We actually did it. I was convinced for more than a year that the vote to leave the European Union would end up in a 60/40 result in favour of remaining. Once again, UK politics has confounded my expectations, and produced a result few predicted.
So what happens next? We have a new prime minister (in the form of Theresa May) and she’s stated that “Brexit means Brexit”, and has appointed serious “Brexiteers” to the task of negotiating our way out of the supranational entity.
But what exactly IS Brexit? It’s a negotiation that could have many different forms, so which is best?
I think the result probably helps inform this decision. People voted 52% for leaving the EU, and 48% against. A massive turnout with 17.5 million people voting to leave, in absolute terms that’s more people in the UK voting to leave than have voted on anything ever before.
But is it such an overwhelming majority that gives the government a huge mandate to pursue an aggressive and ambitious (and fast) Brexit? The numbers are large, but 52/48 is still pretty close. There’s a lot of people who bought into “project fear” and are deeply concerned about us leaving the EU. I think it’s important to bring those people on-side.
So Brexit absolutely means Brexit, but the closeness of the result should influence how we transition from being an EU member state to being an independent sovereign nation. It’ll take a little longer than a quick clean break, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.
In the medium-term, there will be a limited series of economic wobbles, but nothing on the scale that “project fear” was threatening. Already their big scary warnings are starting to look a little silly, (I thought they did anyway to be honest). The threatened “emergency budget” never happened, but the drop in the value of sterling and the short-lived dip in markets did shake some people up. They saw it as the beginning of the Brexit warnings coming true. The question is, how can the 52% bring the 48% on-board?
A decent suggestion would be to create a situation where they see what leaving looks like, dipping our toe into the wider world if you will. After that, moving further out would be easier.
An idea I had would be to start talking right away to the EFTA countries (Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland), and secure our membership. It should be pretty straightforward. After all, it was the UK who created EFTA originally, as an alternative to the EEC.
Once a member of EFTA, we could leave the EU, retaining our membership of the EEA (European Economic Area). You don’t need to be an EU country to be party of the EEA, after all, Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland are all EEA members (Switzerland has a series of bilateral deals with the EU that don’t require EEA membership).
As a non-EU EEA country, we retain tariff-free access to the single market on goods, services and capital. We could unilaterally invoke Article 112 of the EEA agreement to apply a handbrake on free movement (as it was an area of such concern for many who voted to leave). In return for an agreement of free-movement of people in the financial services sector, it might be easier to secure the so-called passporting rights to ply our lucrative financial services to the EU member states. And that means in return that Germany can make money selling us their cars, and France their cheese and wine. All tariff-free.
A couple of years of that arrangement, and I think two things would become clear to lots of the 48%: firstly, the free-trade deals forged with the rest of the world (that we can’t do while shackled to the EU) will become striking and valuable, with a strong possibility that we’ll get our self-confidence back. We may also end up thinking that these free trade deals are so good, that we couldn’t possibly entertain the idea of rejoining the EU and giving them up. There’s a whole world out there, and the possibilities surrounding rejoining it once out of the EU are too exciting to ignore.
Secondly, they will see, simply, that the sky did NOT fall in. Free trade continues with the EU states, and life goes on quite happily.
It’s from a position like that, that we can start to unpick the EEA agreements, and replace them with a series of bilateral agreements, Swiss-style. Plus, our current laws and regulations will remain on the books, each only being rejected and altered as and when we want to. That’s not so scary.
The future outside the EU is bright and full of promise. My sincere hope is that in time, even great swathes of the 48% get to see it too, once we’re out and into the world.