Sunday, 20 November 2016

To Brexit or not to Brexit?

As Theresa May’s self-imposed deadline of the end of March for triggering Brexit is only 130 days away away, even the run-up process is turning out to be more chaotic and painful than imagined.

I was one of those who voted for Brexit because I wanted to help send a strong signal to the political elite in Europe and at home that we, the people, were not happy with the undemocratic way the EU was being run. I did not imagine for a moment that the majority would vote for it. I felt somewhat uncomfortable about my vote because I found myself, unwittingly, in bed with some unsavoury characters. And, as we have seen the campaign around Brexit, waged by the right wing on both sides of the divide, was mendacious, superficial and incompetent.

The much more cogent left-wing arguments for opting out of the EU were given no airing by the mainstream media, which were more interested in the sensationalist mock battles between Farage, Gove and Johnson versus Cameron and Labour grandees. The right-wing Brexiteers, led by UKIP, played on widespread fears of immigration and whipped up xenophobia. A state, as Lenin noted, can only be truly democratic if its people are fully informed. On Brexit there was scant information but tons of noxious hot air.

It is now generally recognised that the unexpected majority vote for Brexit reflected more people’s anger and disgust at a political elite divorced from and uninterested in the lives of ordinary people, rather that being a vote against the EU as such.

What has become very clear as the details surrounding the Brexit process now emerge is that a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit which seems increasingly unavoidable will be very painful indeed, and it will hit working people hardest. What the Tory government is asking for is akin to someone filing for divorce but demanding that his partner continues to honour her marriage vows while leaving him free to go off and philander as he wishes.

What the government seems unable to understand is – in terms of trade, research, human rights and inter-state co-operation – Britain needs the rest of Europe much more than the other way around. The big players in the EU are making it very clear that if Britain triggers Article 50 there will be no soft landing; they will make sure we land head-first on the rocks. The EU has been so designed that  an injury-free opting out is almost impossible; no parachute has been included in the package.

A document prepared by consultants on behalf of the government reveals that Whitehall officials from different departments have listed 500 projects relating to our departure from the EU that would require 30,000 extra staff to untangle. Article 50 gives the leaving country two years to negotiate an exit deal, and once set in motion, it cannot be stopped except by unanimous consent of all member states. To untangle and renegotiate our contractual relations with the EU could not be done within that timeframe. ‘Article 50 is a bit like The Bomb: best kept as an implicit threat.’ David Cameron’s former special advisor, Mats Persson, once said, but now the timing device is ticking.

There is a whole raft of EU legislation that most of us would agree that we should keep and other items which we could and should dispense with but untangling these many agreements, laws and regulations would take longer than the two-year timetable allowed for leaving the EU once Article 50 has been triggered.

The implications are momentous. Apart from the threatened loss of our biggest trading partner or the imposition of draconian customs tariffs, what happens to all those Britons now working in Europe or married to European partners? What about health insurance outside Britain?

Keir Starmer, Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, says Labour would not block a parliamentary vote to trigger article 50 but would insist on first knowing the government’s plans for how it would proceed. He also said that the party could try to amend any bill to begin the process of beginning Brexit, and would seek to preserve access to the EU’s customs union and elements of the single market. He is said to be furious about McDonnell’s recent policy speech, in which he said: ‘Labour accepts the referendum result as the voice of the majority and we must embrace the enormous opportunities to reshape our country that Brexit has opened for us’.

Of course it would be gratifying if we could return to Britain’s glorious past as an independent manufacturing centre, but since Thatcher destroyed all that we have hardly any manufacturing infrastructure left and those few big companies operating in the country today are almost all foreign-owned. To re-establish a manufacturing base – essential if we want to survive Brexit economically ­–­ we would have to invest enormous amounts into manufacturing industries and rapidly develop the skills needed, something that could be done but that would take decades.

These uncomfortable truths have to be faced by all of us, however we voted. To ignore them, would be infantile and dangerous. But once Brexit is triggered our lifeboat will be cast off and set adrift with no land in sight.

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