"BREXIT" after the British election

Par The Hon. David Kilgour le 26 juin 2017

Emmanuel Macron, president of France, is correct about Britain’s post-election Brexit realities. At a joint news conference with Prime MinisterTheresa May in Paris last week, he said the UK decision to leave the EU could be reversed: “As the negotiations go on, it will be more and more difficult to go backwards...”

May knows she must respect the positions on Brexit of other parties, given her failure to secure a majority and the loss of 13 MPs. She is also under pressure from Brexiters on her own backbenches who could topple her as prime minister if she fails to deliver on their expectations.  The world, however, knows that she and David Cameron - with good reasons -supported "Remain" in last year’s national referendum.

Asked in Paris if her minority position would lead Britain towards a softer Brexit, she insisted that she remains determined to make a success of Brexit but wants to maintain a “deep and special partnership” with the EU. 

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, with 30 new Labour MPs, was criticized for not campaigning energetically enough for Remain. In a pre-referendum speech, he did say: "We, the Labour Party, are overwhelmingly for staying in, because we believe the European Union has brought investment, jobs and protection for workers, consumers and the environment… our membership offers a crucial route to meeting the challenges we face in the 21st century, on climate change, on restraining the power of global corporations and ensuring they pay fair taxes, on tackling cyber-crime and terrorism, on ensuring trade is fair with protections for workers and consumers and in addressing refugee movements.” 

In Dublin, Fintan O’Toole, the pro-EU columnist for the Irish Times, wrote: "Brexit is a back-of-the-envelope proposition. Strip away the post-imperial make-believe and the Little England nostalgia, and there’s almost nothing there, no clear sense of how a middling European country with little native industry can hope to thrive by cutting itself off from its biggest trading partner and most important political alliance .The Brits want what they can’t possibly have. They want everything to change and everything to go on as before. They want an end to immigration – except for all the immigrants they need to run their economy and health service."

What is to become, for example, of the legal rights of one million UK citizens living in EU member states other than Britain? What of those of three million EU citizens now resident in the UK? 

Many international friends of Britain presume that a democratically-legitimate way to reverse the consultative Brexit referendum can be found. Some of the 17 million who voted for Brexit appear to have had second thoughts; an online petition calling for a second vote obtained more than three million signatories. By 2019 about two million from the 2016 voters will have passed on and be replaced by a similar number of 18 to 20-year-olds. Given no change in the declared voting preferences of old and young, that would give a clear majority for Remain.

It now seems clear that the referendum result was largely because of a UK economic policy in which inequality of outcomes and opportunity widened. The austerity in place since 2008 harmed many, while assisting the affluent mostly in and around London.  Less well-off Brits had to compete for jobs with skilled migrants from central Europe.

Modifying the position of immigrants could make it possible to avoid a conflict with the EU principle of free movement of labour. A clause in the treaty authorizes member states to re-introduce restrictions on the free movement of labour in the context of a “serious labour market disturbance.” This reduces the principle of freedom of movement from an absolute right to a conditional one, depending on national circumstances. 

The German inclination to implement rules and French determination to centralize in Brussels has led to an increasingly disputed political process within Europe and reduced support for the E.U. This puts at risk continued cooperation within Europe not just on economic issues, but also foreign policy, judicial issues, and security and defence. 

Creating a European monetary union that works properly will require creating a banking union, a form of fiscal insurance, and new rules for macroeconomic policy-making, which spread throughout the eurozone the costs membership currently imposes mostly on countries in southern Europe.

Any Brexit negotiations beginning this week are likely to lead to an outcome that makes the U.K. much worse than it is now. It is improbable that having decided to leave the EU, the U.K. would want to get into a free trade agreement with no labour mobility. British politicians need to develop now plans for a negotiated outcome, which could keep the U.K. within the EU and give a better outcome than leaving.

The Hon. David Kilgour served as Canada's Secretary of State for Central Europe and the Middle East.


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