On 23 June 2016 the United Kingdom (UK) voted to leave the European Union (EU). This decision has become known as ‘Brexit’. Since then there have been a stream of comments from many directions on what Brexit means and how people will be affected.
The discussions are taking place in many different areas and are wide ranging in their particular subjects. From these interactions a number of very different viewpoints are emerging. All that is clear, at the moment, seems to be that no one knows what will happen and that Brexit means different things to different people.
Here I parcel the current discussions into four approaches among the many different interpretations currently being offered.
a) It’ll never happen
The result of the referendum was simply a protest vote. People don’t really want to leave the EU and will avoid doing so. Furthermore, leaving the EU will prove impractical and, sooner or later, the government will sort this anomaly out. This overlooks the result of the referendum – it has happened – and focusses on the reaction to it.
In fact David Cameron refused to take part in Brexit negotiations and took little time in resigning. The consequent kerfuffle, while not insignificant, has meant that the UK now has a prime minister who was selected by a relatively small number of MPs, not by the Conservative membership and certainly not by the general electorate.
This view is very passive and may simply be denial. Things may work out this way, they may not. If they do then whoopee. If they don’t then … what?
b) It’s already happened
Within the EU, the UK has blocked social reform, financial integration, and environmental improvement. It has done this because such things are to be thought of as thoroughly un-British, amounting to nothing less than handing control of the UK to a bunch of ‘unelected foreigners’. So it would seem that we don’t have to do anything other than carry on as before.
However, previous UK governments, such as those led by Ted Heath, John Major and Tony Blair, sought to take a full part in the European Project. So rather than act as ‘the voice of reason’ or ‘the awkward squad’, they were happy to transfer a range of powers. This has left the current government constantly saying ‘no’ while handing over large amounts of taxpayers’ cash to the EU.
On this view, Brexit is a ‘quickie divorce’ formalising what has been the case for a long time. Brexit is a simple matter of straightening things out and, once the dust settles, we should all be a few quid better off.
c) It shouldn’t have ever happened
The bedrock of the UK is the continental shelf. This goes under the channel and joins the UK to the rest of Europe permanently and irrevocably. Politically, the UK is joined to the rest of Europe in a similar way. Any attempt to remove and isolate the UK will be catastrophic.
To support this view, several very senior figures spent several months pushing a message of impending disaster. Cameron and Osborne campaigned for Remain. Labour when under Harriet Harman appointed Alan Johnson to lead ‘Labour In For Britain’, if anyone noticed.
The difficulty with this view is that the UK has voted to Leave. What became clear after the referendum was that neither the Cameron government nor the leaders of the Leave campaign had a clear plan for Brexit. They seem to assume it will never happen.
d) The sooner it happens the better
The EU was a drag on the UK and the sooner we’re out the better. The result of the referendum shows that most people in the UK think this way. This is the sort of thing pushed by UKIP.
Theresa May tells us that “Brexit means Brexit” and those who dare suggest that maybe it wasn’t a good idea after all are dubbed post-Brexit whingers. Taking things to the High Court and the Supreme Court probably didn’t help change this attitude but at least MPs will now get a vote on what happens.
On this view the scaremongers will be shown to be wrong because the fall in the pound is a blip and the rise in inflation is ‘worth it’. Either that or Brexit will mean that prices rise, wages fall and there are fewer legal protections in place for ordinary people.
At the moment, three different issues are being mixed together:
- Why people voted for Brexit
- What Brexit will actually be
- When Brexit will take place.
This leaves us in a position where different people attribute different things to Brexit and the government declines to offer any clarity or any guidance beyond saying that they’re working on it. Indeed David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, has so far managed to contradict Theresa May and wants to stay in the European Single Market.
As for the EU itself, there are moves to be tough with the UK, partly to discourage others from taking the same path. For example, if the UK is to stay in the European Single Market, it may need to accept freedom of movement for EU passport holders. So for all the talk of ‘Hard Brexit’ the UK could still have one foot in the door.