How to reunite a divided Britain

A Brexit outcome where no-one wins (and everyone loses) 

In a long-awaited speech on Monday, Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn finally set out his views on the sort of Brexit for which Britain should aim.  He came out in favour of Britain remaining in a customs union with the EU – and in doing so moved us into the Brexit mid-game. Huge uncertainties remain; but the odds are now beginning to shorten on the sort of outcome we can reasonably expect. It is one which will leave both Leavers and Remainers equally dismayed.

The uncertainties, of course, are all on the British side. The EU’s position has been clear from the start: departing Britain has a limited range of options for a future economic relationship – customs union, single market, free trade agreement — from which it must choose. Every stage of the negotiations to date has confirmed that the EU holds all the cards and is not going to change this position in any significant way. With his endorsement of customs union, Corbyn has addressed the inevitable choice – and greatly increased the pressure on the government to rouse itself from its cake-filled pipe-dreams and do so as well.

Not that the Corbyn speech was itself a cake-free zone. The agreement on a customs union must entitle Britain, he affirmed, to “have a say in future [EU] trade deals”. Dream on. And, despite his further (and sensible) proposal that the UK should refrain from trying to duplicate the work of a number of EU standards-setting agencies, such as the Food Safety Agency, he rejected any suggestion that Britain could end up “as a passive recipient of rules decided elsewhere by others”. Dream on, again. Nonetheless, his account of the need for a customs union as essential for the future of British manufacturing, and of peace in the island of Ireland, was emphatic and compelling.

Now the government must follow suit or, perhaps more likely, run the very real risk of defeat on the issue in a Parliamentary vote, which in turn could precipitate a general election. At this point, Remainers might dare to hope, the Labour party’s position might ‘evolve’ even further, to the point of readiness to remain in the single market as well as a customs union. Well, dream on to that one, too. In the question session after his speech, Corbyn made it abundantly clear that his decades-old view of the EU as essentially a capitalist conspiracy remains undimmed. He is convinced that single market membership would thwart his socialist economic agenda for the UK; and the hope that more enlightened colleagues like Keir Starmer may yet be able to unconvince him is probably a pipe-dream, too.

So abandon hope, Remainers, of some last-minute retraction of our Article 50 declaration, and prepare yourselves for a Brexit mitigated on the economic side only by a customs union (drawing comfort here from the reflection that, whatever the Tory party convulsions on the point, the EU will want to see a customs union for the sake of Ireland, and so that is what is likely to happen). Be grateful for small mercies; get used to a diminished British role as rule-taker; and hope that the EU will lend a hand to ensure that we benefit from their trade deals (not a given, once we have left the EU). And reflect that Leavers will be no happier, as they watch their fantasies of Global Britain striking uniquely favourable trade deals with far-flung parts of the Anglosphere go up in smoke, and learn that “taking back control” was as vacuous a promise as the infamous “Brexit dividend”.

We are in short now headed for an outcome that will satisfy no-one. This should come as no surprise. For anything other than the hardest form of Brexit was always going to undermine the case for doing Brexit in the first place, whilst representing only damage limitation compared with the uniquely advantageous position we enjoyed within the EU before we decided to leave. The only thing to commend such an outcome to either Leavers or Remainers will be that it is not as bad as the other lot getting their way.

For my own part, as a convinced Remainer, I cannot regard any sort of Brexit with other than dismay. But I may have to reconcile myself to it – and look for silver linings. For example, we may learn a little overdue national humility. We may relearn the merits of Parliamentary democracy over referendums. The young may realise that they really ought to vote. We may have the chance to see whether a radical Corbyn agenda can indeed address the country’s real ills, without that bold experiment being sunk from the outset by the economic body-blow of a hard Brexit.

And I, and the rest of the 48%, may be able to reconcile with the 52% in a shared conclusion that that was all a bit of a cock-up, wasn’t it? Past civil wars have been concluded with the slogan “No victors, no vanquished”. “No winners, all losers” may have to serve us instead.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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