Last chance for a soft Brexit

So far so good. Brexit is still on track, Theresa May retains her majority, Jeremy Corbyn remains popular without threatening to bring down the government. Yet everything suggests that this relative political stability in Britain could swiftly unravel and provoke new shock-waves. Brexit continues to dominate public discourse and the political agenda and will probably be the cause. The consequences would not only affect the political eco-system, with Labour far from immune, but also the future of Europe.

I – Brexit: Or The Art Of Putting Off Choices
Officially, Brexit is on track and will take effect on 30 March 2019, two years after Article 50 was activated. To complete negotiations on withdrawal in autumn 2018, Europeans and the British must make progress on two main topics: how to manage the Irish border after the two-year transition period and governance of the exit agreement, for which the EU is demanding the full and complete involvement of the European Court of Justice. The exit deal would be accompanied by a political declaration setting out the broad outlines of the future relationship but this would be of lesser legal value.

The question of the Irish border is proving to be a real conundrum for the British government given its far-reaching implications. The Irish and the 26 other member states are pushing London to propose a solution that would retain an open border over the medium- and longer-term. They are leaning towards a special status for Northern Ireland which would stay in the single market and customs union. This solution is categorically rejected not only by Theresa May but by a large number of politicians across the board since it would lead, in effect, to pushing the border back into the Irish Sea,. Northern Irish unionists would withdraw their support from the government.

As a counter-proposal, London recently suggested that the UK as a whole could stay in the customs union for a longer period. To avoid upsetting hard Brexiteers, this period would last an estimated one year, something which appears very optimistic. This plan does not convince the EU-27 as it implies that London wants a second, less restrictive transition period, with no guarantee of a robust result. On several occasions, the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has stressed that a ‘frictionless’ border would be a mirage if the UK left the single market and customs union. However, this ‘fudge’ allows Theresa May to maintain a semblance of unity within the heart of her government.

Paradoxically, the solution may not come directly from Brussels, but from Westminster. There are crucial votes under way and in the offing. The ‘Withdrawal Bill’, a large body of legislation enshrining legal continuity on the day of Brexit, has been undergoing scrutiny in Parliament. Theresa May narrowly averted the threat that pro-European Conservatives would join forces with the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Scottish Nationalists and adopt an amendment endorsing the principle of a vote in Parliament on the exit agreement. The Prime Minister committed herself to “consulting” Parliament on the outcome of the negotiations towards the end of November 2018. This verbal concession effectively removes the prospect of a No Deal scenario since there is no majority in favour of it in Westminster. MPs’ desire to take back control might lead them, in the autumn, to demand carrying on with negotiations or indeed bring down the government if they don’t like the outcome.

Other crucial votes are due to take place in July on the ‘Trade Bill’ and the ‘Customs Bill’, two pieces of legislation enabling the UK to bring back an independent trade policy and customs tariffs/duties. Amendments forcing the UK to stay in ‘a customs union’ with the EU might be adopted. In that case, Theresa May would have to decide if she could continue the negotiations on that basis with the risk that the most anti-European Conservatives would withdraw their support and enforce her downfall. But this prospect is unlikely since Conservatives are united against a single and shared enemy: Jeremy Corbyn.

In this febrile environment, it is also worth noticing that the campaign for a second referendum is taking off. The pressure group Best for Britain, launched in 2017, brings together pro-European personalities from within civil society and the three big parties. Its goal is to gain support for the principle of a referendum on the exit agreement. Public opinion is somewhat subdued about this idea for now but there is growing support for a ‘soft Brexit’, especially the idea of remaining in the single market. This development might prove to be crucial in a few months’ time.

II – Other Items On The Agenda Pushing The UK Towards Europe
Aside from Brexit, the great irony is that the rest of the political agenda is dominated by topics that underline the closeness of the British to the Europeans. Here’s three examples.

First, the re-emergence of state intervention in the economy, something that kills off once and for all the myth of an ‘ultra-liberal’ Britain. Theresa May set the tone from the moment of her arrival in the summer of 2016, choosing to take her distance from David Cameron’s laissez-faire stance. In February 2018, the principle of a cap on energy prices was adopted, broadly inspired by measures advocated in his time by Ed Miliband. Recently, the government has renationalised temporarily the East Coast railway network connecting London to Edinburgh after private operators Stagecoach and Virgin failed to achieve the financial objectives set by the state. Like Europeans, Brits are contemplating protective measures regarding foreign investment in strategic sectors. Finally, one might mention the idea of taxing digital platforms where they make their profits.

Second, the discourse on migration. The goal of bringing net immigration down to “a few tens of thousands” has gone. After the fruitless efforts of his predecessor, Amber Rudd, the new home secretary Sajid Javid recently announced the removal of the ceiling on graduate visas (‘Tier 2’) because of employment gaps in sectors such as health and digital. The shock caused by the revelations on the treatment of the ‘Windrush generation’ led, moreover, to greater awareness of the human costs and mistakes caused by a purely statistical approach.. This new climate will probably play a role in the negotiations on future relations with the European Union. The 27 may appreciate that the UK is offering freedom of movement to Europeans that is marginally limited rather than profoundly altered.

Third, the geopolitical framework. While remaining relatively discreet at international level since the June 2016 referendum, the UK is as exposed to the battering from Donald Trump and Russian interference as its European partners. In March 2018, the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian officer turned British spy, attributed to Russia, provoked a strong and welcome reaction of solidarity from the main European capitals. The recent G7 summit confirmed that Trump’s America cannot be the privileged partner of the UK. London finds itself firmly within the European bloc and has approved retaliatory measures against American trade sanctions. This played a role in the recent detailed UK proposals for close ties with the EU in the field of internal and external security post-Brexit.

III – A Labour Party Lacking Strategy
Theresa May is thus holding onto power by opting for tailor-made solutions, her ultimate goal being to deliver Brexit, whatever the conditions. So far, the threat posed by Corbyn acts as a foil for Conservatives tempted to bring her down. The Labour leader actually does not seem in a hurry to turn the Prime Minister’s difficulties to his advantage. He of course remains popular with his party base. Momentum, the movement that supported him, continues to exercise its influence over the party with 40,000 members (out of 500,000 for the party) very well-organised locally, whose aim is to manipulate selections of candidates. But this strategy is fuelling internal splits.

What’s more, ‘Jez’ is still having trouble convincing people of his credibility as a potential Prime Minister. Despite the suspension of around 20 Labour officials – and the departure of the former London mayor Ken Livingston, who was threatened with expulsion –, Jeremy Corbyn lacked clarity in the anti-Semitic rows that tainted the party in recent months. Public opinion does not think he would manage Brexit better than Theresa May. The gap in voting intentions between Conservative and Labour is stuck at the same level as a year ago: 40-42% for the former versus 38 % for the latter. This balance of power does not give any hope for a Labour majority at the next elections. What’s more, the local elections of 3 May did not bring a Labour groundswell whereas the party has done surprisingly well in the snap general election of 2017. It’s rather the relative breakthrough of the Liberal-Democrats that caught the eye.

The big question occupying lead writers is whether a centrist, anti-Brexit political force – a sort of British En Marche!– could emerge ahead of the next political crisis. This was widely seen as a fantasy suggestion just a year ago, but it has now a slightly greater chance of materialising. On 13 June, 90 Labour MPs rebelled against a Corbyn-whipped abstention on an amendment to the ‘Withdrawal Bill’ insisting on staying in the single market and supported by Liberal Democrats and Scottish nationalists. Of these, 75 supported the amendment, a bigger number compared with similar amendments at earlier votes. 15 MPs representing pro-Brexit constituencies voted against the amendment.

It’s worth noting that Jeremy Corbyn is playing the same balancing act within Labour as Theresa May with the Conservatives. He, therefore, can only advance his party’s stance on Brexit with extreme caution, relying especially on shifts in public opinion. The votes in the summer and autumn of 2018 will be a crucial test of his capacity to move the entire party forward and avert a split, notably on the question of the single market.

IV – Conclusion
Brexit will dominate British political life until early 2019. If it all goes as expected, Theresa May will have succeeded in retaining her majority and of getting a lasting deal with Europeans, via ambiguous phrasing that would postpone some choices on the future relationship to the post-Brexit transition. At that stage, the vote of 23 June 2016 will be legally enacted on paper; elites will have implemented the will of the people. Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, very uneasy with Brexit, would be relieved and could focus on domestic issues.

The big question in the months to come is seeing whether pro-Europeans across-the-board can disturb this process and prevent what they regard as going against the national interest: leaving the single market and the customs union. Their problem is that a status similar to that of Norway– which applies European law without any decision-making powers – would not allow Britain to “take back control» of its sovereignty and of its immigration policy.

It’s hard to be convinced that any fresh negotiation would enable London to get more concessions than those obtained by David Cameron in February 2016, when the UK had not yet voted for Brexit. However, the international context is prompting the British and Europeans to make common cause. Perhaps it is time to consider that safeguarding a strategic union between the UK and Europeans should take priority over too strict an interpretation of EU legal principles. EU27 governments should ready themselves for the eventuality of a political crisis that might well reshuffle the cards, not only for the UK but also for Europe.

About Renaud Thillaye
Renaud Thillaye is Senior Consultant at Flint Global. Ex-deputy director Policy Network. Associate expert at Fondation Jean-Jaurès.