Why the World Should Not Fear Brexit

27/06/2016 16:11 | Updated 27 June 2016

A fevered referendum has divided Britain and unsettled the world. I've previously criticised the tone of the Remain and Leave campaigns for stoking fear and hate, and we are now living with the consequences of their irresponsibility.

But there's a simple reason not to be upset: haggling. This has not been a fight for the soul of Britain. Nor is it a battle between socialist left and the conservative right. This is a contract negotiation.

Britain has long been unhappy with the terms of its deal with the EU, a discontent that goes back to when the UK first joined the Common Market. David Cameron tried to renegotiate our deal, but the British people decided by a democratic majority that the renegotiated terms were not good enough.

David Cameron - UK Prime Minister & Lead Negotiator
Photo: Number 10 via Wiki Commons

Our lead negotiator has resigned, because it would be untenable for him to remain in his position after the public rejected his deal and called for a new one. Because, beneath all the rhetoric, that's what's actually happened. The Leave vote was not a call for Britain to erect a huge fence, seal itself off from the world, and regress to a racist, subsistence society. It was a vote to leave the legal and political construct that is the EU, but there must be a new deal to govern our relationship with our neighbours.

I've long argued that the British government should have published its Brexit plans so that voters could see there was nothing to fear from any new deal that would be struck in the event of a Leave vote. The government refused to do so, and the cynic in me believes it was because the Remain campaign would no longer have been able to exploit fear of the unknown as it tried to bully voters. It was a high-stakes strategy and its failure has left the nation profoudly divided. A Leave vote is not a lunge towards extremism and there are moderate options available to the country, which the vast majority of us can and will unite behind. There is no reason for Britain to be so angry at itself.

During the campaign we were told that Britain would face economic catastrophe if it left the EU. Many criticised the irresponsibility of such economic fearmongering because a great deal of market sentiment is built on confidence, which could only be undermined by inflammatory rhetoric. As we saw on Friday, David Cameron and Mark Carney have already conceded that the scaremongering was untrue. Britain's economy is strong and it will thrive in or out of the political construct that is the EU.

There was also an attempt to frighten us into believing that there would be no free trade for Britain post-Brexit, but once again this was a huckster's gambit, an irresponsible campaign falsehood cynically designed to get people to vote a certain way. European leaders have already signalled that they want free trade with the UK. They have their own markets to calm, and there is no desire for mutually assured economic destruction.

The misguided propaganda on the other side has also been exposed, with a number of leading figures in the Leave campaign already signalling that there are unlikely to be any radical changes to freedom of movement.

As disappointing as it is that we were so fundamentally misled, we should take heart in the fact that both campaigns' principal arguments have already proven to be false and that neither of their extreme visions of Britian will come to pass. This referendum really was about sovereignty and the nature of our democratic system. Beneath all the dangerous rhetoric about the sideshow issues of the economy and immigration, what's actually at stake is our covenant with Europe: the complicated contractual relationship that governs our interactions with our closest neighbours. It is about to be renegotiated, and, as complex as that process will be, that is all it is; a contract renegotiation.

Jean-Claude Juncker - Lead EU Negotiator
Photo: Zinneke via Wiki Commons

There's much speculation over what our renegotiated settlement with Europe will look like. I'd recommend reading the Adam Smith Institute's EEA Option and Liberal Case for Leave to understand what is almost certainly the most sensible approach now available to us. Those pressed for time can read an abridged version in Public Finance magazine.

No one knows the final shape of our renegotiated settlement, but it is likely to include the free movement of people, albeit with a degree of unilateral control. It is almost certain to include free trade, because both sides have already made it clear that's what they want. Britain will have a different legal relationship with the EU, giving it greater rights of self-determination in many areas, and a different method of helping to shape the laws that are essential to the functioning of a single market. And Britain will be free to strike trade deals with every other country in the world, many of whom have already signalled their desire to do so.

There is no need for anyone to be angry. Both campaigns whipped up fear and hate in order to win, but there is nothing to be fearful or hateful of. This is a contract negotiation. We've rejected the terms of the deal we were offered and have just given David Cameron's replacement a huge negotiating chip, a mandate for a fundamentally revised deal with Europe.

If I had one wish, it would be for Jeremy Corbyn to admit that, contrary to the claims he made during the campaign, Brexit does not involve the end of immigration, or the wholesale bonfire of our rights. I believe such a statement would help settle the justifiable fear and anger many people feel, and make it clear to the far-right that the Leave vote does not mean they have won. They haven't. It was moderate voters who swung the result, and it is moderate people from both sides who will shape the future landscape.

The British people need to move on. Continued division is now the biggest threat to our civil society and our economy. Instead of clinging to divisive campaign arguments, let's see this for what it actually was; part of a contract renegotiation. Instead of adding to social, political, and economic uncertainty, let's start to work together. Instead of maligning democracy and deepening the rift by calling for a re-run of a dangerously divisive referendum, channel that strength of feeling, that political activism into something productive. Help shape the new covenant. Get involved. Write to your MP. Tell her or him what's important to you about Europe. The renegotiation process will be managed by the new Prime Minister and overseen by Parliament.

Handled properly, neither Britain nor the world has anything to fear from Brexit. Like all the best contract negotiations, it is likely to result in a workable compromise that everyone can live with.

Anyone looking for more information should follow Roland Smith & Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute, who are advocating a progressive, liberal withdrawal from the EU.

What Happens Next