“Like Trying to Unscramble Scrambled Eggs”: Why A Year On From Brexit, We’re Still Clueless
Like many people, I watched the results of the EU referendum come in last year in a state of dismay. While there were legitimate reasons to wanting Brexit, especially issues of a democratic deficit, the referendum became about immigration and patriotism. In this context, the Brexit win signalled a direction for the UK I felt deeply uncomfortable about. Predictably, the aftermath was ugly, with racist and xenophobic attacks soaring by 41%, and political chaos has yet to give way to calm or clarity. A year on from the historic vote, we are more clueless than ever. And with a weakend Theresa May at the helm, we’re also leaderless.
Having failed to grasp what Brexit will look like from a UK perspective, I've spent the last two days in Berlin among German parliamentarians listening to their expectations and predictions. The three big messages are: (a) thanks for uniting the EU27; (b) you cannot have your cake and eat it; (c) we're not worried about the implications of a hard Brexit - but you should be.
Understandably, the protection of the EU27 is the number one priority for remaining EU member states, and this is the primary reason they cannot look like they are being to easy on the UK. That said, there is a consensus that the threat of Frexit, Grexit and general EU breakdown is no longer there - the Brexit vote alerted EU countries to the anti-EU threat and helped the EU27 to unify and recommit to the EU project. Finally, while there is obvious regret about the UK leaving, but there is also a sense that the UK had held the EU back on certain issues, and without us they can finally move forward unencumbered.
On eating cake - there was some dismay amongst the Germans at how little the British public seem to realise there are trade-offs, and that we can't have it all. On freedom of movement in particular, there is a basic misunderstanding about its relationship with membership of the single market. The single market is based on four fundamental principles: the freedom of movement of capital, goods, services – and people. If we opt out of any of these, we cannot remain members of the single market.There is no indication at all that the EU27 would compromise on freedom of movement and single market membership for the UK. We either accept them as a package deal, or we’re out.
Finally, with regard to the impact of Brexit on the rest of the EU, there was an assertion during my discussions that German car manufacturers want a deal to maintain supply chains and presumably to preserve our membership of the customs union. However, there was also a sense that even if an estimated 60,000 jobs are at risk in Germany, this isn't a huge deal for an economy that creates 60,000 new jobs every few months. We shouldn't kid ourselves - we have far more to lose than the EU27.
I heard one German MP say that Brexit is "like trying to unscramble scrambled eggs". It’s hard to disagree with this when, after 40 years of membership, no one knows for sure how much EU law applies in the UK. It’s becoming clearer every day that Brexit is an extremely complex undertaking, and we're nowhere near the end. We already know we will have a transition period after the official exit date, and it looks like we’ll be dealing with the intricacies of Brexit far beyond 2019. A year after the Brexit vote, there is no sign of a light at the end of the tunnel.