Alan Wager / Jun 2022
In last week’s Sunday Times Robert Colvile, one of the most important voices and thinkers on the right of British politics, raised a warning flag for eurosceptics. Colville's message was simple: ‘time is running out for the Tories to bed in Brexit’. And the argument runs something like the following: two and a half years after we have left, there is too little to show for Brexit and not enough that could be reversed by an administration not ideologically inclined to pursue the benefits of leaving the EU.
This is, after all, something that should concern eurosceptics. A central fact of the UK’s majoritarian system is that public policy is prone to swing wildly from one direction to the other. Embedding long term change is difficult.
Now, there is unlikely to ever be a consensus on whether or not Brexit was a good idea. There is, however, the possibility of a sustainable settlement within the parameters of the Withdrawal Agreement – an agreement, after all, that the Labour Party under Keir Starmer voted for.
One way to think about Brexit policy is that the UK faces three long-term choices.
Option one is making the protocol work using the existing framework as negotiated – and Anton Spisak of the Tony Blair Institute has set out how, with good faith on both sides, that might be achieved.
Option two is moving back within the EU’s orbit and towards closer integration, starting with areas that could create some practical solutions in Northern Ireland. But also, over time, looking towards further economic integration which could supersede the Trade and Co-operation Agreement. In effect, the worst case scenario for eurosceptics.
Option three is tearing up the withdrawal agreement and the trade deal that was negotiated, potentially moving decisively out of the EU’s orbit but creating the conditions for retaliatory measures from the EU. The plan that HMG looks set to adopt.
The key question as the UK introduces domestic legislation overriding the protocol is whether, if your aim is to entrench a Brexit that leaves the UK on a trajectory of continued divergence away from the EU – to make Brexit, if you like, ‘Starmer-proof’ – an effective way to go about doing that is by choosing option three. Or, whether it might be better to look again at option one, as a means of avoiding option two.
After all, as Colville notes, across a range of policy areas the current UK-EU deal does give plenty of scope for divergence and room for opportunities to show Brexit is working. It is not the Northern Ireland Protocol that is stopping this from happening. Our tracker at UK in a Changing Europe sets out where such divergence has taken place already.
Eurosceptics should also perhaps ask themselves whether it would be harder or easier for Keir Starmer’s Labour Party to make the case for decisively moving towards a model of deeper integration with the EU when in office if the next 12 months are dominated by a breakdown in relations, legal challenges and the creation of potentially new barriers to trade. Or, whether all of that will make the case for a fresh start and a closer relationship easier to make.
In any case, there are ways forward within the framework of the protocol as it exists. This would involve the EU taking on board the UK’s demand for ‘green lanes’ for goods destined only for. But the forward momentum of a positive negotiated solution would create its own effect in binding all parties to the deal as it stands. However, such a deal could only be agreed if both sides negotiate in good faith. It may now be too late.
It is worth saying that the tactical acumen of the European Research Group – reportedly now in the driving seat, pushing Liz Truss and Boris Johnson towards this confrontation with the EU – were often underestimated during the years of Brexit turmoil after the referendum. Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that, if they want to retain a Brexit where they UK retains full regulatory autonomy, they could be in the process of making a significant strategic mistake.