“This is a critical week for Brexit” is a phrase that seems to have been used so many times in the past 2 and a half years that it has almost lost meaning.
We are all suffering from “Brexhaustion” – we want to move on, we are tired of confusion and uncertainty and we want to talk about something else.
We want someone to find a magic wand to make it all go away easily. Unfortunately that is not going to happen, and this really is the critical week for Brexit. By next Monday Europe will have a much better understanding of the future relationship between the UK and the EU and incredibly all options are still on the table.
The referendum result in 2016 came as such a surprise that many conversations in Spain about Brexit still attempt to explain the reasons for British citizens to vote to leave.
This has at times impeded useful planning for the future – if the focus is on why the British have suddenly done something which seems unthinkable to such a Europhile nation as Spain, then it limits useful engagement and understanding.
The truth is that each country has had different reasons for being part of the EU family and has had different reactions to the project.
For Spain the benefits have been tangible and obvious – as a net direct receiver of funds that sits at the heart of financial and economic integration, the country has seen the EU as an overwhelmingly positive driver of economic growth. In the UK the situation has been more complex, being a net direct contributor in financial terms yet feeling isolated from the heart of decision-making.
The country’s feeling of impotence in the EU has been strengthening for years, beginning in 2014 when David Cameron campaigned strongly against the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as the President of the European Commission and continuing when Cameron attempted to gain commitments for reform in advance of the referendum in 2016.
The media and politicians have not been supportive of the EU domestically, taking credit themselves for any positives and externalising anything that wasn’t a vote winner. Against this backdrop we added vote conditions that favoured “Leave”, with no voting rights for long-term expats or for EU residents in the UK while Commonwealth citizens in the UK could participate, and with instructions from David Cameron that “Remain” could not attack messages with which they disagreed (such as the famous bus promising money to the NHS) because the PM believed that he would continue to govern with Brexiters Boris Johnson and Michael Gove et al and he didn’t want them to lose credibility.
So even before we consider the influence of traditional and social media, a vote to leave the EU should maybe not have seemed so surprising. Even more so when “Leave” was a wide, informal coalition supporting a chimera that could represent any desirable outcomes that each voter was seeking. Uncomfortable with immigration? Vote Brexit. Unhappy with austerity? Vote Brexit. Feeling nostalgic or patriotic? Vote Brexit. Dislike politicians? Vote Brexit. There are lessons in this process for all countries, including Spain, and we would do well to listen with empathy rather than incredulity. Campaigning against the status quo can allow a great deal of flexibility when painting emotional pictures of the future.
I represent the interests of 300 British and Spanish companies who are by their nature internationalists, so it’s no surprise that 97 percent of them did not wish the UK to leave the EU, but the members of the British Chamber of Commerce in Spain are also pragmatic. We accepted the result of the referendum. Unfortunately we then discovered that interpretations of that simple ballot varied widely – and they still do.
In retrospect my media interviews in June 2016 were naïve, I did not imagine the possibility of economic impacts anywhere near as dramatic as those that we now risk. The main narrative of the Leave campaign had been that the country had joined a Common Market and had not wanted such close political ties, so it seemed obvious to me that the UK would remain in the Single Market.
An emotional and political separation while retaining the economic benefits was probably the greatest consensus of British society’s opinion. However, in order to reach 51 percent of voters, the Leave “coalition” had appealed to people’s discomfort with the idea of mass immigration, their desire for more sovereignty and the economic figleaf of global trade deals beyond Europe. The government therefore decided that 17 million people had voted to end Freedom of Movement, avoid the jurisdiction of the ECJ and negotiate FTA’s with 3rd countries.
That interpretation is the reason, the only reason, why the deal negotiated between Michel Barnier and the UK’s Brexit ministers is the best possible agreement between the parties, and also why it satisfies no-one. In an age of absolutes and extremists this deal is an elastic band stretched across the English Channel trying desperately to keep both coastlines in sight. Too close to Europe for Brexit supporters, too damaging for Remain supporters and too little evidence that it will make the country better in any way.
From the British Chamber of Commerce in Spain’s point of view the deal currently awaiting ratification is not one that we can support. We do not believe that the British government’s “red lines” are a faithful interpretation of the referendum’s result, we see no evidence that a majority of the British people wish to end Freedom of Movement and to accept the economic and societal consequences of that. Our member companies are extremely concerned about future talent flows and we do not support any solution that voluntarily limits the migration that has such a positive effect on our businesses and our lives.
So what happens next? It seems that the Prime Minister’s tactic of attempting to scare Brexiters into avoiding No Brexit and scare Remainers into avoiding No Deal is doomed to fail. It was always going to be difficult to achieve both at the same time, and the deal is not likely to be ratified. Parliament is successfully wresting control from the executive, which we must remember is a minority government, and Mrs May will be forced to spell out her next steps within a week.
Several prominent figures are encouraging her to pursue a No Deal Brexit and the government is spending millions of pounds to begin preparations for this scenario. Suggestions have been made publicly that the country should renege on the payment that has been negotiated to settle future liabilities and that the EU is likely to concede an improved deal at the last minute. There should be no place for such recklessness in these critical times – a No Deal Brexit would be cataclysmic for the UK economy and damaging to Spain, withholding payment for the country’s responsibilities would have dramatic effects on both the country’s reputation and our ability to trade internationally in the future and it has been clear that the EU27 has been committed and united throughout the process.
A vote of no confidence in the government may lead to a general election. Lest we forget, there has already been a general election since the referendum vote, an election which failed to produce a majority government and in which both main parties campaigned on implementing Brexit, so a repetition does not seem to be any type of useful solution for our members.
Which leaves the possibility of a second referendum. This is where Spain and the EU need to reflect. What reasons do we have to believe the result would be different and what are we doing to influence that positively? Seventeen million people in one of the largest European economies were so dissatisfied at being EU citizens that they voted to leave. That should give us pause for thought.
Many millions of Spaniards wish for the UK to remain in the EU, and I would encourage them and their government to consider what reasons they can offer for them to do so. Not reasons for British exceptionalism but a careful consideration of what improvements can be made in both the reality and the understanding of the EU’s value to all of its citizens in the coming decades. It’s true that leaving the EU is complicated and expensive, but they are not good reasons to stay – barriers to exit seldom are. Let’s work together, building consensus and understanding, to share a vision of how all 28 countries could potentially build on the undoubted successes of the past and build towards a clear vision of the future.
To paraphrase one of the UK’s most successful European expatriates, Oscar Wilde – to lose one European Referendum may be regarded as misfortune, to lose a second would look like carelessness.