Not Getting Off Easy: Thoughts on a Brussels Breakthrough

A recent breakthrough in the Brexit negotiations moves the UK one step closer to actually leaving the European Union and, there’s no denying it – that’s bad news for us Remainers. Here, however, are the reasons why I find myself far from despair…


Nine months of next-to-no progress in Brexit negotiations provided a welcome boost for Remain. As time went by, more and more Leavers were forced to accept the reality; their leaders’ promises would never materialise. I was expecting a polling swing in favour of Remain – something that did happen, albeit to a far lesser extent than I had hoped.

The downside to stalling talks was significant; partial legitimisation of the no-deal “option”. Yet with overwhelming evidence that this would be especially catastrophic for the UK, such discourse may well have done more harm than good to the Leave lobby as a whole.

It is my ardent hope to see scepticism about Brexit continue to grow and, in the long run, translate into a clear majority of the electorate committed to stopping it. Yet the announcement on the 8th of this month that, due to a major breakthrough in preliminary Brexit negotiations, trade talks are likely to soon begin, threatens to put the wind back into the Brexiteers’ sails and, consequently, hinder this process of political healing. In short, therefore, this is bad news for Remain.

There are, however, several positives.

First of all, there is no guarantee that talks will now move quickly on to trade.

I agree with what seems to be the general consensus – that negotiations are probably about to move on to trade. However, this step must first be ratified by the other EU members and, with each having a potential veto, that requires the unanimous support of 27 other countries. Further delays to the commencement of trade negotiations, and the requirement of additional concessions from the UK, are two possibilities which cannot therefore be ruled out.

If the UK’s negotiators were more competent and, in particular, more committed to ethical conduct, this preliminary stage would have been far shorter.

The EU’s initial demands were very reasonable, generally equating to an expectation of the UK to act in a morally sound way. Pre-existing financial commitments had to be honoured, and EU citizens living in the UK were to be treated with the compassion and dignity they deserve, and given the reassurance they need in these unprecedented times.

A large majority of the delays to proceedings, the sum total of which was the unnecessary waste of several month’s precious negotiating time, were caused by the UK negotiators’ refusal to accept these basic principles – in other words, their lack of conscience. (Much more on this can be found in my previous article.) Remainers can take comfort, therefore, in the realisation that we were very lucky that the window of opportunity afforded to us by the deadlock in talks lasted as long as it did.

While I have little sympathy for David Davis and his team, I feel I should point out that I do not consider them solely responsible for their amoral agenda. Millions of right-leaning, hard-Brexit-supporting voters whose views formed a strong voice against ethical conduct must also take a (perhaps far larger) share of the blame.

Also requiring clarification is that the Irish border is a somewhat difficult subject that was always going to pose some difficulty. Yet the situation was certainly not helped by Brexiteer hostility towards the idea of any special agreement for Northern Ireland, an area whose Remain majority of 11.6% at the referendum was more than triple that of Leave in the UK as a whole. Pro-Brexit media trivialisation of the Republic of Ireland’s concerns certainly didn’t help either.

Many Brexiteers will be very unhappy with what has been agreed.

It’s very noticeable that, despite the Tories’ best efforts to execute their unethical plans, the preliminary agreement (quite rightly) very closely resembles the EU’s original set of (perfectly reasonable) demands. In particular, the honouring of the UK’s financial commitments through a “divorce bill” of at least £35bn, and various protections of EU citizen’s rights, serve as two rather large nails in the hard Brexit coffin.

The DUP’s problematic influence demonstrated the importance of this year’s snap election – and the damage it did to Theresa May’s authority.

I’ve never had much time for the confidence and supply agreement. Theresa May has in the past caused panic with a promise to “tear up human rights laws” in order to deal with terrorism. She also frequently uses the (as explained in my previous article, fatally flawed) “will of the people” argument to lecture Remainers on democracy. That she has happily broken the Good Friday agreement to cling to power without a democratic mandate has always struck me as enormously hypocritical. Vindictive though it may seem, it therefore occurs to me that DUP-induced troubles are exactly what May deserves.

The greatest complexities of Brexit still lie ahead – as do its greatest failures.

A major chunk of the ethical issues, in which I personally am primarily interested, were dealt with in stage one of negotiations. With the EU having largely won those battles, it is likely that the coming political debate will almost exclusively concern trade and the economy – subjects which are not my main area of interest.

It does occur to me, however, that Brexiteers’ troubles certainly don’t end when trade talks begin. The 9 months of painstaking “negotiations” we have seen so far were arguably not so much negotiations as pre-negotiations; what lies ahead is vastly more complex. As Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable perfectly summarised in a recent party-wide e-mail, “This was the easy part”. Consequently, the coming exposures of Brexiteer ambitions and pre-conceptions as unreasonable are highly likely to eclipse everything that has gone before.

One such fallacy that has long grated on my ears is that “the EU needs the UK far more than the UK needs the EU” – an urban myth quickly dispelled by the fact that UK trade with other EU member states accounts for 43% of the UK’s exports and 54% its imports, but only 8% of the EU’s exports. (Not being a subject of widespread interest in the UK, the figure for the EU’s imports has eluded me, though I have no reason not to expect it to conform to the clear trend shown by the other three statistics.) Brexiteers would no doubt point to the UK’s contributions to the EU budget – but although last year’s net contribution of £8.6bn is undoubtedly a lot of money, it’s less than half a percent of the UK’s £1.94tn GDP.

These are just a couple of the most basic aspects, however. Faced with the highly complicated subjects of trade and economics in a wider sense, I have no problem in deferring to the qualified experts. Given the Financial Times’ summary, that: “Economists overwhelmingly think leaving the EU is bad for the UK economy,” it occurs to me that Brexiteers largely do not observe the same humility. Many Remainers have mused that a good question to ask a Brexiteer is this: “What makes you think you know better than the experts?”

Additionally, few will have failed to notice David Davis’ persistent refusal to release the Brexit impact studies, or make clear whether or not they even exist. It is an oft-quoted principle of human psychology that people usually imagine the unknown to be far worse than it really is. Yet the Brexit secretary’s actions suggest that his own departments’ findings are even more damning than most people could be expected to imagine – a dire prognosis indeed for the economic health of post-Brexit Britain.

Remain’s time is just around the corner – but we must beware of Brexiteer scapegoaters.

It this, therefore, a near-certainty that, as trade talks progress, the UK’s post-Brexit outlook will grow ever bleaker. As this occurs, logic would dictate that more and more voters will transition from supporting Brexit to regretting and eventually wanting to stop it. The problem here, however, is that little to do with the UK’s approach to Brexit so far has been in any way logical.

Through my own activism and personal observations, I have noticed a clear trend in Leavers making aggressive accusations of bias towards reputable news outlets such as the BBC, opting for a “shoot the messenger” approach when the facts are all too often inconvenient. Furthermore, I have noticed how this pressure has turned the negative impacts of Brexit into something of an “elephant in the room” for the BBC – their recent TV news coverage of price rises and NHS crises in particular have made little or no mention of the fact that Brexit is a major contributing factor to these misfortunes. Perhaps this is why, as an Open Britain director recently told me, the public tend to be good at acknowledging the problem, though less good at identifying the cause.

Even Brexit-centric discussion of everyday issues can be something of a minefield. Right-wing tabloids, which hold colossal influence over the views of the average Leave voter, love to scapegoat. It seems beyond doubt that they will blame whoever or whatever they can for the UK’s coming troubles; anything, that is, bar the true culprit – Brexit.

Some of that blame will fall upon the government and, specifically, David Davis. I have no sympathy for either, but would add that my negative expectations of Brexit are not dependent on the specific people involved. Remember the Financial Times’ summary that “leaving the EU is bad for the UK economy“, not “David Davis is bad for the UK economy”.

Pro-EU activists will no doubt be in the firing line as well. Here I’m personally a hard-liner; I have more loyalty to Brussels than I have ever had to Westminster and, if my support and that of my peers has been an extra card in Michel Barnier’s hand, I wouldn’t regret that at all. Yet it was not me, or any Remainer, who made the tag-lines of the Leave campaign untrue, or their ambitions impossible.

Last and most, the majority of the vitriol will be reserved for the right’s favourite target – the European Union itself. Many tabloids have already reveled in blaming European “greed” for UK-induced problems around the divorce bill. Common sense would dictate that Brexiteers cannot “have their cake and eat it” when it comes to European politics. The British print media, however, is more than capable of twisting the hopeless case of Brexiteers’ impossible dreams into a story of “Brussels just being awkward”.

Sadly, I can offer no solution to the epidemic of misinformation and media bias that is forcing many Brexiteers into a position so entrenched it becomes immoveable. But not all Leavers are so extreme. It is my hope that, with no more than a gentle nudge from Remain campaigners, many will wake up to the reality. I wouldn’t be surprised if the proportion of Brexit regretters drops back slightly over the next couple of weeks – but I’d expect it to increase a good amount thereafter.

Media bias is a large problem, but not an insurmountable one. And as right-wing coverage grows in vitriol, the impression I increasingly get is of a soon-to-be-defeated Leave lobby getting their excuses in early.

Late Edit:

Autistic people are, almost by definition, intrinsically geared towards structure over spontaneity. I’m not atypical in that I take time to digest what’s going on, and like to plan ahead. Small wonder, therefore, that the evolution of the political landscape has once more out-paced my ability to comment and react.

I was half-way through the final proof-reading of this article when I learned of Theresa May’s major defeat over parliament’s role in approving any future Brexit deal. I have massive respect and admiration for the Conservative MP’s who so courageously denied their party’s whips – and my underlining of these two particular phrases is a choice born of my shock at being able to include both of them in the same sentence.

A glance at the newsstand in my local shop this morning brought mixed feelings. The right-wing tabloids are reassuringly terrified and it’s amusing to watch them try to portray a successful defence of parliamentary democracy as somehow undemocratic. Leavers’ woeful understanding of what constitutes democracy certainly never fails to disappoint.

However, media bias is, as I have already discussed, a negative influence that I do not face without some concern. Besides which, the race to stop Brexit has already long since been revealed to be a marathon rather than a sprint. This latest development is still a question issue of how, not if, the UK will leave the European Union. There is a long way to go from here. But with Theresa May’s Brexiteer government now brutally exposed as weaker than ever, I do agree with the right-wingers on one thing – we are one step closer to stopping Brexit.

Good news for Remain has arrived, quite literally, faster than I could predict it. There is much more to be done, but things are definitely looking up.