaders fail to tack towards seeking a sustainable, economically manageable outcome to the UK’s departure. It is time to get real.

Brexit is now a fact, but it still won’t be good.

The acceptance of reality, does not mean that those who opposed the UK leaving the EU ‘getting behind Brexit’. Boris Johnson’s victory is a fact, but it doesn’t change the facts: the UK’s exit from the EU remains a grave mistake. Whatever future relationship is defined will be inferior to that which we have until January 31st. Britain’s influence in the world as it evolves will be diminished and many of our commercial interests will be weakened. Decisions over standards and markets that affect the UK will still be made in Brussels – just without the UK at the table. The impossible promises made during and after the referendum will not be delivered.

The fantasy white knight of ‘free trade’ with the Commonwealth, the ‘anglo-sphere’ or any other ‘global partners’, will not charge to the rescue. The freedoms and rights we acquired as EU citizens will be removed. These consequences remain unavoidable – there is no good Brexit and it remains unclear what it is that the Leavers have actually won.

Johnson and his English nationalists should be called out, and made to own that Brexit is an ongoing failure. Unfortunately, making that stick will be another matter. Johnson’s ability to transfer blame is proficient, well-rehearsed and the mood music is unfavourable. The government holds all the best propaganda cards and understandably, as the general election perfectly illustrated, the public has had enough of Brexit.

A deal during 2020?

Though the difficulties are not to be underestimated, a deal of some sort will probably be concluded between the UK and the EU during 2020. Perhaps a deal not terribly good for the UK – perhaps an extension to the transition just called something else – but one that avoids the deferred crash out on December 31st, buying time and diverting the attention of a bored and disinterested public. Brexit still won’t be done – but few will any longer care.

For those who do care it will, however, be another ‘wonderful deal’ dressed up by Downing Street as a political triumph. Boz and Dom both understand that nothing succeeds like success – and as nobody actually knows what success looks like, it will be whatever they say it is.

Rebadging will be the order of the day – starting with ‘not the extended transition period’. When, for example, the UK accepts reality and pays over the odds to participate in EU research programmes with no control over their terms. We’ll be told that the country will have secured a leading role in global scientific partnerships – or something similar, that doesn’t explicitly say ‘EU’, to make acceptable that element of selling out their ERG zealots.

Whether or not things will go as far as the ‘not-the-customs-union-customs-union’, and the ‘not-the-single-market-single-market’, trailed in Theresa May’s political declaration remains to be seen. Johnson has indicated otherwise, but has got a new problem in a bunch of Tory gains in places that will be hit hardest by a no-trade deal on December 31st.

But we all know that he would re-brand bacon as delicious vegan goodness, if it served his interests. After January 31st all things are once again possible for the first electorally successful Conservative leader since Margaret Thatcher.

Calling out failure will be difficult.

If a disruptive end to 2020 is avoided – and no responsible UK politician should wish the consequences of no-trade deal on our people – calling out failure becomes difficult. Other than the chaos of no deal, it was always wrong to paint Brexit as an overnight cataclysm. The economic consequences will unfold over many years, though will in all likelihood remain grim.

Even so, waters will be inevitably muddy and the forecasters will be ‘wrong’ – even if they are 80% right. That’s how economics is, that’s how markets are, businesses will find a way – more costly, less efficient and fundamentally constrained but ‘a way’ nonetheless. Short and long term deflection will be easy for the government; too many other issues will be around to pin whatever may happen solely on Brexit, even when it is true. So, while pointing out inconvenient truths has to be part of any credible fact-based politics, carrying on the fight as a matter of principle is a nonsense unlikely to get a hearing.

We need a credible European policy.

After January 31st, the UK needs a credible European policy based on engagement with the EU as a third country. While I firmly believe that, eventually, we will be once again be a member of the EU, arguing that the UK should rejoin is simply not credible politics for a serious political party in the 2020s. I doubt it will be in my lifetime – though I hope I’m wrong. Keeping the flame alive matters. Many will do so and some of us will be Labour members, but it cannot be the Labour Party’s aspiration right now.

Just as there has been no contradiction – nor any betrayal of principle – in arguing to Remain while seeking to mitigate the worst aspects of Brexit, neither is there any contradiction in working for the best outcome that we can achieve outside the EU while knowing that the best interests of UK citizens lie in co-operation with our neighbours. Campaigning for rights removed and diminished by the appalling Withdrawal Agreement will be ongoing, and will remain a duty. Pointing out that we would all have been better off had Brexit never happened is a continuing obligation.

It is not healthy for pro-EU politicians to delude ourselves that we ‘won the argument’. Yes, we came close to stopping Brexit but there is no ‘moral victory’. Losing is not winning. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that battles were won – that’s how wars go. Analysis of the history will continue, but the outcome will not change. Ironically, the largest pro-European movement anywhere in the EU28 is now that found in the UK and it will keep the flame alight, but channeling pro-EU sentiment into a coherent political direction will be a challenge. Though few who went on demonstrations or signed petitions will forgive the Conservatives any time soon.

A credible European policy will recognise uncomfortable truths for both pro-Europeans and Leavers. The UK is to become a third country without the hard power that comes with a 14% block vote, 10% of MEPs and the clout that comes with a major budget contribution. It is remarkable how many people I meet on either side of the argument have yet to even grasp that we will not have MEPs. The EU will now make decisions that are in the EU’s interests – or at least that they believe to be – and most of those decisions will affect the UK, to some extent.

The interests of the EU will sometimes coincide with the priorities of the UK, sometimes they will not. Sometimes there will be conflicts and the EU will not always recognise mutual interest over self-interest but, as a rules-based organisation, it will not act to subvert its own rules. The object of UK policy should be to ensure that mutual interest is recognised and acted upon as often as possible, and to identify how this can happen without undermining the rules. We should not be surprised, however, if for the next few years it is hard to get a hearing.

We must recognise mutual interests.

To have any chance of success in this, the UK-EU relationship will need to step beyond the rancour of the last five years. This will be as difficult for the EU as it will be for the UK – the overwhelming desire is to move on, which in the short term really means ‘move off entirely’. National interests will also come into play without the means of mitigation for the common good – just when you needed that seat at the table.

At present it is hard to see a dynamic to negotiations that is not adversarial, however, maybe it will dawn on Johnson that it will be in everyone’s interests to change the tone. An early and necessary move from the ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’ approach, to a series of staged agreements, would help build a culture of success. Early wins matter. If Johnson fails to take the initiative on phasing, which the EU may well resist, then it will indicate a lack of ‘strategic genius’ in Downing Street.

Where we are right now is still a bad place for all concerned. A phased timetable is a first step toward a better place but, in substance, changing the prospects for a sensible outcome requires leadership of the sort that has been in short supply. Resetting the terms of the debate requires a shared vision – not total agreement but common ground.

Can the UK and the EU agree that there is an active threat to democratic institutions; that there is a direct threat to the security and freedom of Europe; that we have common interests in combatting organised crime; that co-operation around climate, medical and scientific research continues to make sense, that co-operation around a common study area is a mutual benefit? An early big picture declaration of common interest as the basis for re-building relationships is essential. The current political declaration does not meet the test.

The fudge is past its sell-by date…

The EU and the UK each need, for their own good, to recognise the failures that have got us here. The EU didn’t initiate Brexit, but it failed and continues to fail to respond effectively to the challenges that helped Brexit come about; history will judge the Juncker commission harshly.

The reality of significant democratic change in the EU was never communicated. The evolution of EU institutions toward a recognisably transparent form of governance has been painfully slow. The high-flying rhetoric of federalism persists within the bubble, while the conflicting reality of a club of member states with shared and competing interests prevails. EU institutions remain poor at democratic accountability. And the budget process institutionalises conflict.

President Macron’s demands for change are as legitimate as they are essential. What they will deliver is less clear, and must go beyond institutional change to a reform of political priorities. Blaming Brussels for all our ills isn’t just a British affliction. The complacency that runs deep in the mainstream political currents has been shaken but little action has been stirred. Brexit should have been the catalyst for change. It could yet prove so once the UK has gone, but the signs are not hopeful. The realisation that a new, proactive socioeconomic settlement is required to combat populism is taking too long to dawn. The EU usually finds a way – but muddling through is no longer enough.

…and you can’t eat nostalgia.

For the UK the problems run deeper. The UK/Britain/England – there’s the problem in a nutshell. The rapid decline of empire; the avoidance of military defeat and foreign occupation; ending up on the winning side at enormous cost in 1918 and 1945; and the dominance of the English language have all masked the need to build a new purpose for the UK as a large European state made up of several nations.

Britain, uniquely, has failed to nation build for the modern era. It is not surprising that the Scots, the different Irish traditions, and Wales have carved out post-imperial identities based on differing social movements. Entering the EU in an act of desperation, without a clear sense of what modern Britain might become, delivered on many levels but has proved unsustainable. Outside the EU the UK, especially England, will be forced – finally – to come to terms with itself and understand its real position in the world. That at least might be no bad thing.

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