Next week, parliament goes into recess for the summer. Save for a few days in September, MPs are not scheduled to be back at Westminster until 9 October. By then, six of the 24 months allotted for negotiating the UK’s exit from the European Union and Britain’s future relationship with the EU will have passed. In practice, there will only be a year remaining until all the big issues are supposed to be provisionally settled and the process of confirmation begins. As the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, keeps saying, the clock is ticking.
British politics and British society remain in denial about what is at stake, about the issues involved, and about the wasted time so far. Political debate about Brexit has struggled to move on from the 2016 referendum and has barely begun to adjust to the result of the 2017 election. Many in Britain continue to refight the referendum. Ministers remain divided, vague and in too many cases merely flippant. The public remains largely in the dark about the decisions that ministers are on the verge of having to take. That has to change. The country’s future is on the line. Millions of livelihoods are affected.
Summer holidays are not an ideal time to face realities, but the realities must be faced, and faced now – and be explained and debated. Before parliament returns in the autumn, Britain must try to clarify the future relationship it seeks, not just in terms of sovereignty, law and alliances, but in terms of the economy, jobs and standards of living too. An agenda is required on which progressive MPs of all parties might broadly agree.
The starting point for this process is to agree to seek as soft a Brexit as is practically possible. In essence, a soft Brexit puts the economy first. It requires government to commit to making a deal within the time available, not allowing the process to drive off a cliff, unfinished, at the end. That means making it clear that Britain embraces the inevitability of transitional arrangements.
Having accepted that practicality, the first item of business is to agree the terms of departure from the EU. The UK has already conceded that these issues must be dealt with first. Three main items have to be addressed here: EU and UK citizens’ rights in one another’s jurisdictions; the Irish border; and the financial bill payable by the UK. On rights, the aim must be maximal not minimal, and the UK must accept an arbitration system that does not exclude the European court of justice. On Ireland, the goal must be identical border practicalities to those that now exist. On the bill, Britain should pay what it owes to the EU as long as the transitional period continues. In practice that means paying over a longer period of time.
The next imperative is to secure the British economy and the prosperity of the public in the long term. That would be best done by remaining within both the single market and the customs union for the duration of the transitional period and, perhaps, beyond. That is not at odds with Brexit. The UK would still cease to be a member of the EU. This would put the UK at a disadvantage, because it will no longer be a single market rule-maker. That, though, is what the public voted for in 2016.
Remaining within the single market would, however, mean accepting freedom of movement broadly as it exists at present. Many assumptions are made about the public view on this issue. The country now has to decide its priorities and where it stands. Are economic security and social stability enhanced or weakened by accepting freedom of movement? Progressives should seek to win the argument for the former. Even if the decision is to leave the single market, however, the case for remaining in the customs union endures. To leave the customs union would be devastating to modern supply chains. Staying is vital to a positive outcome on the Irish border question. It would also protect the UK against unfavourable trade deals with countries like the US that could undermine UK food and farming regulations.
If Britain is to remain inside the single market and the customs union, while leaving the EU, it must also soften its current resistance to the jurisdiction of the European court of justice. The ECJ is no more a threat to sovereignty than is any other international arbitration system or court to which the UK adheres. Only fanatics obsess about the ECJ. There is no reason for it to be a deal breaker. A more open UK approach to arbitration solutions and the ECJ would also make it easier for the UK to remain within or attached to some of the devolved regulatory agencies that the same fanatics insist on leaving. These include Euratom and the European medicines and environment agencies.
Would we start from where we are now if we could avoid it? Absolutely not. The Guardian opposed UK withdrawal from the EU. Brexit is still the wrong course for this country. But the decision to leave was taken, so it must be honoured, but honoured in a manner which does least harm to the nation and its interests, in particular to those who stand to suffer most from it. This means prioritising the economically vulnerable, whether they are UK or EU citizens. But it also means being constructive about the concerns of the devolved parts of the UK that voted remain, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Unless and until the national mood clearly changes, which it may and which we hope in time that it will, Brexit is a reality. There is no groundswell for a second vote on the issue at the moment. But nor is there a groundswell for paying a high economic price for Brexit. The imperatives are to take the strategic view and to do least damage to the things that matter most. The leave vote was a vote to withdraw from the EU, but it was not a vote to become a poorer, less secure or less law-abiding nation. It was not a vote to build walls against the world, or to turn our back on Europe, of which the geography and culture ensure we shall always be part.