I know it is Wolfgang Münchau’s job to be some sort of agent provocateur in the FT, and today he is true to form – arguing that it is now inevitable that the UK leaves the European Union, and that people who argued for Remain ought to now plan for how to get the UK to rejoin. About the only thing in the piece I do agree with is that a focus on economic issues will not win the day for Remain people. The rest of the piece does not stack up.
Firstly as I see it, and argued last week in my piece about why I am calm about Article 50, is that it has been clear for a few months that Article 50 would be triggered. The trigger itself is an important milestone, but that is about it. To see where things currently stand as the first step along a linear path that will ultimately lead the UK to a Brexit agreement by 29th March 2019 strikes me as wholly false. No-one can fully predict how the next two years will play out.
The UK leaving by spring 2019 may be what happens. That may indeed even be the most likely scenario. But is is far from the only scenario. We are less than a week after the notification and there is already an almighty stink about Gibraltar, and actual negotiations have not yet even started.
Indeed when those negotiations actually start the UK is going to send a negotiation team led by David Davis into battle against one led by Michel Barnier. Davis will be backed by a motley collection of civil servants in a newly formed department, where the expertise of Ivan Rogers has been dispensed with. Look at how Davis behaved at the Commons Brexit committee and do you think the EU is going to take this man seriously? The government’s plan – in as far as it has one – is couched in the vague language of its Brexit White Paper. Meanwhile on the EU side Barnier – a calm, impeccably mannered and canny operator – is better prepared and better resourced than the UK side is, and the Article 50 process stacks the cards in the EU’s favour. “Mrs May’s government may not have been prepared for Brexit in the months after the referendum. But they are now,” says Münchau. Perhaps he is privy to different information than I am, but that most definitely is not my impression.
Now May’s government might have been successful at setting the agenda within the UK – and indeed public opinion on the Brexit question has not shifted. But that has been while the UK has essentially been talking to itself about Brexit, not actually testing its ideas against the wall of reality of the remaining 27 Member States of the European Union. That process starts now. Plus May has had the advantage that she faces a decimated opposition at home, with the Liberal Democrats inadequately strong to land a blow on her and Labour not looking like it is even trying.
As I see it there are two ways forward in the Brexit negotiations – either towards a crunch, or towards a fudge. And both have risks associated with them, both for the UK and, to a lesser extent, the EU. An acrimonious breakdown of negotiations would surely have economic consequences for the UK and – even though I agree with Münchau that economic arguments won’t win the British population around, the government will nevertheless have to cope with the real consequences of economic turbulence (impact on public services for example). Fudge carries its own dangers too – if it looks like May is trying to pilot the UK towards a softer Brexit, or one that has longer transition periods, she makes a problem for herself among her own ministers (would Fox or even Davis tolerate that?)
At the moment what the UK thinks it wants (in as far as that is clear) and what it can get from the EU, and when, are miles apart. How that chasm is or is not bridged is going to be the ultimate test.
Which leads me to Münchau’s final point. He argues that, having left, the campaign ought to be built to get the UK to rejoin. That strikes me as not even worth trying. If the UK manages to find a way to exit without causing itself major damage in the process then the incentive to re-join is going to be minimal. Plus the UK self image, of the great country that can manage anything, would be strengthened, the belligerence amplified. Trying to make a case for the EU in those circumstances would be next to impossible.
So yes, I acknowledge that economic arguments will not win the day, and that at the moment May looks like the master of all that is before her in the UK. But there will be some pretty major bumps and junctions in the road between now and 2019, and when the UK hits rather than negotiating those, the case for a further referendum on the end deal may indeed grow. But of course I cannot with any more certainty be sure that the UK will somehow stay than Münchau can be certain that the UK will leave, but leaving and then re-joining is a ridiculously long shot and should not be any pro-EU person’s plan.