So the UK has up to six more months to try and resolve one of the most fundamental divisions in its modern history. The risk is that, again, this will be squandered on tactics and manoeuvring to try and ‘win’.cInstead, all sides must now pause to ponder three fundamental lessons in reality forced upon us by the agonising past three years.
The first was exposed by the referendum itself, and ever since: the deadlock is about sovereignty. The economic arguments pounded by ‘Remain’ simply shirk what resonates most with many Leave voters – sovereignty and control. For decades, governments of all persuasions stressed the EU as an economic venture, a big market, a union to increase economic gains as spoils for its members to barter over. Economics dominated the Remain approach. Don’t talk about the elephant on the table.
The resulting dialogue of the deaf is tearing the country apart. On this, Clinton was wrong: it’s about sovereignty, stupid. The first reality is that the EU does require member states to pool sovereignty in important areas. We need the debate we should have had all along – not just in the Referendum, but in the years of denial that created the crucible for it.
Dead or alive, the importance of May’s deal is that it gave form to the real elephant, if we look closely enough. It underlines the fact that sovereignty, as Margaret Thatcher’s foreign secretary famously remarked, is not like virginity, which you either have or you don’t. It is a resource to be used. The great question should always have been: how do we want to use it?
The Leave answer was simple: get out, ‘take control’. It is that simplicity which has crashed horribly into reality – and that is not May’s fault. The second reality involves such simple and undeniable logic that it should have been acknowledged on the first day after the referendum, not on the 1000, which has now passed. No hard border within Ireland, and none down the Irish sea – as agreed by all main parties all along – means no hard border between Britain and the EU. The famous ‘backstop’ guaranteed what had already been agreed and restated all along.
The demands of hardline Brexiteers for ‘alternative arrangements’ was a euphemism for their own failure to find any, beyond vague appeals to technology. My teenage children could see that was like demanding the EU agree that one plus one could, if all else fails, equal three. No new Prime Minister can change the answer; they could only consider changing the question, by arguing for a customs border along one line or the other. Dare them to say which.
The prize sought by hard Brexiteers was (and would be), of course, a degree of trade freedom, which is only compatible with customs checks at the UK-EU borders. This brings us to the third reality – the global context. When May went to the G20 Summit in China to start exploring trade interests, the Chinese were bewildered. A country with one twentieth of their population wants to leave a bloc that has half their population, and expects detailed attention leading to a more favourable trade deal? I was in China then and my hosts were dumbfounded that a country could so totally fail to understand the realities of the 21 Century.
With a whole department dedicated to trade, the achievements have been almost invisible. It is hard to improve on existing trade deals struck as part of a major bloc. ‘Trade freedom’ has migrated from an economic, to a political, to a now largely symbolic expression of sovereignty. We could pay for our own trade negotiators and customs officers, but they can’t achieve much of value, beyond the biggest prize – of a good trade deal with the EU.
Global reality comprises negotiations amongst the major powers – principally China, the US and EU, but with other rising nations (like India, which also has 20 times the UK population). The UK’s principal choice is whether we work within one of those blocs, or view the main global events from the periphery. The irony is that the UK’s relationship with the US gave us exceptional leverage on the EU position from within. As a channel to Europe, it also enhanced our influence on the US. Both would be lost upon exit. We could, of course, find partners, like the “environmental integrity group” of the global climate negotiations which comprises Mexico, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Korea, Switzerland and Georgia. That helps to illuminate the third reality.
All this leaves the UK with two main options. One is May’s deal or some other variant with no hard border (like a Customs Union). Leave the EU and assert sovereignty in critical areas, like migration and jurisdictional powers. Unfortunately, because both political (as with Northern Ireland) and economic (EU trade) interests link us anyway so closely with the EU, the consequence is to reduce sovereignty in key economic sectors – where de facto we would have to align with EU rules we would no longer help to forge. We also accept to be a second rank power, at best, mostly watching the great events of the 21 Century from the sidelines.
That may seem like a high price to pay; it is. But back to the basics. The EU’s development necessitates member states to pool sovereignty, in important swathes of decision-making. As Julie Smith charted in her candid book, in telling ourselves it was all about markets, the UK went along with much of this without sufficient parliamentary scrutiny or public debate.
So the honest alternative – my first reality - is to acknowledge the EU as a political project. A new approach to national-international governance, which on the positive side has provided the umbrella for peace in Ireland and in central Europe, but which requires us to change our traditional notions of sovereignty. One which implies some common identity and purpose, building and extending shared values of liberal democracy. To assert our sovereignty as a major power within the EU, not as a modest island off its shores. To conceive and debate the ultimate paradox suggested by the last 33 months, and May’s deal – that Brexit could actually reduce our sovereignty and control.
The EU’s patience is worn thin. They are tired of the UK and its apparent chronic inability to face these three realities. Parliament – and maybe, with a vote, the country - still has one last chance to converge on options that eschew fantasy and reflect the real tradeoffs. Its routemap must include – demand - the time for the real national debate that we should have had all along: about what our sovereignty means in the modern world and how best to wield it. For all sides though, that remains a big ask.