One month on from Britain’s referendum decision to leave the EU, political attention has turned to the question of whether it is possible for Britain to leave the EU while at the same time persevering its own Union.
This political dilemma is a consequences of the June 23 Referendum which although returning a 52% vote in support of Britain leaving the EU hid significant regional variations. Northern Ireland voted by 56% for the UK to stay in the EU, while in Scotland 62% voted remain. Compare this with the 52% in Wales and the 53% in England that voted Leave.
If the referendum decision was in part a protest vote against the political establishment and Westminster style politics then how does the government ensure that the process of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU doesn’t reinforce the sense of alienation from those parts of the United Kingdom that voted remain? Will a negotiating strategy that only satisfies the disparate voices of those that voted leave fuel the flames of Scottish independence and Irish (re-)unification?
These questions have been drawn into focus this week with Theresa May’s first visit as PM to Northern Ireland where she met on Monday with Arlene Foster, the Brexit-backing first Minister, and Martin McGuiness, the Remain-supporting Deputy First Minister. Following talks at Stormont, Martin McGuinness said, “On the issue of Brexit, I speak for the people of the North. And the people of the North who are unionist, nationalist republican have made it very clear that they see their future in Europe.”
These concerns were reinforced the subsequent day when Theresa May and the Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny met in London to discuss how Brexit might impact Anglo-Irish relations. Speaking ahead of the meeting Theresa May said that when the UK leaves the EU “of course Northern Ireland will have a border with the Republic of Ireland.” However, she added, “Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past.” Irish government sources accepted that some changes to the current ‘invisible’ border may have to occur, but have insisted that a ‘hard’ border was ‘not an option’.
Not to be left out of proceedings, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, used a speech to the IPPR in Edinburgh on Monday to set out interests that she would seek to protect in talks on the UK’s government’s position on Brexit before any triggering of Article 50. These included the need to make sure that Scotland’s voice is heard and its wishes respected; free movement of labor and access to the single market; protection of workers’ and wider human rights; the ability to work with other nations to tackle issues such as climate change and terrorism; and having a say in the rules of the single market.
All of this darws into focus what Brexit means.We all now know that Brexit means Brexit but we have no idea what Brexit actually means. How might Theresa May reconcile the competing demands for a soft and hard Brexit? Is it possible for her to satisfy the Brexit head-bangers within her own party while also meeting the demands from Scotland and Northern Ireland?
One option would be to press for a sub-optimum solution that forces all domestic stakeholders to compromise. This would involve adopting the ready-made Norwegian model with or without an emergency brake on the free movement of people. Theresa May could then claim that the government had honoured the referendum decision. This would take the sting out of the Brexit tail even if the more ideologically motivated Brexiteers complained that this amounted to honouring the letter and not the spirit of the referendum. Britain would after all still be subservient to a failing Brussels machinery. However, this option would provide for soft borders between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and would meet some, but not all of the interests laid out by Nicola Sturgeon. Britain would still be obliged to abide by the rules of the single market but have no say in shaping them.
It is difficult to know whether this arrangement would provide a long-term sustainable response to Brexit or merely a transitional staging area towards a more distant but permanent unravelling of both the UK’s relationship with the EU and in turn the UK’s own Union. Much would depend here on a range of contingent factors like changing the national narrative on Europe and on immigration.
The challenge of finding such a differentiated solution would be formidable. Even if a variable solution can be agreed amongst the 4 nations, Britain would face the difficult task of persuading the EU to agree to this model. Even if the EU was open in principle to a variable Brexit the process of negotiating a final agreement that satisfied all parties would be challenging to say the least involving as it would multi-level negotiations and trade-offs both within the UK and between the UK and the EU.
The Scottish First Minister didn’t go into detail but her proposal echoes the recommendations made earlier this month by the Constitution Reform Group, an independent all-party group of experts. Convened by the former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Salisbury, the group made the case for the governance of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be reinvented within a new voluntary union in a bid to save the UK from disintegration.
Whatever the relative merits of their specific proposals it is clear that Britain’s referendum decision requires us to rethink both how we relate to the EU and what it means to be the United Kingdom. Fiercely defending the status quo at home at a time of wider constitutional change in our relationship with the EU is likely to be the worst of all options and one most likely to hasten the breakup of the United Kingdom.
If would be good to hear your thoughts on whether Britain should settle for a soft Brexit in order to keep the UK together? If you are Brexiteer, is that a price worth paying? If not how do you think the UK should exit the EU while safeguarding the territorial integrity of the UK?