(Unless it’s for a people’s vote)
Some suggest an extension of the Article 50 deadline. But the Government’s problem is not lack of time, but inability to decide what Brexit is for and unwillingness to face up to the costs. An extension would only make sense to stage a referendum on the terms (a people's vote). London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes.
Some, including Nick Clegg, have suggested that the Article 50 deadline should be extended to allow more time for the government to formulate a workable negotiating stance and agree it with the EU.
But that is to fundamentally misunderstand the problem. The difficulty is not working through the complex details of a solution; that needs doing but can almost all be done during the transition if Brexit happens. Nor is the difficulty getting the evidence in order to make a strategic decision; we know as much as we are ever going to know and as much as we need.
Rather, the Government faces two difficulties:
- defining what Brexit is for; and
- facing up to the cost of Brexit and deciding whether it is worth it.
What is the point of Brexit?
There were and are several different Brexits on offer, including:
- Reshaping the world order by breaking up the EU and moving to a different way for nation states to live together
- Cutting immigration
- Reducing immigration of muslims
- Reducing the effects of globalisation
- Reducing regulation and becoming an unfettered enterprise economy
- Restoring legislative and judicial sovereignty
- Leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)
- Spending more on the NHS
- Making Britain more open to the world – Global Britain
- Re-orientating the UK towards growth markets in Asia
- Enabling socialism in one state
- Restoring a feeling of what sort of country the UK is
Now, of all of those one can ask whether they are sensible objectives, whether they can be made to work, whether leaving the EU will help achieve them, whether Brexit is the best way to achieve them.
But the key point is that many of them are incompatible. A big programme of deregulation will not appeal to those who want more protection from globalisation.
What is Brexit worth?
Almost every reputable economist holds that Brexit will cost money. The Government has decided to use OBR forecasts which show that Brexit will hit the public purse.
Nor is money the only cost: risk to the Northern Irish peace process, discontent in Scotland, hostility to foreigners, inter-generational conflict, isolation, global irrelevance.
So the second question is: what is Brexit worth? How much sovereignty is it worth buying with how much economic harm?
The Chequers proposal
To her credit, Theresa May’s Chequers Deal is an attempt to answer these questions. She has only ever had two political aims: cut immigration and quit the ECHR. The primary purpose of her Brexit seems to be to end freedom of movement. Her sort-of single market/ customs union in goods is an attempt to minimise the cost.
The deal accepts that in many areas the UK’s formal sovereignty will be so circumscribed as to be absent (because the EU would call off the deal if we exercised that sovereignty, as the Swiss found). She must realise that with nothing to offer on goods the hope of free trade deals is sunk. She surely knows that her talk of a Brexit dividend for the NHS is a misrepresentation.
We should assume that the EU will reject the proposal because it is based on cherry-picking and technological wishful thinking. Her choice will then be to compromise on freedom of movement, in which case it is hard to see what point her Brexit has, or to accept a higher cost.
What is the choice?
The choice is the same as it always has been and as so clearly set out in Michel Barnier’s elegant and intellectually brutal slide; apart from No-deal/WTO, the choice for an agreement with the EU is:
- Norway + Customs Union; or
- Canada-style FTA (plus the Northern Ireland backstop).
The EU will give us either; but not pick and mix.
What is the problem?
Even though each Leaver is absolutely certain that they know the meaning of the 2016 referendum vote they all have different views. The Government have been unable to agree amongst themselves what the point of Brexit is.
Theresa May has done some of the work and understood some of the cost of Brexit and dropped some of the cakeism. But many Brexiters have not. Both Rees-Mogg and Jeremy Corbyn in their different ways refuse to accept that Brexit has costs. That means they see no point in compromising the purity of their dreams.
Brexiters cannot define their aims for two reasons:
- Their coalition would collapse as the difference in objectives became obvious. That in turn would mean the recognition that while there might well be a majority for Brexit when each voter could choose what it meant, there would not be a majority for any one Brexit; and
- Once objectives have been defined all those “how does that work, then” type questions will be asked, and Brexit – and Brexiters – will be found wanting. People who voted for more protection from globalisation will not support Global Britain based on reducing worker protections.
Because Brexit is a religion or a dream not a policy Brexiters cannot compromise on cost or reality grounds. Good policies can survive the collision with reality, bending and adapting as necessary. Religions and dreams either ignore reality or collapse.
That also means that more time will not allow Theresa May to persuade Brexiters of the need for compromise.
Extending the Article 50 deadline would just allow more time not to make a decision on aims, not to face facts about costs. There needs to be a crunch with the deadline.
PS: When an Article 50 extension would make sense
An extension would require the unanimous agreement of Member States. It would also mess up the European Parliament resizing and electoral time-table. So obtaining one would require the expenditure of political capital.
It is not a necessity if what is needed is more time to prepare for Brexit Day. Note that with a standstill transition agreement most things will need to be ready for the end of transition, not Brexit day. So the things that are needed for Brexit Day are UK legislation, rather than physical infrastructure. Remember that the withdrawal agreement may specify Brexit Day and it need not be 29 March 2019.
An extension would only be worth having to enable the UK to have a referendum on the agreed terms of Brexit with the option to Remain – a people’s vote. We should assume that the EU would be willing to agree an extension to allow that vote to go ahead.
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