Remain is out of valid options. And the desperation shows.
“Brexit is shit — let’s cancel Brexit” — it’s a catchy sentiment, like Mondays are shit let’s cancel Mondays or cats are shit let’s cancel cats. But it’s not a plan.
It is now evident that Remainers, who so vehemently berated Brexiters for lacking a coherent plan, now have no plan themselves. And like those Brexiters who, without any basis or design, see nothing but the sunlit uplands, it seems that Remainers have come to see continued EU membership as the only possible solution to anything and as the resolution of everything. Just as Brexiters have been accused of supporting Brexit without pondering its implications or alternatives, or even their own motives, Remainers who have committed themselves headlong to all-or-nothing Remain have done so without considering the consequences or the reality of where we are. Safeguarding the tenets and benefits of EU membership has been put aside.
At some point, all incumbents prevailed upon by a challenger need to change their thinking from “how do we maintain our position?” to “how do we regain our position?”. “Let’s cancel Brexit” might provide Remain with palliative focus, but it circumvents the more pertinent question of whether the path to cancelling Brexit is actually the path to Remain.
What are the options for achieving Remain?
One of the more curious developments of the Remain-versus-Leave circus is the emerging unity of purpose between “Let’s cancel Brexit” Remainers and “up yours Brussels” Brexiters — an expedient unspoken alliance forged on the singular hope that Brexit negotiations flounder, either with no deal or concluding with a threadbare deal, doing irreparable (for Brexiters) or all-but-irreparable (for Remainers) damage to political and commercial relations between the EU and the UK.
For hard Brexiters the motivation is obvious — a Brexit that irrevocably sets UK apart from the EU beyond any point of return. For Let’s cancel Brexit” Remainers, this strategic collusion reveals an increasingly disingenuous desperation and stark lack of options.
Since referendum day, Remain’s strategy has consisted of a series of clutched straws: that article 50 would never be notified, or couldn’t legally be notified, that anti-Brexit MPs would triumph in the election (the big chance) and now that somehow, a government (and opposition) hell-bent on being the Government of Brexit-means-Brexit is going to flip round on a groundswell of changed opinion that has so far substantially failed to materialise, despite our PM’s uncanny best efforts to mess up every aspect of the negotiations.
Over a year later, despite every logic in Remain’s book, the tide of opinion has not in fact turned; yet Remain continues to stare Brexit down with the all-knowing surety of Canute, determined that, at some point before Brexit day, a crisis will intervene to repel the seething Brexiter tide back into the depths of the ocean — a crisis of economic, social, political devastation, or a deal so bad that it cannot be supported. Crisis continues to be Remain’s last best hope of achieving cancellation of Brexit.
However, a strategy that is dependant on crisis is rash and reckless, a goal that is unachievable by other means is unworthy — the outcomes of crises are, by nature, unpredictable, uncontrollable and destructive; so, to seek crisis (albeit by abscondment) in the random hope of achieving a given benign outcome from among so many potential negative outcomes is irresponsible to the point of being wanton. A crisis might possibly lead to the UK remaining in the EU, but it might (especially given the precariousness of the UK’s public finances and the polarised nature of this debate) easily also lead to any number of undesired scenarios (including the type of Brexit envisaged by Remain’s hard-Brexiter fellow travellers, or the regressive and bitter Britain which Remainers so often warn us about) all contrary to the tenets which supposedly underpin the argument to Remain.
Even if the chances of achieving crisis are reasonable, the chances of crisis leading to revocation of article 50 and Brexit repentance are considerably lower. It’s a risk-reward calculation Remainers are not making honestly.
And then there is also a real risk that revocation (even if it is achieved) does not achieve Remain or achieves a failed Remain, again leading to outcomes that are contrary to what Remain purportedly stands for.
Revocation can never be a unilateral act. Regardless of any legal assertion or opinion, any meaningful opposition from any of the EU27 will be enough to block automatic revocation and turn it into a negotiation upon which every EU stakeholder will heap conditions, potentially making the terms of revocation impossible for any UK government to swallow. With every passing month, the likelihood of revocation being rejected or conditioned increases: as the EU gets on with life post-Brexit, the window to the UK remaining on anything like the same terms closes (especially with a new push to further unification by leaders who will not want to re-handicap themselves by re-admitting British obstruction and dissonance). A stroppy and embittered UK returning out of last resort in a no-deal cancellation of Brexit will not be welcome. Likewise, the UK finally rejecting of an article 50 deal agreed to and designed by the EU in its own interests will also be greeted with consternation and misgiving. And don’t @ me with “open arms” quotes — what they say now negotiating Brexit has no bearing on what they will say negotiating Revocation.
Just as the EU wants to show that there is a price to pay for Brexit, the EU will also want to show that there is a price to pay for messing about with article 50: For the EU to leave itself susceptible to the UK changing its mind again and giving notice again a few years later or to other countries such as Poland or Italy having a go at article 50 (knowing they can just revoke if things don’t pan out) is unthinkable. The EU will seek to make revocation permanent and meaningful. A rejection of revocation or the imposition of unacceptable conditions (e.g. euro or Schengen membership) will leave UK in an intolerable and ugly position, with no room to manoeuvre against the hard March 2019 deadline. Unsuccessful revocation of Brexit will be a seismic defeat that will cast us into the most extreme and resentful of Brexits, creating a poisonous gash in UK-EU27 relations and British society that will not be easily healed.
Nevertheless, even if crisis does somehow lead to revocation and even if revocation does somehow lead to a remain that carries through, it still stands that nothing will have changed versus pre-ref membership. Remain’s triumph will be fleeting; for Leavers it will be soul-destroying affront that will stoke unmitigated anger and indignation (for all that Remainers might like to imagine a process of reflective and considered enlightenment and acceptance, for all that they seek to dismiss pro-Leave sentiment as something superficial). Just as membership pre-referendum was unsatisfactory, membership post-revocation offers no improvement, rather a deterioration; at best, Cameron’s touted membership-saving reforms will be cancelled; if anything, the terms of re-membership, negotiated while Britain has nowhere else to go will work in the opposite direction, making membership fundamentally less not more satisfactory. Remainers can talk wistfully about reforming the EU or even dealing with the “underlying reasons” for people voting leave, but they have little concrete and doable to say on the matter. And when it comes to the UK reforming the EU (that great promise of a reformed EU), it is fantastical to think that anyone in Brussels or the EU27 will break from their own reform plans to listen seriously to anything we have to say after revocation or for many years thereafter.
It is precisely this perceived “Remain under duress” or “Remain through treachery” scenario (whether the perception is fair or not), which will have populists drooling; it is this scenario which presents UKIP and other groups even less savoury than UKIP with a clear path to popular and political power. For a large section of the population, regardless of any validating/rubber-stamp vote, Remain under these circumstances will be felt as a betrayal by everyone currently in power (Remainers and Brexiters alike), a festering national humiliation. These are sentiments easily leveraged and not blithely remedied. The desire to “try Brexit again and do it proper” will be feverous and unquenchable.
So what alternative path is there to Remain? If persuasion is not working — yes blame us illogical, deluded, complacent Brexiters for not listening to you and understanding reality, but it is not working — and if dependence on crisis is dangerous, that means the only viable routes to Remain are via Brexit — for Remain ever to happen, Brexit has to happen first.
But then here we have the most preposterous of all Remain strategy — a Brexit so hard, so contentious, so destructive that, within a few years, there will be some glorious moment of mass contrition and acknowledgement by the Brexidiot throng: the mortification of Brexit will be laid bare and we will all join hands and rush back to the EU in glee. It is this strategy that has hard Remainers and hard Brexiters in closest alignment (each oblivious to the illogic of the fact that their strategy coincides with the strategy of their fiercest opponents — you know guys, if you share intermediate goals with your opponents, it might be a sign of some strategic error…). Of all Remain strategies — wishing for the worst of all outcomes in the vague hope of being able to say “I told you so” is the most fearsome and the one least likely to work out over any useful timeframe; As reprehensible as their opponents’ desire to see the EU and the euro collapse and all go to hell.
If not revocation, if not hard Brexit, what?
All this leaves Remain with one option — to push for a Brexit which preserves the principles and cited benefits of Remain as far as possible and which holds open the possibility of smooth and successful restoration of membership via fair democratic process (as hard Brexit does not except over the very long term). The tenets of Remain should be obvious (some are even shared by some Brexiters): free trade in Europe, the opportunity to live, study and work across Europe, cooperation among European countries in support of European values, freedom, peace, citizen and human rights, the environment. It should also be obvious that different manifestations of Brexit preserve or diverge from these principles to different degrees –to vie for any outcome (hard Brexit or crisis) that could definitively set Britain aside from these principles is to risk squandering them in a headstrong game of all or nothing.
Why Remainers should back EEA Brexit…
I know the EEA (Norway-option) Brexit is far from perfect — as a destination it has many flaws (and it is therefore important that permanence is not made binding). I know you Remainers think Remain is a far better deal, but of all the options left on the table, EEA membership (or something very close) as the next step is the one that most clearly safeguards UK’s adherence to Remain principles — keeps free movement, the single market, keeps us aligned with EU values — and the only one that offers an orderly path back to EU membership.
By moving from EU to EEA without binding ourselves further, we will all have opportunity to calm down and to take stock; then we can have another, more measured, more honest debate (that one you keep saying you want) about re-joining the EU, remaining in the EEA as is, evolving the EEA, or leaving the EEA. I am confident Remain will lose that debate once again, that Brexit will be consolidated, but at least Remain will have its opportunity — an opportunity for making a positive EU case that Remain should relish, versus a debate and decision driven by crisis and Damoclean deadlines. If Remain does not think it can win that debate, it has no business here.
A Brexit that is gradual, that is flexible, ideologically neutral; a Brexit that has no destination ruled in or ruled out, that is subject only to the ongoing direction of our elected Parliament obviously does not achieve Remain in itself, just as it does not immediately achieve proper Brexit, but it is the only valid path, from where we are now, to an honest and decent Remain (or Brexit) outcome that can hold over time via reasoned and free decision.
Remainers can continue to hide behind their “All Brexit is shit” and “all Brexiters are idiots” memes, relishing each misstep of our Government (it must be fun); they can purport to oppose hard Brexit without supporting any doable alternative; they can sit back and wait for some glorious devastating crisis that they can leverage to their own ends; they can abscond themselves from everything going forward on the basis that nothing is their problem; but what is the valid purpose of any of these strategies other than to cover up a lack of reasoned options? It would seem, historically, that those who take a back seat on their own future in protest at the direction of travel or in the hope of accident, generally don’t get to say, “I told you so”, except perhaps as a curious footnote.