People’s Vote banner in Westminster, London. Photo: ChiralJon (CC BY 2.0).
With only one week to go for the 29 March Brexit deadline, we still do not know what will happen. This is extraordinary, but certainly not unexpected. Many of us have always said that Brexit will end up like Grexit, and, unfortunately, our predictions have been confirmed. This is a chicken game, and we still need to see who blinks first. My money has always been on the EU because it is an extraordinary heavyweight that can crush the opposition in international negotiations, and that is why I have always argued that Britain will never leave. A week before reaching the abyss, I am sticking to my wager.
For nearly three years (yes, the mess has been going on for three long years) people have been telling me that my opinion is wishful thinking. My answer has always been: ‘please explain to me a post-Brexit scenario that will be acceptable to the majority of the British people, including, of course, the Northern Irish and the Scots’. Models were thrown at me. A fantasy cocktail made out of Canada+, Norway-, customs unions, bespoke agreements and special partnerships. None was ever convincing. The hard reality has always been that Britain is not able to have its cake and eat it (because the EU is just too strong to be pushed around), and neither is it willing to accept to be a rule-taker, or vasal state, as Boris Johnson would put it.
What continues to surprise me is to hear so many well-informed and smart people in Britain and beyond defending the deal between Theresa May and Michel Barnier as the best option for Britain. This is difficult to comprehend. I would never want such a deal to be signed by my country, that I am sure of. Instead of taking back control it achieves the opposite for the people of Britain, as wisely observed by Sam Gyimah, none other than the former Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister (a perfect post for a man of foresight). His resignation letter is worth reading again. Some lines are a real treasure.
This one, for instance: ‘At the end of these negotiations’ [and remember that the withdrawal agreement is only the start of a long and exhausting fight against a heavyweight; my words] ‘Britain will not be standing side-by-side with our European partners as equals. Even in programmes where we have agreement, we will be outside the room when key decisions affecting our future and prosperity are made. It is a democratic deficit and a loss of sovereignty the public will rightly never accept’. Does someone really believe that if May passes ‘her’ deal next week the UK will be able to negotiate the future relationship from a position of strength? After a constitutional crisis such as we are seeing right now? Who is doing the wishful thinking?
What is equally striking, however, is to see how many pundits and commentators (and even British politicians claiming to represent the will of ‘the people’) continue to ignore the change of mood in the country. As Simon Hix illustrates on a weekly basis (see the graph below), the You Gov tracker data on ‘Brexit: right or wrong’ show a clear structural tendency in favour of buyer’s remorse. Therefore, if Britain were to leave the EU next week it would do so against the will of the majority of the its people. So much for evidence-based policy-making in London.
YouGov Brexit Tracker ‘Brexit: right or wrong’. In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU? Source: YouGov, Simon Hix.
What do you think mainstream commentators would say if we were in the opposite situation? If Remain had won on 23 June 2016 but in the past three years the Brexiteers had increased their support to the point of gathering 700,000 people in London and having dozens of MPs across different parties calling for a ‘people’s vote’, would they be largely ignored as the Remainers are doing now?, or would the consensus be that their concerns need to be taken into account by the snobbish British political class and, more importantly, by the Government?
At this point some readers might think that this is a call for a second referendum. It is not. Britain, like Catalonia, has shown that it is divided in almost two equal halves, and in these circumstances ‘yes or no’ and ‘in or out’ questions are not helpful at all. They only polarise and divide the people even further. It is certainly true that the majority of Britons voted to leave, but it is obvious by now that there is no clear majority in favour of a specific Brexit. From the very start May insisted that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, but still today (almost three years on) no-one knows what Brexit really means. This is a tragedy…
We are before a family that has agreed to move out from a house it dislikes but has not agreed where to move. In such cases, the best thing to do is to postpone the move altogether, and the British people are now realising this. The ‘Revoke Article 50’ petition is now trending. While writing these lines an unprecedented number of signatures (over one million, at near 2,000 per minute) has crashed the government website. Indeed, revocation would be the best move for Britain. Recognise that the country does not know what it wants, remain, and try to find a strong consensus about its future before taking the next step. Remember, Britain can still revoke Article 50 unilaterally, as long as Westminster votes in favour.
What about the EU27? Should they welcome Britain back as if nothing had happened? After all this waste of time? Yes. The EU needs to be magnanimous in its victory, and, yes, having the UK back would be a victory for the EU in an ever more dangerous great-power world, as Norbert Röttgen and Ulrich Speck indicate. In the future, the EU will have to deal with two even greater heavyweights: China and the US. In order to stand a chance, we need the British on our team. The key question is what kind of Britain will come back, one that continues to be ‘perfidious’ or a real team-player? My feeling is that after the Brexit trauma the UK will be far more cooperative and help strengthen the EU. But again, this might simply be called wishful thinking.