Brexit means Brexit, with all the consequences

Regardless of what happens in the next few months and years in the post-referendum UK, much of the harm has been done. The uncertainty, in particular, is killing. It will have a significant impact on many of the UK’s most productive economic sectors including universities and financial services. It will cast a shadow over inward investment and over the willingness to take risks of those responsible, for example, for building new infrastructure.
There will be a brain drain.

Already in some respects the EU is acting as if the UK were no longer a Member State. It has no Commissioner since Jonathan Hill’s resignation. After the EUCO summit on 29 June which took pace without the UK’s presence, EU27 conclusions were issued.

Many and various are the suggestions for how the UK’s relationship with the EU and the 27 EU Member States might be shaped in the future. The obvious next step is that Article 50 TEU should be invoked and a notification of a decision to withdraw should be made. But whose is the decision: that of the people in the referendum, of the government of the day, or of Parliament? Is the notification once made revocable? Would two years be long enough
to negotiate a withdrawal agreement and to regularize the legal situation of all affected parties in the UK and elsewhere? And will such an agreement or agreements, likely to be one or more mixed agreement involving the Member States as well, be the subject of an advisory opinion before the Court of Justice, slowing further the pace of withdrawal?

Some have turned to thinking about how to overcome the effects of the referendum. These ideas range from a second referendum to overturn the previous referendum (which is democratically dubious, even if a General Election may be held to clear the political sinuses sufficiently to make it conceivable), via a parliamentary vote to block the invocation of Article 50 TEU (treating the referendum result as purely advisory and asserting that parliamentary sovereignty demands a measure of Parliament), towards territorially differentiated statuses which preserve the integrity of the UK as a state but allow Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar somehow still to be part of the EU (which would constitute a sort of ‘reverse Greenland’, but is tough to envisage). If the latter initiatives fail, it is not hard to envisage that the UK may break up.

Many have speculated about the various ‘associate’ statuses which the UK may negotiate, including an option labelled ‘Norway+’, leading eventually to a Canada-type FTA (even though such does not exist at the moment). Under the latter heading, we discover that some people think that it is possible to maintain access to the single market, including passporting options for financial services firms, without having the free movement of workers. Good luck with that.

Distinguishing between labor, enterprise and services is always a fun task quite apart from what might be acceptable to the EU27. A small number, finally, simply refuse to believe that Brexit will happen. To his credit, Andrew Moravcsik said this before the vote, and continues to maintain the argument.

Since Michael Gove and Theresa May emerged as the front-runners for the leadership of the Conservative Party on 30 June 2016, the chances are that Brexit means Brexit, with all the consequences that may flow from this. Under one scheme, to promote territorial differentiation, which has been offered for our consideration, we read that ‘Citizenship and migration-law, would have to be reconsidered, but the ensuing difficulties could be negotiated.’ Someone who writes such a statement has obviously never had any dealings with the UK Home Office, both at the meta-level of drafting impenetrable legislation and at the micro-level of decision-making and enforcement.

In fact, a more realistic reading of what is happening below the surface (where EU institutional officials and Member State politicians urging – more or less gently – that the UK should get on and invoke Article 50 TEU) is that the deal to be offered to the UK on exit is more likely to be ‘EEA-‘ than ‘EEA+’, as this series of tweets from Ben Judah shows.

The political failures that got the UK to that point could not be more serious, as Rafael Behr highlights, and include
a media (paper and broadcast) that is largely incapable of holding politicians to account for what they say. The outlook for the UK heading towards Brexit is bad. Of course any glib statements to the effect that somehow we can expect business as usual in the UK will be subjected to careful and rigorous analysis over the months to come, by
academics and others. What characterizes such statements is a deep commitment to the enduring principle of having your cake and eating it, as well as in some quarters a commitment to preserving the territorial integrity of the UK as a state by imaginative institutional means. The former principle was well in evidence during the referendum
campaign.

Fears that the UK might break up in the event of a Brexit vote should, of course, have been fed more effectively into the decision-making process about how to design the referendum and the referendum process. The notion of a ‘double lock’ for the different regions of the UK was put forward by the Scottish National Party, but rejected during the passage of the European Union Referendum Act 2015. Oh, how useful that would have been now, had it been adopted, although no one should discount how difficult these types of mechanisms would have been to design.

As predicted, and indeed for reasons I outlined earlier, immigration issues certainly played a substantial role in the campaign, especially in England and Wales, alongside concerns about sovereignty (‘taking back control’). However, thus far what we know about referendum voting choices largely stems from a survey that is rather simplistic in its
approach to unpicking arguments and motivations. Perhaps it would be best to describe what appears to have been a key factor as ‘fear of immigration’, rather than immigration itself. As it stands, the UK’s large urban centers, which are the most diverse and multicultural places, on the whole voted to remain, although this was less true in the North of England, where there seems to be a strong sense amongst many voters that they have simply been left behind by globalization, both economically and culturally. Moreover, there seems to be widespread horror and revulsion in the UK at the wave of xenophobic and racist attacks on people and property since the referendum by a minority belonging to the radical right.

The reality, however, is that the genie of a populist radical right in the UK is now out of the bottle, and the landscape of political parties will probably never be the same. But the underlying trends pointing inexorably in this direction are longer rather than shorter term. The truth is that UK political discourse about migration has for some time elided any
‘moral’ differential between free movement and immigration from third countries (and between labor migration and asylum seeking).

As I have argued before, politicians in the UK have long been uncomfortable navigating the space between the political truth of popular hostility to immigration and the legal commitments of the UK to the EU Treaties. On
that account, EU citizens exercising free movement rights are simply ‘lucky immigrants’, and since – as things stand – the UK cannot impose controls on the numbers or types of migrants from those countries, they have become the butt of particular hostility, not only from what might be described as older white working class communities, but also amongst settled migrant communities, especially those from South Asia, who are bitter about increasing restrictions upon family visits (never mind family reunification which is now subject to very substantial income-based controls) which have been delivered in the name of being tough on immigration.

If the UK electorate has indeed delivered a message on immigration then it does need to be respected, even if this is likely to mean very substantial costs elsewhere across the UK as a whole, e.g. in relation to a predicted economic downturn hitting lower income households more heavily than those on higher incomes. Indeed, Cameron told the
European Council meeting on 28 June that freedom of movement was at the heart of the UK electorate’s decision to vote to leave the EU.

David Cameron’s earlier ‘renegotiation’ of the terms of UK membership of the EU in February 2016 contained substantial sections on free movement, including a proposed emergency brake in respect of so-called ‘in work’ benefits paid to newly arrived migrants, an indexation of child benefit where it is payable to children resident outside the host state, apparent attempts to roll back the case law of the Court of Justice in Metock concerning third country
national family members of EU citizens and steps to open up further the possibility of deporting EU citizens who commit serious criminal offences. Since the UK did not vote to remain in the EU in the referendum held on 23 June, however, that ‘deal’ has now officially ceased to exist and will never come into force. Political leaders in Brussels and in the Member States have rushed to remind the UK that it cannot simply be resuscitated. In any event, it seems these concessions were not enough for the UK electorate, and this is hardly surprising given the consistently confused messages on European integration that Cameron has given throughout his premiership.

The UK now appears to have entered a phase of modest ‘Bregret’, as it becomes increasingly clear that there are no concrete plans as to what should happen next after the Leave vote. It probably hasn’t (yet?) entered a full blown phase of buyers’ remorse, although bad economic figures as well as the increasing evidence that pledges made during the campaign cannot be delivered upon might push voters in that direction. In fact, it has been academics
who have led the way both before and after the referendum, setting out in plain terms the various options around the EEA, EFTA and other association statuses. In contrast, politicians have often come out with highly contradictory statements, seemingly indicating that what they want for the UK is all the advantages of EU membership and none of the ‘burdens’ (as they see them).

It has, therefore, become a consistent trope that somehow the UK wants to preserve the single market, but without free movement, as if the free movement of labor were somehow easily severable from the free movement of services and enterprise. To achieve this, some have already mooted income or activity restrictions to try and preserve the core of free movement whilst cutting away at the edges.

Welcome to Brexit Britain. An archipelago of contradictions.