John Donne reminded us 500 years ago “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…” If Brexit washes us away, the UK will be the loser too!
I start by admitting I am an anorak when it comes to politics and I am a Labour supporter without being a Corbyn supporter. I also put out there that I am Irish and European so that means in terms of Brexit people would label me a remainer. If I had my way, I would ask for another referendum and fight harder for my friends to stay in Europe. However that option is denied to me. If I had my way, I would speak to the Europeans and say as an EU citizen we are not perfect and rather than fight the vote of UK/EU citizens, we need to listen, learn, adapt, and re-engage so that we are not losing our great UK friends. Europe’s fear of contagion as a result of Brexit is justified because the Brexit referendum’s outcome has transformed the politics of EU fragmentation. Brexit has now become a political football where each team are digging in. Brexiteers who are wedded to the idea of a clean break, remainers who are wedded to staying, and the EU who are wedded to not allowing Brexit to contaminate the rest of EU.
However in my day job, strategy is my thing and I cannot help but feel there has to be a third way on Brexit. Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise remainers like me. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet three months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears the government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU, but to leaving the single market, the customs union, and many of the European Institutions. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech. Jeremy Corbyn and Labour are busily trying to find a position that is different from the Conservatives, so that they can be for something that is not “Tory” and can blame the Tories for any shambles that ensues. I am more and more convinced that there must be a third way. Now, if I was in charge what would I do? I would advocate two different but converging paths. I would go to our friends in the EU and say “the people have spoken”. The UK electorate has decided that the EU as it currently operates is an institution that we must leave. I would start a strategy of engagement about how that disengagement should manifest itself in a win win for both sides. However I would also say to the “European Union” we are still fully paid up members for the next two years and potentially for two years so after that, let’s work and see if there is an opportunity to learn from an electorate on how we can improve the EU. Remember this electorate is EU citizens and not just UK citizens.
It is now my firm opinion that there is a centre place in policy for a party that says that we will negotiate for a reformed EU, and based upon that reform we will commit to not only remain, but to being more committed members of the EU. Instead of rushing Brexit, Europe’s leaders should be trying to avert it, by persuading British voters to change their minds. The aim should not be to negotiate the terms of departure, but to negotiate the terms on which most British voters would want to remain.
Why do I think the EU will be receptive to this strategy?
Two factors (for example) may encourage the EU to become more flexible. One is that EU enlargement has all but ground to a halt. The last country to join was Croatia, in 2013. The next one – perhaps Serbia or Montenegro – will be lucky to get in by 2025, if ever. Enlargement has stopped because in many EU countries, voters do not want new entrants.
The second factor is that the EU’s neighbourhood policy has largely failed. It was supposed to create a “ring of friends” around the EU, persuading neighbours to reform their economies and political systems by offering trade, aid, free movement and stronger political ties. Yet the EU offered too little to motivate most of these countries to reform – with a few exceptions such as Georgia and Tunisia. Many southern and eastern neighbours have turned their backs on the EU rather than becoming its friends.
The EU has a long history of adapting in response to political pressures in important member states. So why is this strategy not being considered to counter the existential threat of Brexit? The answer has nothing to do with supposed respect for democracy. The Brexit vote is no more irreversible than any other election or referendum, provided the EU is willing to adopt some modest reforms. The answer is the egos, bureaucracy and entrenched positions of diehard politicians who say they represent our voice.
Tony Blair wrote in an article for his Institute for Global Change, "Rational consideration of the options would sensibly include the option of negotiating for Britain to stay within a Europe itself, prepared to reform and meet us half way". I am of the same opinion.
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