Two months on, and the search for Brexit’s meaning has only led to a confusion of answers

Kevin Rafferty says that deep continental links and dependence on immigrant labour mean leaving the EU would be an uphill task for the UK, especially as it appears to lack a clear road map

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 2:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 August, 2016, 9:43pm

At the Drovers Inn, self-styled “pub of the year 1705” on the northwestern shores of Loch Lomond, the brawny guys serving breakfast wear traditional Scottish kilts, but their accents are not like any Scottish dialect I have ever heard, more like English with a very immigrant edge.

Further north in the Scottish Highlands, at Ullapool and Lochinver, there are many different accents, but few are native Scottish dialects. The duty hotel manager is Polish and the overnight manager English; the porter is from Lithuania; the kitchen staff come from Poland, the waiters in the restaurant from Spain and Italy; the coffee shop workers are from Poland, Estonia and Slovakia.

Someone should tell the clueless politicians of the UK and Europe desperately searching for the meaning of Brexit (the referendum that decided that the UK would leave the European Union) that they are too late – the EU has already joined the UK.

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Two months after the referendum, Brexit is like a modern-day philosophical conundrum. Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May declared that “Brexit means Brexit” – which reminded me of the student who got a first-class degree at Oxford by answering the question, “Is this a question?” by writing, “If that is a question, then this is an answer.”

What does “Brexit means Brexit” mean? So far there is no answer, or rather there is a confusion of answers. A popular cartoon shows Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and two fellow ministers tasked with the Brexit negotiations, David Davis, who is in charge of getting out of the EU, and trade secretary Liam Fox, perched together on a unicycle, pedalling furiously in different directions.

What to do about 3.3 million EU citizens living and working in the UK is one of the burning questions of Brexit. In key parts of the UK, the economy depends on immigrant workers, not least the beloved but ailing National Health Service.

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Leaving aside the cosmopolitan City of London, hundreds of waiters in pubs and restaurants are French, Italian or Spanish. Farmers could not do without seasonal help from Poles, Latvians and other East Europeans. Romanians lead the grape-pickers in the vineyards of Sussex. An English hotel manager in Lochinver believes Scotland’s £5 billion (HK$51 billion) tourism industry would not survive without EU workers.

Should all the EU workers be allowed to stay, or only those who arrived before a cut-off date? What will be their status and rights? How should future EU citizens seeking to live and work in the UK be treated? There are also 1.2 million Britons living in the rest of the EU.

The issue is critical because the UK rejects free movement of labour as key to recovering “sovereignty”. But Europeans say free movement is essential if the UK wants to keep free trade access to the EU.

British media offer Canadian, Norwegian and Swiss models of relationships with the EU. All involve concessions-free movement of labour or a financial contribution, without giving the UK a voice in making EU rules. This raises the question of whether the UK is shooting itself in the head by giving up its seat at the EU table, but having to accept its decisions.

That is why a few economists are prepared to forgo a free trade agreement, arguing that these days tariffs are low, so London could accept World Trade Organisation terms. But tariffs are not the only barriers to trade, and deals have to be reached on services as well as goods. The UK also has to strike its own deal with the WTO and other trading partners.

May and her ministers have not decided what kind of relationship they want with the EU, and the UK does not have the negotiators to negotiate

That opens potentially volcanic political questions of London’s relationship with Europe, whether they should be good neighbours or maintain an aloof distance, hoping to be a once and future superpower. Dream on, history students might say. For more than 1,000 years, England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom have been intimately involved with Europe. Ancient cynics would say Britain’s population is a mongrel mishmash of continental Europe, before recent Commonwealth immigrants, who are full citizens.

Modern cynics would say that, for at least 500 years, Britain’s policy has been to prevent the growth of an overwhelming power on the European mainland. By opting out, the UK has given up its ability to influence Europe from the inside.

Two months on, the earth has not fallen in or economic cataclysm happened. Sterling has tumbled, but the stock market is strong, though long-term inward investment plans are down. But this is the “phoney war” period. By all inside accounts, May and her ministers have not decided what kind of relationship they want with the EU, and the UK does not have the negotiators to negotiate.

Some staff at the Department for Exiting the European Union are giving their services for free, but other lawyers, negotiators, economists and trade experts will have to be hired at up to £5,000 a day, with a potential final Brexit bill of upwards of £5 billion.

British leaders may have triggered the mess, but the failure of a European vision is spreading throughout the continent. Leaders in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are facing elections with nationalist opponents harrying them, and making them look increasingly inward. Negotiating a common Brexit deal with all 27 remaining EU members would test the best negotiators.

It would be more honest to admit that the [Brexit] referendum was flawed

A few pundits plead that the prospects of a good deal are so poor that Brexit should not happen: it would be more honest to admit that the referendum was flawed, based on fakes and false promises, so it should be held again with realistic multiple choices.

But honesty is in short supply. On the right is the fantasy of “sovereignty” regained. On the left is the dangerous delusion that the European dream has turned into a nightmare and Britain can lead the way to breaking up the EU – which would surely bring the fantastic hell of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch back to life.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator

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