The English voted to leave the European Union. Did they vote to leave Europe? The reasons for the result are a matter for debate but we know they voted firmly against “ever closer union”. We are being told, by all sides, that belonging to reformed and democratically accountable European confederation is not an option. We are therefore left with re-establishing the UK’s traditional position as an entrepot between the European continent and the “rest of the world”. Neither fully a part of Europe nor fully apart from it. Meanwhile the Union appears to be sliding into a downward spiral of introverted protectionism. Europe has a history of political turmoil in years ending with “8”: 1848, 1918, 1968 … will the Union survive 2018?
I “held my nose and voted remain” , with the intention of then redoubling my efforts to help bring about reform. Some of my peers voted leave because they felt it was the only way of bringing about the creation of a genuine single market, whether digital of otherwise.
Recently Michel Barnier said we have 18 months to negotiate Brexit . He may well be right. Without a deal that is acceptable to all sides, the Union is unlikely to survive much more than 18 months. The stresses over the Canadian trade deal indicate that agreement on anything is all but impossible. The way forward is therefore an evolving web of ongoing ad hoc and piecemeal negotiations covering the areas where players want to reach agreement. Those areas where they do not will be left to the labyrinth of WTO disputes resolution processes, making London, as home to most of the worlds international trade lawyers, even richer.
Hence my view that a FLEXIT parachute (covered with layers of Brussels fudge to conceal reality) is more likely than BREXIT (whether hard or soft).
Meanwhile, we have the unedifying sight of former Brussels lobbyists trying to keep the status quo while Brexiteers squabble about what they mean. Most of the Brussels establishment appears paralysed in the face of multiple threats to its way of life – not just from the UK. In consequence we have megaphone diplomacy accompanied by expectations that a deal will be made behind closed doors – a denial of the democratic revolt behind the referendum result.
We need to remember that the current single market, including freedom of movement, is a typical piece of Brussels fudge. Only “Les Gibbies” (GB stands for “guiles be bois”, the woodentops, too thick to understand when they are being sent up) take it seriously.
Freedom of Movement does not, for example, apply to British Lorry drivers, without the equivalent of “A Level” French and a certificate in French Transport law, who wish to pick up and drop parcels or containers within France as part of a triangular route. Native French speakers do not have to take the tests – reasons that my informant, fluent in “lorry drivers’ french”, could not explain. The time has come to look at how other member states encourage the “freedom of movement” they want while blocking that which they do not want – whether from other member states or from other parts of the world. We also need to publish data on which immigrant groups contribute more than they cost and which employers import what skills – to enable informed debate.
I have spent over twenty years trying to make a reality of the digital single market but it can still be cheaper and easier to acquire digital content of EU origin via the United States or China, than across an EU Border. The kinds of cross-border price discrimination that were outlawed forty years ago in the car industry are still rampant in the on-line world – enforced by geo-blocking and global law firms.
The time has come to look at what we really want to keep from the wreckage of the European Union when it falls apart and is rebuilt as a democratically accountable confederation in the wake of the elections and referenda of 2017 – 18.
As the negotiations evolve, we should support those projects and initiatives that we like. This might well entail increasing our contributions and commitment to well run, forward looking, infrastructure, research and skills programmes. At the same time we should make clear that our contributions to the cost of, for example, the duplicate Parliament in Strasbourg, or to programmes to support European Tobacco Farmers, will cease.
We need to stop agonising over what Brexit means and start fighting for what we want from Flexit and are willing to pay for. That entails unpacking meaningless slogans like “we want to remain in the digital single market” or “we must keep freedom of movement” into their component parts. Which bits of what has been achieved to date do we wish to keep? Which meaningless compromises do we want to either drop or turn into reality?