A delusion appears to have gripped those charged with negotiating Brexit. Egged on by the right-wing media and its jingoistic invocations of Britain’s ‘bulldog spirit’, the Prime Minister and much of her cabinet appear to be in thrall to the idea that it will be possible for the UK to leave the EU yet nevertheless secure better terms than if it remained a member.
In no small part this conceit that a best of all worlds Brexit is possible is born of a misplaced though still pervasive sense of British exceptionalism, of the kind that has long informed the thinking of Tory Eurosceptics. Because Britain is presumed to be more important to Europe than Europe is to Britain, they believe it will be possible to force the EU 27 to accept a deal in which the UK gets most if not all of the benefits of membership at a fraction of the cost and without any of the responsibility/downsides. It is a fantasy, yes, but one that survives and even prospers precisely because of its political expedience.
To wit, the problem facing not just the government but British politics in general is that though a modest overall majority voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, no one knows quite what they meant by their vote. There’s agreement over what words to say. That ‘Brexit means Brexit’. But little agreement over what those words mean. And into this void has stepped a mirage, invoked in desperation by a weak and divided government that’s rapidly shrinking in face of the size of the task which confronts it, of a ‘smooth and orderly’ Brexit in which everything will be entirely different yet remain exactly the same.
In a way in which we’re told will allow the UK to avoid suffering any ill-effects from leaving the trading bloc to which it’s belonged since 1973, we’re going to end free movement of people and leave the single market yet nevertheless retain easy access to both it and the migrant labour on which the British economy is so dependent. We also plan to leave the customs union yet maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. And in addition to that we’re going to be free to negotiate our own trade deals and write our own laws. Except, that is, when we aren’t.
At times there’ll be regulatory ‘alignment’. At others, ‘divergence’. We’re going to be partially in, partially out. The same, but different. A little bit Brexit. In, out, in, out, and shake the EU all about. This, in a nutshell, is the position of Theresa May’s Conservative government. Though even calling it a position is charitable: It’s more wishful thinking than anything else. Wishful thinking, moreover, that is in plentiful supply on the Labour front bench, too.
As should be clear by now, however, it’s Brussels that will dictate the terms of Brexit, not Westminster. And they have no incentive to allow Britain to have its cake and eat it, even if it comes at a cost to them. To do so would undermine the integrity and very purpose of the EU itself. What, after all, would be the point of full membership and its associated burdens if you could get a better deal for less?
There is the Norway option, of course. However to receive (most of) the benefits of membership without joining Norway not only pays handsomely for the privilege; it’s also ceded significant sovereignty to the EU, most notably on matters of immigration—the very thing millions of people voted to regain control over, in a referendum where this was arguably the single most important issue. Norway, in short, has little control and even less say. It’s a sort of vassal state by choice.
In light of this the recently-agreed trade deal between Canada and the EU, wherein the former cedes less and pays less but also receives less seems more in-line with the spirit of the referendum. Most appealingly, it’s massively reduced economic barriers while nevertheless avoiding significant political entanglement. Yet while this approach could provide a template for Britain’s future relationship with the EU, it’s very difficult to see how such an arrangement could stretch to accommodate a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. For all the talk of eliminating barriers there is still what amounts to a hard border between Canada and the EU.
More significant again, Brussels has made it clear that it’s not going allow a bespoke deal in which the UK gets to cherry-pick the best of both options. ‘We won’t mix up the various scenarios to create a specific one and accommodate their wishes—mixing, for instance, the advantages of the Norwegian model, member of the single market, with the simple requirements of the Canadian one. No way. They have to face the consequences of their own decision’, lead EU negotiator Michel Barnier told Prospect magazine in December. Nevertheless the delusion that this is on the table persists. But it cannot do so indefinitely.
Which brings us to the famous cat in Schrödinger’s thought experiment about the nature of a universe governed by the laws of quantum mechanics. Most readers will be familiar with the details: Stuck in a box, along with a poison that may or may not have been released, before the box is opened we have no choice but to say the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. Before the act of opening the box and observing the cat’s state, it’s impossible to say whether it’s one or the other. This leaves us with little option but to conclude it’s both, no matter how ridiculous this perhaps sounds.
Much the same applies to idea that Britain can be simultaneously both in and out of the EU. On the face of it this is an obviously absurd proposition, that as with Schrödinger’s cat is only sustainable as long as the box remains unopened. As long, that is, as Brexit negotiations are in the political twilight zone they are now, where nothing is decided and everything remains possible. At present this fog surrounding Brexit may have certain advantages, both in terms of allowing both sides room for manoeuvre as well as in respect of helping to paper over the cracks that exist around Theresa May’s cabinet table. Yet, as useful as the capacity to fudge and backtrack may be in the short-term, ultimately, it will only postpone the agony.
Sooner or later hard decisions will have to be made, inconsistencies ironed out, and a workable agreement arrived at. Only then, once the Brexit box is opened, will we find out whether what’s inside is dead or alive. In the meantime, it is very much a case of hope for the best but plan for the worst.