When David Cameron announced the in-out EU referendum in early 2014, he had blithely assured his European colleagues that the UK would easily vote to remain. While his hubris was undoubtedly met with skepticism, he probably thought after the Scottish referendum that that because he had ‘won’, the EU referendum would be won as well. He was able to get a small but significant package of concessions from the EU in early 2016 before the referendum, but this would obviously never be enough to assuage the insatiable demagogy of the Brexiteers.
What Cameron likely did not fathom, which Scots know all too well from their referendum, was the capacity of the UK media and politicians through scare stories, propaganda, and demagogy to make the debate so awful and revolting that a positive case for anything is virtually impossible to make. Incredibly detailed yet accessible explanations of the functioning of the EU and what it would mean, such as this one by Michael Dougan, were completely absent from the media. If he had been in some BBC Question Time-style debate, he likely would have been insulted and belittled, and called a ‘Euro-fanatic’ by Nigel Farage.
So it was with no surprise whatsoever that I woke up on June 24 to the news that the UK had narrowly voted as a whole to leave the EU. All of the time-tested xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric, promises of restoring lost sovereignty and ‘taking our country back’, putting NHS lies on the sides of buses, and breezily asserted monumental lies about what the EU actually is sadly won the day. Unsurprisingly, the most googled item on the day after the referendum was ‘What is the EU?’
Then we had the Murdoch-Rothemere-Barclay-Desmond right-wing press arranged psychodrama of replacing David Cameron with Theresa May as PM, plus the appointment of the Three Brexiteers Boris Johnson as Foreign Minister, David Davis as Brexit Minister, and Liam Fox as Trade minister. Their only requirements appear to have been that they were pro-Brexit and right wing, irrespective of competence. Why else would these manifestly-out-of-their-depth Tories be chosen?
The reality of the undertaking is sinking in.
The EU is based on the freedom of movement of people, goods, services, and capital. Any member must accept these four freedoms, and those in the single market but not in the EU like Norway and Switzerland must nevertheless respect all 4 freedoms, pay into the EU budget, obey all EU trade laws, yet have no say over making them. Any deal the UK could get in which they can remain in the single market would be the same.
The rules of the single market have been developed over decades, and are of mind-numbing complexity. They cover commonly agreed areas of competence: product safety, aerospace, financial regulation, fisheries: the list goes on and on. The whole point of the EU was to make these rules collectively, so that these four freedoms could be exercised unhindered among member-states. All businesses in the UK must abide by them to have EU market access, and many international corporations invest in the UK explicitly because the UK is a member of the single market.
Much of the campaign was centered around the notion that the UK was no longer sovereign, Brussels was, and that the UK had to wrest back control. Made-up statistics about the percentage of UK laws coming from Brussels and outright lies about EU regulating the shape of bananas obscured the massively complex legal system that will have to be replaced as the UK disentangles itself from EU law upon departure.
So far, the only shred of a solution has been the proposed ‘Great Repeal Bill’, in which Parliament would simply copy/paste all EU law into UK law, allowing them to later pick out the laws they don’t like: worker protection, labour rights, consumer product standards, and auto safety regulations to name a few.
Meanwhile, the UK government is still publicly stating that they will get the ‘best deal’ for Britain, even as it becomes increasingly clear that the single market is not on offer if the UK insists on restricting the freedom of movement. The 18-month negotiating period will likely only cover the divorce, not the new relationship, nor an interim deal if one even is possible. It is likely that any post-Brexit trade deal will take a decade at least, and it’s unclear how much good-will or urgency the EU will feel for the UK once they have left.
The Brexiteers are aroused by the prospect of cutting free trade deals all over the globe, oblivious to the fact that they are leaving the largest and most successful free-trade area in the world. While a few countries have said that they might negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal, guess what? They’re sovereign countries with their own interests, and will drive a hard bargain. Given that the UK will no longer offer EU market access, there will be even less incentive. Also, the UK has very few skilled trade negotiators, because the EU has been negotiating on their behalf for the last 40 years.
There is also the very real possibility of the breakup of the UK over Brexit, which I described in my previous column.
So while pro-Brexit politicians go on the telly and talk about what a great deal they will get from the EU, and how they get to sign all these trade-deals, the reality is that it is entirely conceivable that by Spring of 2018, Scotland will be on the way to independence, Ireland will be moving towards reunification, Spain will be claiming sovereignty over Gibraltar, and England will find itself having to fall back on WTO trading rules, which would still require consent of the other 163 members.
What a self-inflicted disaster. Scotland can only be sheltered through a successful independence referendum during the negotiations.