27th March 2017
This week, unless something unexpected happens, the Article 50 notification will be given to start the formal process of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.
Last summer, after the referendum result, it seemed unlikely to me that this would happen. The reasons for this view were:
– the referendum was not legally binding and so a separate and distinct legal and political decision still had to be made;
– the process of Brexit would be unimaginably complex and could not be accomplished within the two year period envisaged by Article 50;
– there were significant problems for Brexit because of Scotland and Northern Ireland;
– very few people with power in Westminster or Whitehall were in favour of Brexit;
– there is a tendency in British politics to put things off – indeed, procrastination is a principle of the British constitution (for example, the 1911 Parliament Act was intended to be a temporary measure and is still there); and
– there was no clear or agreed alternative model for the UK outside the EU.
Each of these reasons remains fair. Not even the most ardent Brexiteer could object to more than one or two of them.
But the Article 50 notification is still being made. The reasons set out above, although sound in themselves (in my view) were not enough.
So what happened?
There were two things which happened which meant the Article 50 notification is being made this week, despite the reasons set out above.
The first thing is the dull one that it became apparent that various difficult issues could, in principle, be dealt with on a transitional basis (or “adjustment phases” as the government called it). This would give the government and the EU more time to solve the problems. The two years would not be an absolute bind.
The fact that such transitional/adjustment arrangements do not yet exist, and may not exist, is beside the point. There is room for manoeuvre.
The second thing is the more exciting one of politics.
This became plain at the conference speech in Birmingham last October. What had been vague statements about “early next year” became a concrete commitment to make the notification by next March.
Even the litigation to establish that an Act of Parliament was required did not prevent this political push.
The Act of Parliament was passed by a Conservative majority in the Commons, elected only in 2015 on a manifesto commitment to “safeguard” the UK’s position in the EU.
The Mandate (and it warrants a capital letter) of the referendum result would brook no opposition. The people had spoken, and so on.
And so the prime minister’s self-imposed deadline of March is to be kept.
Being doubtful about this particular Brexit adventure has led to me being dubbed a “Remaniac” and worse.
But this is not the case.
My own views, for what they are worth, are what used to be called “Eurosceptic”.
(I was once research assistant to the anti-EU William Cash MP, alongside my university contemporary Dan Hannan.)
I have never written in favour of the EU; I have opposed every treaty and substantial treaty amendment since Maastricht; and I would have voted against membership had I been able to in 1975.
In essence, I would have preferred the UK not to have joined in the first place.
And a good part of my wariness about the EU is because of the ratchet effect: after 40 or so years, the EU and UK polities were becoming evermore intertwined.
Westminster and (especially) Whitehall were becoming dependent on EU powers and provisions. Thousands of pieces of secondary legislation were implemented without scrutiny or indeed without any thought. I do not think membership of the EU has had a positive effect on UK law and policy making.
As a liberal, I was (and am) a fan of the single market and the four freedoms, especially freedom of movement; but also as a liberal, I was unhappy about the lack of transparency and accountability of EU law making. Brussels for me has never seemed either liberal or democratic.
So as and when the UK ends up outside the EU, I will not be especially unhappy.
My concern is not with the destination but with the journey. All because you want to get somewhere, that doesn’t mean you will get there.
Just after the referendum result, my doubtfulness about the Brexit adventure was expressed in a tweet which went “viral”.
The tweet was a riff on Waiting for Godot.
Well: Godot has now turned up. And neither Vladimir nor Estragon perhaps know what to do now that Godot has turned up.
On a final note, I just want to set my incorrect prediction in the following two contexts.
First, I only held the view that the notification was very unlikely until the October conference speech; by January I held the view it was likely; and by February I saw it as virtually certain.
Second, I expressed the following views on pretty much the same sceptical basis and they all still seem sound:
– the referendum was not legally binding (and the Miller litigation and the Act of Parliament showed this was the case);
– repeal of the Human Rights Act and/or the UK leaving the ECHR is extremely difficult (and this has been abandoned for at least the foreseeable future);
– the UK would go for “hard Brexit” because it would be easier than a “soft Brexit”; and
– that Theresa May’s public statements meant that the UK would have to leave the single market (which was then admitted).
The Article 50 notification prediction tuned out to be incorrect. Godot has turned up.
But the reasons which were behind that prediction are still there.
Making the notification is the easy step. It is the one thing the UK has complete control over, and this week it will be done.
Then the complicated process of Brexit will begin. Nobody knows how it will end (or if it will end).
But, as I said back in February: my only prediction now is that those who doubted that the Article 50 notification would ever be seen will get a good-natured ribbing by those who never had such doubts.
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