• Brexit Explained

    For most New Zealanders, Brexit remains an impenetrable mystery – and, as the saga lurches from one crisis to the next, (most recently, with the rejection of Theresa May’s “exit deal” by the House of Commons) – the British are equally at a loss.

    As someone who was – as both diplomat and politician in Britain – closely involved with these issues over a period of decades, I have the temerity to attempt an explanation of why they are so confused and difficult to resolve.

    What is called “Brexit” in fact covers three separate but obviously linked issues. First, is the decision by a majority in the 2016 referendum that the UK should leave the European Union. Secondly, is the exit deal that has to be negotiated with the EU – that is, the terms on which the UK will be permitted to leave. And thirdly, there is the “political declaration” – an agreed statement by the UK and the EU as to how they see their future post-exit relationship developing.

    Much of the difficulty that the ordinary public, in both the UK and New Zealand, has in understanding the issues arises because various parties with conflicting objectives have a common interest in jumbling together these three separate issues.

    To take the referendum decision in favour of leaving the UK first. That decision must be regarded, whether one agrees with it or not, as the definitive judgment by the British people on their more than 40 years experience (not a snap judgment therefore) of being part – not of “Europe” but of a particular organisation that has evolved to become the European Union.

    That judgment was a negative one, and one that only the people could make. They may be told by “experts”of various sorts that they got it wrong, that they “don’t understand” and that they were misled. But only they had the day-today experience over decades of seeing their jobs disappear, of feeling that the country they lived in was no longer their own because all the decisions that mattered were made in Brussels, of seeing their streets and neighbourhoods, schools and health clinics taken over by immigrants from Eastern Europe.

    It is no accident that the pro-Brexit votes were delivered in large numbers in the north of England rather than in the more affluent south where people were less exposed to the daily reality of these downsides.

    It is not as though the facts do not support the popular concerns. Over the period of EU membership, Britain’s manufacturing industry was decimated and Britain’s trade languished in perennial deficit – so much for the supposed economic benefits of EU membership – and that is to say nothing of the large taxpayer-funded annual subscription paid into EU coffers.

    These consequences had been forecast by commentators such as myself at the point when Britain joined what was then the Common Market in 1973. It was clear to us that Common Market membership would require Britain to give up its access to preferential treatment for its manufactures in Commonwealth countries and to efficiently produced food and raw materials from those same countries, and to face up to direct competition from German manufacturing in their own home market – with consequent damage to British living standards, trade and manufacturing.

    Those who oppose Brexit, however, choose not to recognise these consequences of EU membership and have focused instead on trying to overturn the referendum decision. Both the EU itself and Remainers in Britain have sought to discredit the case for Brexit by praying in aid the quite separate issue of the difficulties posed in the way of withdrawal. It has served both their purposes to discredit the whole idea of Brexit – (an issue that had surely been resolved by the referendum) – by emphasising the problems raised by the process of withdrawal.

    For the unelected EU bureaucrats, it has been necessary to show to other members that withdrawal is not an easy option. Their concern has been to deter others (of whom there are many) who are unhappy at the way that the European Union has operated and, in particular, has weakened and in some cases destroyed the economies of countries like Greece, Spain and even Italy.

    They have been encouraged to make withdrawal as difficult as possible by those elements of domestic opinion which retain the hope of re-opening the whole issue. Neither seems to realise that the difficulties placed in the way of withdrawal will simply confirm to the British people the value of getting out of an entanglement that threatens to throttle them.

    Similar forces have been at work in the difficulty Theresa May has had in securing support from the British Parliament for her exit deal. Her problem has been the convergence of very different interests on the part of those who have their own (differing) reasons for resisting the exit deal. There are the members of her own party and of Parliament in general who oppose Brexit and the referendum decision and want to see it overturned. Conversely, there are also many in her party who believe that her exit deal does not go far enough in breaking Britain’s links with the EU. Add to these, the normal Parliamentary opposition from the Labour Party and the concerns of the DUP – the Government’s coalition partners from Norther Ireland – and throw in the ambitions of those in her own Party who want to replace her as leader and you have a toxic mixture of anti-deal votes.

    The dilemma now facing the British Parliament is that no next step is likely to resolve the problem. Replacing Theresa May as Prime Minister or the Tories as the government would leave the Brexit situation exactly where it is now – that is, unresolved. A second referendum would be no better, representing, as it would, the additional downside that it would be seen as a denial of the democratic decision taken by British voters and reinforcing the sense they had from the outset that their voices were not being listened to.

    The short-sighted decision taken in Westminster means that the most likely outcome is a no-deal exit – one that is undoubtedly risky and potentially damaging. Those who have engineered it have no one to blame but themselves.

    Bryan Goud
    16 January 2019