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Harsh truths in the wake of the post-Brexit storm

Leave campaigners' promises are about to clash with political reality

Four days on, the post-Brexit hurricane has struck British politics. The Conservatives face an acrimonious leadership contest, where the favourite is the maverick former mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Labour's Jeremy Corbyn may be overturned by his own parliamentary party. Fog has descended over the Channel and Britain's route out of the EU looks highly uncertain.

Whoever succeeds Mr Cameron — and that question may well not be answered until the Conservative party's annual conference in October — faces a delicate task. The new prime minister's duty will be to extract the best deal possible from the UK's European partners while coping with the inevitable disappointment at home when some of the Leave campaign's multiple contradictory promises are broken.

Before negotiating with Brussels begins in earnest, Britain needs a general election. The new prime minister requires a fresh mandate in order to forge a deal with the 27 EU member states. The prospect of such an election has triggered the move by Labour MPs to oust Mr Corbyn, an ineffectual hard-left leader whose failure to mobilise his party was one of the main reasons the Leave campaign triumphed.

For their part, leaders of the EU countries are understandably shocked and disappointed. Their focus must be on preserving the EU. Yet they should also see that they have an interest in keeping the UK in a close relationship as long as it is on the same terms available to everyone else.

The UK is unlikely to invoke until later this year Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union to withdraw from the EU and begin negotiations with the 27 governments. In the process they will disappoint Leave voters sold a bill of goods. Immigration played a huge part in the campaign and Leave stood on an unequivocal pledge to end the free movement of labour from the EU. Yet some Leave leaders have already retreated from promises to control immigration, and seem to be leaning towards a Norway-style option of retaining access to the single market without full EU membership.

This is probably the least bad of the various options possible — certainly better than withdrawing altogether and seeking a free-trade agreement with the EU, which will leave UK exporters severely hampered. But it also removes almost every plank of the "take back control" Leave platform. It will mean free movement of EU workers into the UK, require Britain to adopt European regulations to enter the single market and necessitate a hefty contribution to the EU budget.

European leaders also need to work out their position. So far there has been a cacophony from leaders and ministers. Common sense has come from Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who, true to character, has urged a period of calm reflection. Rather than getting down to the detail now, half a year before the UK is likely to start negotiations, the 27 would do better to set out some guiding principles.

The UK cannot expect more concessions than Mr Cameron won this year as part of his renegotiation of the terms of membership. Free movement of labour remains the price of being part of the single market.

The member states' overwhelming concern must be the integrity of the EU. The 27's attitude should be tough rather than vindictive, enough to make other countries aware of the consequences of leaving but not to reinforce impressions of the EU as capricious and dictatorial.

All sides need to understand just how high the stakes are. The cohesion of Europe and the unity of the west have been badly dented by the British vote. The imperative now is to salvage as much as possible from the wreckage.

The challenge of reworking the UK's relationship with the EU has been made far harder by the process which took the country into this sad pass. The UK is deeply divided. Passions are running high. The mainstream political parties are in disarray. The best the UK can hope for, absent a collective change of mind among voters and a reversal of the referendum decision by parliament, is for a settlement that ends up as near the status quo as possible.

For that to happen requires honesty as well as dexterity on the part of the British politicians who misled their voters during the referendum campaign. For all the justified anger in other European capitals, it also demands a degree of equanimity on the part of the rest of the EU.

[Source: The Financial Times, London, 26Jun16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 28Jun16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.