28th April 2017
Is the Brexit which is to take place the only one possible? Was there ever a real chance that there could have been a “soft” Brexit? Is it even still possible?
This is perhaps because of three things.
First, the EU has maintained since before the referendum that the decision would be accepted. Brexit would mean Brexit. There would be no re-negotaion of the terms of EU membership. This meant whatever the UK’s terms of exit, and whatever is contained in a future agreement, it would involve the UK as a “third country”. A “soft” Brexit giving the UK full access to (and membership of) the single market would have to be fashioned with the UK firmly outside the EU.
Second, the EU within days of the referendum result adopted the absolute insistence that there would be “no negotiation without notification” and that the EU27 would be united. This position has been held. This meant that any exploratory talks between the UK and the EU institution and with member states could not take place (at least no officially). The absence of such talks meant that options to a “hard” Brexit could not be easily canvassed or considered before Article 50 was triggered. This meant a “soft” Brexit became unlikely.
And third, of course, the EU also asserted within days of the referendum result (as well as before) that the “four freedoms” (of movement, services, goods, and capital) were indivisible and that any access to (and membership of) the single market would require the UK’s acceptance of those four freedoms. This meant that a “soft” Brexit was only an option as part of a wider package, on a “take it or leave it” basis.
These three elements were in place weeks before Theresa May became prime minister and “Brexit means Brexit” became a commonplace political slogan.
Taken together, these elements suggest that a “hard” Brexit was the only one which was ever possible, regardless of who May appointed as key ministers or what she said at a party conference. There was nothing the UK could do to stop this. It did not matter what “Brexit means Brexit” meant to Mrs May or anybody else. The meaning of Brexit had already been, in effect, determined.
If this was so then Mr May and her government cannot be to blame for any Brexit being a “hard” Brexit: there was no other choice.
These three elements, however, are indicative but not conclusive.
A “soft” Brexit was always difficult but it was not (and still is not) impossible.
The EU has adopted a consistent, united, transparent and coherent position but it remains only a position. Political will could rebut the presumption of a “hard” Brexit, if such will existed.
The reason why a “hard” Brexit became inevitable (if anything is ever inevitable) after Mrs May became prime minister was because of what happened next.
In the crucial months following the referendum it is plain that the EU was getting to work on preparing for Brexit in terms of substantial policy and process.
By December 2016 the EU was ready to receive the Article 50 notification. As this week’s series of posts at the FT sought to set out in detail and with links to sources, the EU knew what they wanted and how they would achieve it.
The UK, on the other hand, wasted time.
The civil service was already unprepared because of the former prime minister’s decision to prevent any contingency plans being made in the event of a “leave” victory.
Mrs May then decided to spend the crucial early months creating two new Whitehall departments from scratch. Before she was appointed, the Cabinet Office under Oliver Letwin was starting the job of preparing for Brexit (as he explained to a parliamentary committee). But with the new departments everything had again to begin from scratch: weeks would pass before the departments were functioning.
This tinkering meant that by the time the key EU negotiation team TF50 was in place , the departments of Exiting the European Union and International Trade were barely up and running.
There were unsurprising reports of Whitehall turf wars with the the Treasury and Foreign Office. But these tensions were not just the usual bureaucratic infighting: there would be natural conflicts between the two new departments over the relationship with the EU, as the terms of exit and new UK-EU relationship would affect new trade deals elsewhere.
So by December Michel Barnier and his TF50 team were ready; and by way of contrast, in January the UK suddenly lost Sir Ivan Rogers, its person in Brussels. leaving nobody in charge.
One reason therefore for the UK having to accept Brexit on EU’s terms was because of how it lost precious time with setting up conflicting departments rather than letting the the Cabinet Office and Foreign Office get on with it.
But more important that this administrative shot-in-a-foot was the Birmingham speech of Mrs May to Conservative party conference.
By ruling out freedom of movement and any jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, Mrs May closed down the possibility of a “soft” Brexit.
Had she chosen not to put these cards on the table, there was the possibility that full access to the single market could continue to be an option, if the four freedoms could somehow be accommodated.
The EU had only said that the quid-pro-quo of full access was acceptance of the four freedoms, not that it was inherently not on offer. (And, as far as I can tell, that is still the theoretical position.)
A more measured approach would not have made a “soft” Brexit any more likely – there was always a presumption against it – but the October speech meant that a “soft” Brexit became politically impossible.
A “soft” Brexit was once possible for the UK.
But now, unless something exceptional happens, Brexit will be on the terms prescribed by EU27, and this will mean a “hard” Brexit.
My book “Brexit What Everyone Needs to Know” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.