The False Dichotomy Between Hard and Soft Brexit

Without doubt, Brexit is going to be a long, drawn out and complex process. It is the surgical separation of conjoined twins, not the amputation of necrotising flesh. If the main impetus for leaving was a rejection of bureaucratic, unaccountable foreign rule dominating our own legislative framework and decision-making apparatus, then let us demonstrate this from day one, and remain diplomatic and deliberate in our approach. Brexit isn’t the end of cooperation, it should be the beginning.

By Alexandra Phillips l August 8, 2017

LONDON-Negotiations in Brussels have limped through another opaque and hardly edifying stage following the second meeting between the UK’s ‘Minister for Brexit’ David Davis, and the EU’s lead negotiator Michel Barnier. On the table, the two thorniest topics of Brexit: EU citizens’ rights and the matter of a hefty divorce bill. Both are still being chewed over on both sides of the Channel after the EU demanded they be settled before any discourse on trade can commence. The EU has strategically jammed the greatest impediments to consensus into the mouth of the process and is ruefully watching the clock tick down with barely concealed glee.

With just over 600 days to go until Britain begins political self-determination, the two most contentious matters have observed near zero progress according to any public statement released from either side. The customary remarks of cordiality and cooperation have been made, but nothing indicating accord.

The waiting game

This process of procrastination has purpose. Both sides have adopted the mentality of not blinking first. A bit like the final phase in a game of rugby, a team either keeps the ball in play or kicks it into touch, depending on who needs to get the jump on whom. For the EU to open up trade talks at this point would be rather like inviting a turnover that could lead to a try before the clock turns red.

But this game of chicken presents potentially far more dangerous repercussions for Europe than it does for Britain, despite warnings to the contrary. The stalling of trade talks is designed to be to the detriment of the UK, who it would appear Brussels wants to see depart from the bloc in just under two years without even an EPA to its name. Of course, the UK is proscribed from so much as uttering the word ‘negotiation’ to any other actor until it has suffered its flagellation from Brussels. The EU cannot risk the thought of a successful United Kingdom beyond its control, lest others start to permit thoughts of their own sovereignty.

For an organisation that presents itself as a bastion of free trade, rescuing the Balkans from the clutches of Soviet Protectionism and lambasting Trump’s immediate execution of the disastrous TTIP, it seems to have one rule for the UK and another for the rest of the world. This excruciatingly public exhibition of exasperating a potential deal with the UK, the world’s fifth largest economy, with whom the EU runs a €120 billion a year trade surplus, to serve as a deterrent to other would-be escapees, plays into the hands of Brussels’ detractors as the saturnine ploy of a clueless megalomaniac and would surely dissuade other countries from entering trade talks with Brussels.

Citizens’ Rights

The fact that the EU is purposefully using EU Citizens Rights as the insurmountable hurdle to getting down to business exposes the cynicism of the strategy. To insist that trade must come with open borders is another bespoke requirement that Brussels does not, and would not dare, impose upon Washington or Tokyo. Three times as many EU workers are resident in Britain than British resident in the EU. In that context, Theresa May’s description of an offer, without reciprocity, of citizenship to those already resident in the UK, as ‘generous’, does seem pretty reasonable. For the EU to make the demand that those citizens must be protected by the ECJ, maintaining the supremacy of EU law over British law post-Brexit, is self-evidently unconscionable. No country can demand of another that expatriates are entitled to reject their new home country’s domestic laws and instead refer to the legal system of their country of birth. If you set that as international normative, you realise how absurd and impracticable it actually is. Yet, this is what the EU is insisting upon.

On being permitted entry to a country at its borders, you immediately sign up to abiding by that country’s laws, whether as a tourist, a businessman and particularly as someone seeking residency. Britain categorically stating that it will not open the door for recourse to the European Courts of Justice for those who have chosen citizenship of the UK is neither absurd, nor fascistic. It’s basic jurisprudence. Yet, the EU knows it is an emotional topic and an exceptionally sharp stick to beat the UK with in a bid to claim the moral superiority.

The price of divorce

The other stinger being thrown in front of the wheels of the barely moving cavalcade is a £80bn divorce bill. My former boss, Nigel Farage, got himself into hot water recently by suggesting on his radio show that Article 50 makes plain that following departure, financial liabilities would cease in totality. The reality in law is barely scribed, particularly given the lack of precedence and the recognition that Britain’s divorce sets the terms for any future alimony claims. The fine print, as it stands, allows for push and shove on both sides due to its vagaries.

You can imagine the horrifying gasp that will go up when people learn of the UK having to potentially cough up such a vast figure. To imagine those sentiments will only be recognised among the British is naïve. Most people in the EU would logically question why the UK would agree to fork out such a sum when extrication from disproportionate subsidy of the project was a primary UK concern. Yet, I am rather more sanguine on this matter. Let’s put this into perspective. With an annual membership fee of £13bn and rising, the £80bn sum is equivalent to around 6 years’ membership and covers financial commitments stretching as far ahead as 2025 to which the UK had been a willing signatory. Understandably, the EU is looking at its accounts and the looming chasm following the departure of a principal net contributor, and is arguing that the UK can’t just waltz off into the sunset following a change of heart and abandon any financial liabilities. Not unreasonable, I would argue, despite being an ardent Brexiteer. But the idea that we should simply accept payment of a sum without condition is also erroneous. As long as money directed towards certain projects for certain timeframes comes with a UK signature and UK subsidy, then the UK is entitled to remain a recipient of whatever that project purports to provide, however long after Brexit. Here you have the so-called ‘transition’ period.

Why we will stay in some of the institutions

Given that the various calendars of the EU are hardly confined to annual revolutions, particularly when it comes to funding long term agendas, it is implausible to assume there won’t be any kind of grey period within which, according to Brussels own timetables, certain commitments will have staggered conclusions.

The panic arising over the future of various EU satellite organisations of which the UK may cease to be a member is curious for that reason. There is a fundamental misconception that a hard Brexit must mean forsaking cooperation or rejecting individual tailored membership of organisations such Euratom, the European Atomic Energy Community of which Switzerland became a member in 2014. It stands to reason that the UK can argue to remain a participant in a great number of European schemes on a case-by-case basis according to the wants and needs of both Britain and the EU. The warning from the EU that Britain cannot ‘cherry pick’ its involvement works both ways. While the rules on leaving the Single Market must be absolute, there are a great many assets aside from just financial contribution that the EU would be set to lose with such a hard-nosed approach. With some of the greatest universities in the world, to think that the UK academic community should be forbidden the opportunity to work alongside fellow luminaries on world changing projects because the UK no longer wanted to live under supranational remote governance is absurd. Academics around the world collaborate, regardless of their nations’ political positions, and it is hardly as though the UK is behaving in a way that would warrant it becoming regarded as a pariah state.

Many of these schemes seek support and collaboration beyond the political bloc, without demanding associate members open their borders, acquiesce to EU Supreme law or stop doing business with countries who are not member states. This feigned absolutist approach by the EU is so deeply flawed it simply cannot survive the test of time. Then there are hybrid entities which cannot claim to be EU structures, such as the European Nuclear Research project, CERN, which built its world famous large hadron collider in Switzerland, has Israel as a member, and welcomes nuclear scientists from around the world. Schemes such as Socrates, the education exchange programme, enables students in the EU to sit an optional year at a foreign university, and includes Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Turkey among its diaspora, with the related Erasmus programme encompassing a total 37 nations, far greater than the 28 EU member states.

Academic cooperation good, academic governance bad

Yet, as much as multinational cooperation in the fields of science and technology garners great progress, the boons of a multifaceted approach are negated when funnelled through a unilateral channel of stringent harmonisation. There are leading voices in fields of medicine, particularly in biomedical research, who pronounce themselves hamstrung by regulations that forbid them from pursuing certain methodologies. A prime example is the ongoing debate in the EU over stem cell research, with many Catholic countries opposing the scientific community using embryonic cells in the laboratory.

Cooperation indeed makes us great. A diversity of ideas and approaches can broaden the reach of any single effort. Yet, if that cooperation must be subservient to a complex cadre of regulation restricting its innovation, it ends up doing the polar opposite of what it was designed to deliver. If the EU wilfully expropriates contribution from the UK upon a distaste at the UK’s democratic rejection of supranational governance, it is a far poorer reflection on the obstinacy and arrogance of Eurocrats, than Britain’s commitment to its own liberal values and oft chanted desire for ongoing alliance in many areas, such as academia.

Forging a rational perspective

To characterise everything about the EU as corrupt, evil and disposable is frankly ludicrous. Whilst I wanted sovereignty restored to my home country and could spend the rest of my life expounding the many reasons why Brexit was necessary, I cannot see the benefit in pulling up a drawer bridge and terminating cooperation in all areas. The same is true for the EU. There is a strong case to make that each relationship to, or membership of, an organisation must be scrutinised on its individual merits, and cooperation and contribution assessed within its own parameters. Brexit, contrary to the prism through which most people lazily regard it, actually offers the UK expansive choice, not only on how far we wish to interact with our European neighbours in certain areas, but indeed how far we wish to extend the reach of our entire international cooperation once the shackles of the Single Market are spurned.

And, there is no hurry to do this at the stroke of midnight. The false dichotomy of Hard and Soft Brexit, the rabid urgency to machine gun down everything within 600 days, and the chorus of deliberately disruptive voices suggesting a rational, thought through and mutually beneficial model moving forward is an impossibility, will find themselves the victims of reality. Politicians don’t do trade, businesses do. Parliaments don’t conduct scientific research, academics do. Newton’s second law of motion tells us that the force acting upon an object is equal to the mass of that object times its acceleration. The combined power of industry lobbyists, with the urgency to see a trade deal struck as the Euro continues to falter, will become the principal driving force behind negotiations, whether politicians like it or not.

It stands to reason that if the EU is accepting of third countries participating in certain arenas for a negotiated fee, then the UK, already undersigned in all of these outfits, will go through a gradual process of devolution that need not be disastrous, once the flesh and bones of Brexit have been thoroughly chewed.

But first, punishment

Yet, publicly punishing Britain seems to currently be a bigger priority for Brussels than maintaining a strong relationship for the purpose of protecting export industries and resourcing valued institutions. The idea that the EU would obstruct open dialogue with a third country where many of its citizens now reside is absurd to the extreme. If this is the nature of the beast, then such behaviour would only endorse the UK’s choice to bid a brusque farewell. Just as Theresa May has fiduciary duties to the UK that she must prioritise in any negotiations, the EU must exhibit the same to its member states’ citizens. Frustrating trade with a key strategic market would not be regarded kindly by a vast majority of European businesses.

The blame for collapse could not be placed on Britain’s shoulders if a deal was not struck. The UK, due to its size, can be far more fleet of foot in setting bespoke terms for any such deal and has continuously professed that it wants free trade to continue with the continent. A wilfully punitive approach to Brexit negotiations would be a trigger for Brussels detractors and potentially create even more, rather than act as a mollifier to potential rebels.

Without doubt Brexit is going to be a long, drawn out and complex process. It is the surgical separation of conjoined twins, not the amputation of necrotising flesh. If the main impetus for leaving was a rejection of bureaucratic, unaccountable foreign rule dominating our own legislative framework and decision-making apparatus, then let us demonstrate this from day one, and remain diplomatic and deliberate in our approach.

Alexandra Phillips is former Head of Media for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the political party in Britain that successfully 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 is a political advisor and communications consultant in London. 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.