When does Brexit mean Brexit?

It’s fair to say that the new UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, having only been in office for a mere couple of months, has already demonstrated that she intends her government to commit to ‘full Brexit’. She has prudently placed Eurosceptics in key positions in her cabinet, ensuring that it is their hands on the tiller as we steer ourselves out of the EU. So the answer to the question of whether Brexit means Brexit is quite simple. Like most things in politics, there’s spin, and then there’s reality.

SFPPR_NewsandAnalysis_Red
By Alexandra Phillips l October 3, 2016

brexit1

LONDON-Ever since the UK signaled its intention to leave the European Union in an historic vote on June 23rd, debate has raged about what Brexit even means. Apparently there’s hard Brexit, soft Brexit, Brexit with free movement of people and membership of the Single Market without it. Frankly it’s more confusing than ordering eggs in America (just fry it already and don’t even contemplate a non-runny yolk).

It’s as if the referendum campaign is still happening and the various political authors of this country believe they can rewrite the country’s future in any number of ways adherent to their individual ideologies. There appears to be an ongoing trend in conflating membership of the Single Market with access to the Single Market. The former is pretty much synonymous with membership of the EU itself, set up originally as a trading bloc with the central tenet of the free movement of goods, services and importantly, people, held together by the harmonisation of regulations. The other headline aspects of the EU, the Euro and Schengen Acquis (26 member states with entirely passport free travel) are not elements that the UK ever subscribed to in the first place. So staying in the Single Market would essentially mean the status quo, which was clearly not the result of the referendum. However, access to the single market is open to almost all the countries of the world, regardless of their geographical location. Only two countries in Europe aren’t gifted completely unhampered access to the EU, with no tariffs, no tariff barriers and free trade on goods, and they are Russia and Belarus. Nobody could sanely suggest that the UK would be relegated to the same political position.

Staying in the Single Market would mean signing up to all the things the British voted against: burdensome anti-democratic overregulation and unfettered immigration from continental Europe. To suggest that the UK, as a net importer of EU goods, running a trade deficit of £23.9bn would be bitterly debarred from open trade with our continental neighbours is little more than fantastical scaremongering. Frankly, the EU could not afford to lose one of its biggest customers. Even in the worst-case scenario, a return to tariffs, only 6% of UK businesses trade directly with the EU, so the sum of tariffs would still tot up to well below the money handed over to Brussels as a net contributor. Meanwhile, we would surely return the compliment and set import tariffs on German car manufacturers and French wine producers, much to the chagrin of the two biggest member states, and let Brussels deal with the huffing and puffing of angry lobbyists from the countries left to bankroll the entire project.

I recall a Dutch friend during the referendum campaign laughing when despairing Remainers bellowed ‘but what is the plan? What is the plan?’ In the typically direct dry Dutch way, she scoffed, ‘to function as a normal nation state’.

Of course, withdrawing from the EU is major political surgery. Ideally, we would have ducked out long before we became so entangled in the Gordian Knot of European legislation. The exit process is not going to happen overnight and needs real conviction and a steady hand, but while those negotiations take place, trade is hardly going to grind to a halt. Businesses exchange goods, not governments, and while English remains the lingua franca of the global market and the UK remains at the heart of the Commonwealth, I think the apocryphal bust will be easily avoided.

If Brexiteers felt that they needed a boost in confidence, last week certainly provided it. One of Germany’s most prominent businessmen said that leaving the EU will make Britain a more attractive place for foreign investors. Mathias Döpfner of Germany’s Axel Springer publishing house predicts that Britain will emerge from Brexit with a far stronger economy and be better off than other EU countries within just five years. Meanwhile, the French presidential campaign is being dominated by the current taste for Euroscepticism sweeping across the continent. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy has emerged from his political chrysalis as Republican candidate for a party increasingly sounding more like Gallic UKIP with each passing day. The charismatic former president has told voters he would offer the UK the opportunity to rejoin, and on her own terms, intimating that the EU simply cannot afford to lose the UK while negotiating the accession of Turkey, which would be one very hungry additional mouth at the table. Of course, much like Jean-Claude Juncker announcing in his State of the Union address that the EU must set up a military headquarters in a bold step towards forging an EU army, Turkish membership and harmonised foreign policy were dismissed as outright lies during the referendum campaign. While the EU continues to careen towards Federalism, any British interest in signing back up is likely to be extinguished among all but global socialist head-bangers.

It’s fair to say that the new UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, having only been in office for a mere couple of months, has already demonstrated that she intends her government to commit to ‘full Brexit’. She has prudently placed Eurosceptics in key positions in her cabinet, ensuring that it is their hands on the tiller as we steer ourselves out of the EU.

While many people are making noises to the contrary, frankly I cannot see how there can be a nuanced form of Brexit based on the very clear dichotomy between access to, and membership of, the Single Market.

So the answer to the question of whether Brexit means Brexit is quite simple. Like most things in politics, there’s spin, and then there’s reality.


Alexandra Phillips is former Head of Media for UKIP, the political party in Britain that campaigned to leave the EU and was aide to its charismatic leader Nigel Farage. She left UKIP after the referendum victory and joined the Conservative Party in order to ensure other big political ambitions are met in the U.K. She lives and works in London as a political advisor and communications consultant. Ms. Phillips is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.

Related Articles