So we are back to the language of “hard” and “soft” Brexit – terms which not only remain ill-defined, but continue to confuse more than concentrate minds on what a sensible approach to Brexit might entail. Indeed, the Brexit debate in the wake of last week’s election seems to have advanced little since the EU referendum in June 2016.
Many people are now arguing that, given the remarkable failure of Theresa May’s electoral gamble, Brexit should or will be “softened” by our seeking to remain a member of the EU’s customs union and/or single market – possibly by resurrecting the option of seeking membership of the European Economic Area (EEA).
Never mind that several of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet have appeared on the television to restate their manifesto’s clear implication that for free movement of people to end, Brexit entails leaving the single market as currently constructed. Or that it is frankly far-fetched to argue, as some have been, that the UK can somehow demand reform of the EU’s rules on free movement within the single market while it negotiates its exit from the same organisation. David Cameron has already shown us how that is likely to go.
In reality, as things currently stand, the only real distinctions between a negotiated so-called Tory “hard Brexit” and a Labour “soft Brexit” are those of tone – and, despite both parties’ pledge to end free movement, a more relaxed attitude to immigration on Labour’s part.
This is not to say that things haven’t changed as a result of the election. Clearly they have. The Government’s Brexit strategy will need to pay more attention to the wishes and interests of all four constituent parts of the United Kingdom – most notably in Northern Ireland, but also in Scotland too. That is no bad thing.
In addition, the Prime Minister’s previous rhetoric of “no deal” being better than a bad deal now lacks credibility as a negotiating tool in Brussels. But this does not mean that the government and the EU can afford not to prepare for such an outcome – and there are still all kinds of permutations that could come to pass.
Despite the excitement and soul-searching of recent days, Plan A for Brexit is still likely to mean seeking a new relationship with the EU outside of the customs union or the single market: i.e. the best possible comprehensive trade deal and customs arrangements, and a special partnership in areas such as security, foreign policy, research and development and cultural exchange. Once on this path, the only realistic alternative to such a deal is no deal – unless Parliament is willing to countenance proposing that the UK reapplies for EU membership.
This does not rule out some form time-limited transition to a new relationship, via something resembling the EEA or even single market membership. Likewise, as Open Europe has previously suggested, it would make sense for the UK to remain in the customs union temporarily until new systems are in place at the Irish border and across the Channel, which might well take longer than the Article 50 timetable allows.
Ultimately, this is a negotiation – so much now also depends on the EU’s approach. As a former judge at the EU’s Court of Justice, Franklin Dehousse, argued recently, the EU might need to choose between its desire to retain influence over Britain once it leaves the bloc and having a friendly relationship with Britain at all. Comparing the EU’s current position on ECJ jurisdiction and supervision of Britain post-Brexit, particularly with regard to the rights of EU nationals, to the colonialism of the British Empire in the 19th century, he rightly observed: “One wonders how this is considered acceptable for a sovereign state.”
However, Britain’s new government does have an opportunity to change its tactics, if not its strategic priorities. May’s decision, on taking office, to frame the debate on Brexit – and allow it to be framed by others – as a binary choice between immigration control and a close relationship with the EU no longer has to set the tone.
While public concerns about the scale and control of immigration certainly haven’t gone away, this election result certainly wasn’t a mandate to prioritise reducing immigration above all else. A more flexible UK attitude to immigration policy could ease both a smooth transition, and help the UK secure better terms in a new EU trade agreement.
Yet in establishing a sustainable long-term relationship with the EU, it is essential that the UK does not deprive itself of the tools to chart its own course after leaving – such as an independent trade policy and control over its domestic regulation. Remaining in a customs union with the EU, or in the single market, rules out negotiating meaningful new trade arrangements with non-EU countries in goods and services. Without a vote in the councils of the EU, the UK would end up more, not less, dependent on Europe’s economic fortunes and political direction.
So the central question – and the one which has always been the most important – is this. The UK is leaving the EU, which a huge majority in this new Parliament accepts. So how much control over the UK’s destiny is it acceptable to grant to the EU in order to secure favourable trade terms?