The general election and Brexit: is a fresh start possible?

By Peter Ludlow

The present situation is the consequence of two factors: the EU27’s agreement on a number of fundamental principles, which were first set out systematically within a week of the June 2016 referendum and which still constitute the core of their position, and the British government’s inability to develop a consistent response. Two of EU27’s principles are of particular importance in the present context: the need for a balance between rights and obligations and the indivisibility of the four freedoms.

In assessing the British government’s response, it is important to distinguish between principles and management. As far as principles are concerned, the position which Mrs May articulated in her letter to Tusk of 29 March was both reasonable and coherent. She interpreted the referendum as a vote against freedom of movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and a vote for the repatriation of sovereignty. This being the case, she concluded, reasonably enough, that the UK could not remain in either the single market or the customs union. A hard Brexit was not an option in other words, but a necessity arising from the referendum.

As far as the choice between a ‘soft’ Brexit and a ‘hard’ Brexit is concerned, for example, those who argue that the former is feasible can only succeed if they both re-interpret the meaning of the June 2016 vote and convince Tory eurosceptics, the right-wing media and millions of British citizens who voted Leave that their re-interpretation is justified. Which is a very big ask.

In these circumstances, it is more profitable to accept that Brexit does indeed mean Brexit and to focus instead on the conduct of the negotiations, where a different approach could transform the UK’s prospects of eventually achieving a balanced and wide-ranging post-Brexit settlement.  Three changes are particularly relevant and urgent:

1. In the way in which the Brexit process is handled. Within government, the approach needs to be more collegiate and consensual. Beyond government, in the latter’s dealings with Parliament, the media and the electorate, it should be more transparent and more broadly based. Brexit is a national and not a party affair.

2.In the presentation of the UK’s strategic objectives. The government says that it wants to establish a wide-ranging partnership. It should behave as if it means it by abandoning once and for all the threat that it might walk away from the negotiations and by reflecting, and encouraging others to think about what kind of long-term settlement it wants to achieve. Partnership rather than confrontation should be the leitmotiv of its strategy.

3. In the approach to the discussion of transitional arrangements in the second phase of the article 50 negotiations. Why not state from the outset, for example, that given the little time available between now and March 2019 and the importance for both sides of achieving an orderly transition to their new partnership, the British government is prepared in principle to remain in both the single market and the customs union until the partnership deal comes into force? This would transform the atmosphere and, more concretely, facilitate agreement on the financial settlement and the other very difficult phase 1 issues.

1A longer version of this note was published by EuroComment on the 19th of June 2017.