Solving the Brexit Conundrum: The key to achieving a good deal for Britain

This is the winning article from the Talk Politics Brexit Competition. Any opinions expressed do not represent those of Talk Politics. 

By Cameron McIntosh (@CW_McIntosh) 

Contrary to Liam Fox’s sanguine claim that a Brexit deal should be the “easiest in human history”, progress in the talks between the UK and the EU appears to have stalled, eight months since the triggering of Article 50.

The war of words between David Davis and Michel Barnier has exposed a deep schism between divergent visions of what constitutes a successful Brexit deal. Britain desperately needs access to its biggest export market, whereas the EU needs to preserve the fundamental freedoms of the customs union while striking a deal in the interests of its 27 member states. A deal is possible, but to achieve it, Britain needs an ambitious negotiating strategy.

As it was the United Kingdom that voted to leave the European Union and not the other way round, the onus is very much on the British government to reach a viable deal before the deadline of March 2019. Despite her previous claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, Theresa May’s Florence intervention should be welcomed by all who believe reverting to WTO tariffs overnight would represent an act of enormous economic self-harm. Britain needs a deal. 

To achieve this, first and foremost, the government must demonstrate its commitment to compromise with the European Union. The ideal way to do so would be to offer a universal guarantee to all EU citizens currently living in Britain on their rights to live and work in the United Kingdom. This would not only appease the EU and likely soften their resolve in negotiations, it would also be the right thing to do. Any current resident of Britain should have their fundamental rights guaranteed and under no circumstances should they be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations. 

The poverty of debate during the 2016 referendum campaign left many important questions unanswered and the tragic death of MP Jo Cox, a week before polling day, remains a poignant reminder of the dangers of such frenzied rhetoric. The Brexiteers vision was often confused and contradictory, with some claiming single market access was entirely feasible and others rejecting it outright. This left a blank canvass for Theresa May’s government to decide what exactly the mandate of the 52% comprised. However, one thing that should be evident is that membership of the single market is impossible to reconcile with the democratic verdict of 23rd June 2016. 

The so-called ‘soft-Brexit’ option is a fallacy, largely imagined by ardent Remainers. Sovereignty and immigration were salient issues for Leave voters. No matter how far you disagree with these justifications, continued membership of the single market would reject these concerns. The margin of victory was not overwhelming, but it was decisive. Under the terms of an in-out referendum, the Leave campaign won and it is the responsibility of May’s government to deliver upon this result. single market access is essential, but membership would be an undemocratic betrayal. 

Freedom of movement is vital to the single market and the most recent figures show that net migration was 246,000 to the UK last year. Brexit will provide an opportunity for a reorientation of government immigration policy by introducing more selective criteria. However, the target of tens of thousands is unsustainable. An ageing population and perpetual public sector crises makes immigration vital to sustaining the long-term health of the British economy. Further to this, the current policy of including students in figures must be revisited to recognise the contribution made by international students to Britain’s world-leading universities. 

The geographical conundrum of Ireland should also be a high priority for negotiations. May’s rejection of a hard border is a welcome signal of intent from the Prime Minister. The peace process must be preserved at all costs and the erection of a hard border would represent an unwelcome regression in the relations between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. 

In terms of finances, much has been made of the proposed divorce bill that the UK is expected to pay upon its departure. To many it seems preposterous and it is often said that the UK should simply walk away. However, the EU has made it abundantly clear that it is a red line for negotiations. Therefore, begrudgingly, the British government will have to pay a bill to keep alive the prospect of striking of a deal that protects its key trading interests. 

The transitional period proposed by Theresa May will see Britain avoid the calamity of a rushed ‘cliff-edge’ Brexit, while providing necessary assurances to business leaders and investors. Some leavers have been outspoken in their discontent at the slow progress. However, it is worth considering that the UK has incrementally built up its legislative relationship with Europe for over forty years, and to simply unravel all the legislation in one night is unrealistic. It is not a cynical attempt by the government to delay Brexit, rather it is an eminently sensible plan to minimise uncertainty and give the best possible chance of success. 

Clearly, Brexit is the biggest political challenge of our generation, and its implications will continue to have effects for decades to come. Whether you agree with the original decision to leave the European Union or not, Brexit is happening, and if it is to prove a success, the British government must pursue a bold and ambitious negotiating strategy.

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