9 June 2018

No Brexit illusions


Ever since the EU referendum, Remain supporters have been waiting impatiently for any signs of “Bregret”: a change of heart from voters who put a cross in the box next to “Leave”, but now realise just how fraught the process is. Leavers have so far been stubbornly happy with their choice.

The Breget theory is built on a caricature of Leavers as dimwits who saw a number on the side of a bus, and didn’t realise they were being duped.

Of course, it was always more complicated than that. And many Leavers were under no illusions about the difficulty of Brexit.

The choice as I saw it, and still see it now, was between a vote of confidence in a misguided European project – for that is what a Remain win would have been interpreted as – and a vote for a turbulent, difficult, but ultimately preferable return of powers from an undemocratic supranational organisation to a democratic national government.

I opted for the latter, but in no way relished the opportunity to do so.

At the end of a torrid week for both the prime minister and the Brexit project she is in charge of delivering, just one in ten Brits think it is going well. So is Bregret finally setting in?

It doesn’t look like it. The same poll found that 40 per cent of people still want Britain to leave, compared to 47 per cent who would rather stay in. Support for leaving is falling — but given that even the Brexit-supporting foreign secretary knows the negotiations are going very badly — it is doing so at a glacial rate.

In other words, the Remainers’ Bregret theory was half right. Yes, it has become obvious that Brexit is difficult. But that still isn’t enough to make hordes of Leavers change their minds. They appear to have known that this would not be a straightforward matter when they voted for it.

I raise all this not to re-litigate the referendum, but as a reminder — at what will surely go down as a low point in the process — of what the project is all about: rebalancing the national and the supranational.

Amid all the unforced errors, Cabinet infighting and Parliamentary drama, it is easy to forget that Britain is negotiating with the EU27, not itself. And for meaningful progress to be made, the one big thing that needs to change isn’t the defeat of a House of Lords amendment or the Cabinet falling into line, but the stubborn attitude in Brussels.

That stubbornness was on display yet again yesterday, when Michel Barnier rejected Britain’s proposal for a backstop option on Ireland that applied to the whole of the UK. The reason? The Single Market’s four freedoms are indivisible.

Barnier’s argument, with which the EU has dismissed so many UK proposals as non-starters, is a weak one. In truth, the four freedoms are divisible when it suits the interests of the European project, as when a new country wants to join the Single Market.

If the EU acted in the best interests of Europe’s citizens, it would compromise on those freedoms when there was something to be gained economically — as in the case of a comprehensive deal with Britain. Unfortunately, in Brussels, politics trumps economics.

But the fact that Brexit contravenes the indivisibility of the four freedoms is a feature not a bug.

The kind of Brexit Britain voted for may be impossible according to the existing rulebook. But that’s the whole point. It was a vote against that rulebook.

Why, for example, does free trade need to come with free movement of people? The answer is obvious to Michel Barnier. It isn’t to most of Britain. That is why this was always going to be difficult.

We can’t be sure of much to do with Brexit at the moment. One thing we do know is that there is no off-the-shelf option for a sustainable, practical deal between Britain and the EU.

In other words, business as usual will not work. Unfortunately, Brussels shows little sign of realising that. And the British government could hardly be doing a worse job at making it clear.

But then, we knew this wasn’t going to be easy.

This article is taken from CapX’s Weekly Briefing email. Sign up here.

Oliver Wiseman is Editor at CapX.