After Brexit: This is the beginning of the debate not the end

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The Brexit transition period is over and so today, some of those who have remained opposed in principle to the UK leaving the UK have announced their intention to re-join. This is their democratic right and Brexiteers who campaigned for many years to leave should respect their right to campaign for what they believe in, just as it is crucial for Remainers to acknowledge that the decision to leave the EU was also a democratic decision.

What this shows however is that far from Brexit being the end of the debate, it is in fact only the beginning.  Indeed, the nature of the referendum debate and the parliamentary shenanigans have perhaps postponed rather than facilitated that much needed debate.  In this article, I want to address some of the key issues that need to be considered both by those who supported or have accepted Brexit and those who remain committed to re-joining the EU.

At the heart of the debate is the question “What would be the argument for re-joining the EU.”  You see, that argument should be very different from the argument for remaining. It is much easier to defend the status-quo on the basis that change will lead to risk, uncertainty and a loss of benefits. However the Remain campaign failed and so, first of all, that should encourage some form of reflection just as when a political party is defeated in a General Election.

The primary arguments for staying in the EU were to do with economic and personal benefits.  The EU via the Customs Union and the Single Market provided for frictionless trade  without tariffs and freedom of movement enable people to move between countries.  Now, if you believe in freedom of movement and free trade, then it is perfectly reasonable to make the case for tariff free borders and a relaxed approach to immigration.  However, those are not arguments for re-joining the EU and there are plenty of people who voted to leave who would have at least some sympathy with such arguments. The point therefore is this, arguments about taxation levels, customs checks and freedom to visit and reside in different countries are not really arguments for joining the EU. They are arguments for the type of trade and cooperation treaties that we might want to sign in the future.

Those who favour re-joining the EU need to find a more compelling argument.  Their problem is this, that over our 40 year history, the British people never enjoyed a particularly emotional attachment to the EU. Our relationship to the institution has always been pragmatic and thus if the benefits we sought from membership  are achievable outside of the project then we have no reason to get involved again.  It is ironic that the concept of emotional attachment and identity was the dog that didn’t bark in 2016 even though this seems to have become more important since.

I suspect that much of what we see in terms of this sudden angst about losing an identity and supposed emotional attachment has very little to do with genuine form of patriotic attachment to the continent and is more to do with a surrogate for anti-Tory fervour and anger at austerity measures from a point in  time when it was impossible for many to openly identify with the main opposition due to its Marxist and anti-Semitic sympathies at the time. I would not be surprised if such emotions subside as the memory of Corbynism fades into history.

To be honest, I think the campaign to re-join the EU is a bit of a lost cause, particularly now that a trade deal is in place and it will take something quite significant to change that. For as long as those promoting the keep fighting the same old battles then little will change.

However, this doesn’t mean that those who either supported Brexit or are now reconciled to it haven’t got some serious thinking to do.  You see, leaving the EU still leaves important questions unanswered about Britain’s future, our relationships with each other and our relationship with the world around us.

It is my view that the Brexit debate was at best no more than a footnote in a much bigger and more historical debate, a debate that predates not only our entry into the European Communities but even the modern left-right or socialist-capitalist debate. It is a debate that crosses party boundaries and crosses the Leave-Remain divide and in the past has ripped political parties apart.

The divide is between those who support free trade and free movement versus those who support protectionism. That’s the real issue that needs to be resolved now.  Those who favour freedom of trade and movement will have to accept that with that will come things such as the consequences of globalisation including higher immigration, cheap imports and of course the possibility that just as the UK might use flexible labour laws and low taxes to attract inward investment, so too can we expect to see businesses to relocate abroad in order to benefit of favourable economic climates elsewhere.

However, protectionists also need to be open about their position too. Now, some (primarily those on the left) Brexit supporters have been up front about this. They’ve argued that the UK will benefit from border controls that introduce barriers to the free movement of goods and people. They argue that this enables us to introduce state aid to help protect British jobs.  They’ve also been open in their argument that mass immigration carries negative consequences for the countries of origin.  It is important that protectionists on the right are open about their approach too.

At the same time, it is important to get out into the open that many pro-remainers are really protectionists who don’t support freedom of movement and trade either.  Guy Verhofstadt exposed this truth a few years back when he argued at the Lib Dem conference that the future belonged to empires. The EU is not about encouraging ever increasing freedom of movement and trade. It is about creating a powerful protectionist block where movement in and out is controlled by borders and tariffs and those within the block benefit from subsidies and grants. 

Whether inside or outside of the EU, those are still the choices the UK has to make. Do we think the world is a better placed with minimal border checks, low taxes and low state intervention or whether it is a better place for those controls, checks, balances and interventions.

The Referendum and its aftermath sadly descended into a bidding war for who could be toughest on immigration and project fear from both sides.  This means we never really had the mature conversation needed. Perhaps as we head into 2021 with the pressure of article 50 and transition periods now off, we can have that conversation.

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