Britain will be closer to the EU in future for sure - GulfToday

Britain will be closer to the EU in future for sure

John Rentoul


Chief Political Commentator, The Independent; visiting professor, King's College, London.

Keir Starmer speaks at the House of Commons in London, Britain. Reuters

Keir Starmer speaks at the House of Commons in London. AFP

Funny business, British politics. Before the 2016 referendum, none of the parties in the House of Commons advocated leaving the EU, which was what the majority of the people wanted. Since we left, none of the parties in the Commons has advocated the UK rejoining the EU, although that is what the majority of the people want – according to the opinion polls.

If the popular majority got its way against the parties in 2016, admittedly after three and a half years of parliamentary deadlock, does that mean that the majority of the people will get their way against the parties this time?

It is not too early to start asking the question, and – although it may be too early to give a definite answer – we can already see which way the answer is going. My unfashionable opinion continues to be that the decision to hold a referendum on EU membership was democratic and right. It was a promise made in the Conservative manifesto in 2015, and the Conservatives won that election. David Cameron did not simply make an irresponsible decision for the sake of internal Tory party management: the Tory turmoil was the product of democratic pressure from outside parliament, which manifested itself in the threat from Ukip to the Tory party.

It can be argued that Cameron should have responded to that pressure in a different way: that he need not have promised a referendum in the first half of the 2015 parliament; that he could have set a 60 per cent threshold, or a requirement that all four parts of the UK must vote in favour, or that there should be a double referendum, one on the principle and one on the deal as negotiated. But any of those would have been seen as an attempt to resist the pressure to give the people a say, which would only have increased that pressure.

In my view, the tragedy of Brexit came after the vote. With a narrow vote in favour of leaving, it seemed right and democratic that the form of Brexit should be as soft as possible. Without an emphatic mandate for leaving, the aim should have been to negotiate a new relationship with the EU that meant we would be outside it, but close.

Specifically, we should not be part of the political structures or the free movement area, because those were the two main objections that people had to EU membership. Provided we were not part of a European superstate and could decide our own immigration policy, the overwhelming majority of the British people would have been happy for our economy to be closely integrated into the EU’s.

This view had respectable support from economists in the months after the referendum. Paul Tucker, a recent deputy governor of the Bank of England, co-wrote a paper in 2016 arguing that the EU single market would work well and still offer significant benefits without free movement of labour.

What was remarkable was that this is precisely what Theresa May negotiated, only she had to pretend for her party’s sake that her Brexit was harder than it was. She secured an amazingly good deal, and I still cannot believe that the EU agreed to it: Britain could have had most of the advantages of EU membership, without being a member and without accepting the free movement of people between the EU and the UK.

Our “temporary” membership of the EU customs union meant our goods would have to abide by EU standards, as enforced by the Court of Justice of the EU, and that we couldn’t have an independent trade policy – but how many people really wanted that anyway?

Labour should have voted for May’s deal. Not only would it have secured a soft Brexit but it would have destroyed the Tory party. May would have become a Tory Ramsay Macdonald, leading a coalition government supported by Labour votes. I don’t think she had the stomach for it, and it was complicated by Jeremy Corbyn leading the opposition at the wrong moment, but it would have been fun to try. And yes, it would have caused parliamentary mayhem, but considering what did ensue, it might have been more in the national interest. And we wouldn’t have had Boris Johnson as prime minister.

But that is a “what if?” of bygones. The question now is what happens to our relationship with the EU next. Next month, it will be two years since the UK left the EU single market at the end of the transition period. For a while, the effect of our departure was obscured by Coronavirus, but now the economic damage is clear.

And public opinion has shifted. An average of 60 per cent say the decision to leave the EU was “wrong”, and 40 per cent say “right”, excluding those who say “don’t know”. The average saying that we should “rejoin” is not quite as high – about 56 per cent – but it is high enough and consistent enough to make the absence of front-line politicians prepared to argue the case seem a little odd.

So far, the most prominent advocate of renegotiating the UK’s relationship with the EU is the anonymous source close to Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, who spoke to The Sunday Times about a Swiss-style deal. This source seemed to be so close to the chancellor that he even sounded like Hunt, who had two days earlier said in public that he was “confident” that “the vast majority of the trade barriers” between the UK and the EU would be removed.

The prime minister was forced to disown such loose talk of renegotiating a softer Brexit. After all, Switzerland accepts free movement between it and the EU, despite at one point a referendum against it.

Meanwhile Keir Starmer continues to frustrate many supporters of a closer EU relationship in his own party by refusing to contemplate anything that goes further than his slogan, “Make Brexit Work”. The Labour leader was so emphatic in a recent interview that he said, when asked if joining the EU single market would boost growth: “No.”

He repeatedly says that there is “no case” for going back into the single market or the customs union, which is self-evidently untrue.

What he means is that it would be politically unwise of him to discuss it, because pro-EU voters who care about the issue will vote Labour (or against the Conservatives) regardless, whereas there is a segment of the electorate who would go back to the Tories if they thought Labour was trying to “reverse Brexit”. Tom Harris, the former Labour MP and head of the Leave campaign in Scotland, thinks that we can believe Starmer when he says the Brexit deal would not be reopened under a Labour government. Whatever Starmer’s private view, Harris says, the electoral logic requires him to hold firm.

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