Six years ago this week, UK voters opted narrowly to leave the European Union, by a margin of 52pc to 48pc. The widening rift between London and Brussels, the nadir in Anglo-Irish relations and the threat to the Northern Ireland agreement have their origins in the course chosen following the referendum more than in the departure itself.
everal non-member countries in Europe, notably Norway and Switzerland, have devised relationships with the EU that facilitate trade and friendly co-operation. They are attached to the single market, the regulatory union that has operated since the 1990s and was the true realisation of the Common Market the UK had joined in 1973.
But Britain, subsequent to the referendum, chose to quit the single market, even though that critical option was not on the 2016 ballot paper, a blunt choice of Remain or Leave.
It was open to the UK government, and on offer from the EU, to remain in the single market while complying fully with the “will of the people” expressed in the referendum victory of the Leave campaign.
The UK could also have stayed in the customs union, eschewing go-it-alone trade deals with non-members and thus avoiding border checks entirely.
The freedom to pursue independent trade deals with the whole wide world has yielded nothing of significance, aside from a cabinet slot for Jacob Rees-Mogg, titled without irony as the Secretary of State for Brexit Opportunities.
Instead, the tortuous choice was for the hardest Brexit that could be imagined, a bare-bones deal that avoids tariffs but has imposed compliance costs on British businesses that are beginning to create widespread opposition, even though some of the more severe trade impediments have yet to be enforced.
The UK is treated by the EU as a third country, like Brazil or Bangladesh, because this was the choice, post-referendum, of the Conservative Party.
There would have been no need for a Northern Ireland Protocol had the UK chosen the most economically advantageous route to departure from the EU. The protocol was patched on to the withdrawal agreement because the UK chose, after the referendum, to quit both the single market and the customs union.
The UK and Russia have been, on recent data, the worst performers of the major economies. Russia has had economic sanctions imposed by its main trading partners, while the UK has imposed sanctions on itself.
This outcome was a straight breach of trust by the Leave campaigners now leading the government.
They assured voters repeatedly throughout the referendum campaign that Britain would enjoy “frictionless trade” outside the EU political structures. The promise was deliverable only if a soft Brexit was chosen, and the Brexiteers promptly doubled down after their win at the polls and committed Britain to a course of estrangement from economic integration and political co-operation with its neighbours. No other western European country has chosen this course.
The single market was a project driven enthusiastically by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, and the post-referendum Europhobia has brought the Tory party into unfamiliar territory, in conflict with its natural support base in the Confederation of British Industry, the chambers of commerce and the National Farmers Union.
The latest instalment is the spat with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which has vetoed the UK government’s plans to deport to Rwanda refugees fleeing Afghanistan. The ECHR was established in 1950, long before the EU, largely at the instigation of another Tory hero, Winston Churchill. Boris Johnson’s maternal grandfather, the lawyer James Fawcett, was one of the first judges at the court, described by his grandson in 2016 as “one of the great things we gave to Europe”.
Alone among the larger countries of western Europe, the UK still hankers after a global significance incompatible with its reduced economic heft and withdrawal from empire. The Global Britain illusions have somehow reasserted a stronger grip on the Tory party than on Labour, although it, too, has always had its share of Little Englanders. The Tories once enjoyed a reputation for the determined pursuit of power over ideology, belied in the post-referendum embrace of Europhobia as the North Star of policy.
On the issue of EU membership, the die has been cast, and it is hard to see a desire in the UK, or a welcome in continental Europe, for a Rejoin initiative for decades to come. “De Gaulle was right” is the popular refrain from political commentators in Germany and France. But the economic and political damage is coming clearly into view. UK politics will turn inevitably to damage limitation as the potential of perpetual bluster is exhausted.
A new treaty with the EU, reattaching the UK to the single market, is an attainable objective for the next British government, not least because EU economies are also losers from the Europhobia outbreak, if less exposed than the UK itself. The necessity of a border in the Irish Sea would evaporate if the UK chose a less fractious relationship with its European neighbours, and the self-imposed economic sanctions would be lifted too. This could pose an opportunity rather than a trap for Britain’s Labour Party.
If public opinion turns against the Tories because they have failed to “Get Brexit Done”, Johnson’s slogan for the December 2019 election, it is open to Labour to promise a renegotiation that repairs the damage and finishes the job the Tories have botched. Johnson’s hostile, stuff-the-foreigners Brexit never “gets done”: it is not a policy, it is a campaign in a nationalistic culture war and the public will tire of campaigns without end.
The central plank in an alternative Labour programme should be a close relationship with the single market and the customs union, undoing the harm to the UK’s economy and mending the political fences, not least with Ireland.
Unlike Johnson’s sloganeering, this would be an actual policy, capable of delivery and likely to be welcomed by the UK’s neighbours with whom the Tories have chosen an unsustainable route of perpetual conflict.