Wishful thinking on Brexit wishful thinking

Dr Tim Blakemore, former senior law lecturer at the University of Northampton, living in France, considers the state of play as Brexit talks get under way

19 July 2017
UK and EU chief negotiators David Davis and Michel Barnier meet in Brussels
By Dr Tim Blakemore

The Brexit negotiations are beginning, but under difficult circumstances for the government.

The referendum divided the nation almost down the middle and after the recent elections the divisions seem starker than ever, as Theresa May herself has acknowledged.

This side of the Channel we might have two reasons to feel anguish about the uncertainty and confusion: nobody likes to see the country of their birth in such turmoil, while a more personal concern is that the political uncertainty is sure to weaken the pound further and reduce any income originating in the UK.

Everybody will have their theories about the causes but Brexit is a factor and around the turn of the year there were even stories that counselling service Relate was having to deal with relationships in trouble because one partner voted Leave, the other Remain. So the need for reconciliation is important but I cannot help feeling that it is wishful thinking on both sides – Leavers and Remainers – which is a major obstacle.

Many Remainers are clinging to the hope that those who voted Leave will somehow “come to their senses”, and that a significant proportion are already regretting their decision and would vote Remain if the referendum was re-run. Here we must enter the tangled thickets of opinion polls and one thing is clear – there is no solid evidence to support that view. On the contrary, some who voted Remain are now content with Brexit, having been reluctant initially to opt for such a drastic change and preferring to stick with the status quo. Presumably they will now be content with the new status quo even if the value of the pound goes down, down, down…

Even Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, dreams that the UK will remain, quoting John Lennon when claiming that he is “not the only one”. Perhaps pop music is a suitable backdrop to a slightly surreal situation, although President Macron avoided references to popular culture when he spoke about the “doors staying open”.

Connexion has also reported on a French lawyer who is arguing that because some expats could not vote in the referendum it should be declared invalid and re-run with all British adults being allowed to participate.

This seems unlikely, but all seem agreed that although article 50 has no provision to reverse the process, a way would be found to allow the UK to remain were the referendum vote to change.

Of course, it would mean that the UK would have spent millions of pounds and much political energy for nothing, although the thousands of extra civil servants, accountants and lawyers who will have been employed to work on it might argue otherwise (as would their suppliers in the luxury goods industry).

However even President Macron qualified his remarks by saying that it would get more difficult to stop the process the longer it went on, so a referendum on the final deal seems pointless as it could only end up as a “take it or leave it (without a deal)” situation. Despite all the dreams there is no real reason to think that Brexit won’t happen.

The other side of the “wishful thinking” coin suggests that many Leavers hope to have their cake and eat it, with continued access to the single market while still being able to prevent EU immigration. It is unlikely that both are attainable, as the free movement of people is a cornerstone of the EU structure. Interestingly, government ministers now tend to speak of the need to “control our borders” instead of making specific promises to reduce EU immigration, which perhaps suggests that one of the most popular reasons for voting Leave might also turn out to be wishful thinking.

Reactions towards the other side do not help. Remainers tend to stigmatise those who voted Leave as uninformed, naive xenophobes. They would do well to remember the sheer numbers of their fellow countrymen and women who did so vote, and would do so again. They are not as daft as you may want to believe, so think about the feelings of subjection and injustice which are shared by many people throughout the EU, feeling that their lives are being controlled by a remote bunch of foreigners who care little for their national culture and traditions.

On the other hand, Leavers seem to be gloating over their victory, exuding triumphalism and dismissing concerns as “scaremongering” by “Remoaners”. It is not helpful to say “get over it” to people who are suffering a real sense of loss at the thought of forfeiting their close connection to Europe.

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Reflect instead on the narrowness of the result, and especially on the young people who voted Remain by a significant majority. After all, the only previous referendum on membership of the EU in 1975 resulted in 67% in favour of remaining, a result that could legitimately be described as representing the feelings of a significant majority of the population.

The attitude that a narrow victory of 52% is all-consuming is encapsulated by those politicians who habitually refer to “the will of the people”, using a typical politician’s ploy of repeating the same phrase in the hope that it will eventually be accepted as fact. The election results have shown how shallow that hope was and the UK public is now presented with a variety of leaders none of which would necessarily be my choice to run our brocante stall, let alone to negotiate a devilishly complex treaty.

Of course, opinions can change. If post-Brexit life goes on much as before, many who voted Remain will accept the situation with varying degrees of resignation. However if living standards begin to fall without any corresponding decrease in the number of foreigners in the community, even the most ardent Leaver might wonder if it was worth it.

It will, of course, be too late to change our minds by then and the UK would have to re-apply to join the EU once again. A prospect which would only be welcomed by the civil servants, accountants and lawyers who became redundant after the end of the negotiations to leave…

So the question now is, how to reconcile the two sides? There are still angry letters in Connexion from partisans on both sides, but none that I’ve noticed suggesting a way forward which would bring Leavers and Remainers closer together.

The polls suggest that on the one hand some Remainers are beginning to accept that the referendum result justifies Brexit, while on the other that some Leavers are softening their attitude to the type of deal which would be acceptable.

The election result may have seemed disastrous at the time but perhaps it has made the politicians realise that the chickens have come home to roost, and that it is the time for reconciliation rather than triumphalism if there is to be a properly United Kingdom.

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