Theresa May the likely next Prime Minister said “Brexit is Brexit’ but it’s not going to be as simple as that, and in her own words, when she said that “government and parliament” should make sure it happens, she was in the same breath leaving the door open for parliamentary involvement. She also talked of continued access to and negotiations on the single market. Already some European leaders (Sarkozy for example) are talking about an accommodation, keeping the UK in the EU.
The situation as I see it is as follows. May says the UK won’t invoke Article 50, which sets off a 2-year timetable for withdrawal, until the new year. This is because once the Article is invoked it puts the UK in an extremely weak bargaining position, since the EU could simply sit us out and not agree to anything.
On their side, at the moment, for precisely these reasons, EU officials are saying “no informal negotiations” before Article 50. Why would they – throwing away their bargaining advantage?
Of course the UK does have some leverage -since the EU does want to maintain good relations and trade with the UK.
However, it’s inconceivable that May can negotiate continued full access to the single market without huge concessions on freedom of movement – which animated much of the vote against the EU. You can’t have your cake and eat it.
Additionally, in order to have access to the single market – or even somewhat free access to the single market – the UK will also have to abide by many of the laws and regulations that people fulminated against during the referendum.
The EU is not going to give the UK a free ride – of course not. Not only because it’s logical and reasonable to have to make reciprocal concessions to have the advantages of the single market, but also because the EU wants to make sure it’s known that there’s a price for leaving, in order to warn other countries not to.
So whatever she does, however skillfully negotiated, even supposing that EU officials will relent and consent to informal negotiations -which because of political pressures might indeed happen – she can’t present a fantastic deal: the more access she gains, the more it will be like still being a member of the EU, but without any say at all on EU policy; or she will have a bad deal which gives us much more limited access, but with fewer obligations to the EU.
Nevertheless, the government will spin this as a “good deal for Britain.” But there will be major factors making this a tough stance to defend. One: the very likely break-up of the UK which will follow -with Scotland leaving and a hornet’s nest opened in Northern Ireland. Two – very likely a major weakening, if not terminal destruction of the City – which will inevitably lose its power since it will be outside the EU, and major financial operators will naturally want their operations to be inside the EU. So there will be enormous pressure from many groups and interests – not least business – and enormous consequences for any proposed deal.
Obviously Remainers will be extremely critical of the deal – asking why it is superior to simply staying in the EU in the first place. And they will have a good point.
My best guess? There’s a 65% to 35% chance that the government will simply push it through, without a parliamentary vote – propelled by the continuing animus against the EU and the referendum outcome.
But that means there’s a 35% chance of three other outcomes:
- A vote in parliament to approve or not approve the deal
- A general election to approve the deal
- A second referendum on the deal
It will largely depend on: how much dissatisfaction and pressure there will be around the deal. Whether a lot of people are calling for a parliamentary vote. Where the Labour Party is positioned. Whether, given a protracted and difficult negotiation process, people will begin to tire of the whole process and come round to thinking the status quo wasn’t as bad as all that. Whether European and EU politicians dangle some incentives before the UK to entice it to stay in – such as some kind of opt-out on completely free movement – a second tier of countries with different rules on this – as already mooted by some.
So a lot of things could happen – and as US officials are suggesting – which they wouldn’t if there was no possibility of it – there are still several scenarios in which the UK would remain in the EU.
PS – footnote: I suspect a key to this is the “free movement’ element – which I think is the core fear/animus/question in the electorate. If some kind of deal could be offered on this – from the EU itself (ie the two tier option, as Sarkozy is suggesting, allowing some to opt out of completely free movement,which of course would have to be a Europe wide deal, not just specifically for the UK) – I think the government would then have cover to say the referendum’s goals have been met – yay! – and could then say we we can proceed as a full member – thus obviating the other downsides – damage to the City; UK break up; recession and job losses caused by limited access to the single market.