No sooner had Messrs Hammond and Fox published a joint article to show ‘unity of purpose’ than David Davis declared he knew nothing about it. And as soon as the same David Davis assured the public that there was indeed a ‘Brexit United’ team, other ‘fellow ministers’ suggested the unity would ‘inevitably fall apart’.
What’s going on?
It shows that ‘Brexit’ has evolved into an all embracing, abstract statement. Brexit has become another metaphysical word in the same category as love, hate, justice, freedom. What Brexit means depends on ‘what you mean by Brexit’. Different people will have different Brexits.
Any recent Brexit topic – Irish border, EU citizenship, transition period, divorce payment, single market – has had as many proposals offered as speakers. (Sometimes we hear different suggestions even from the same politician.)
Very often the proposed way forward relies on an unspecified reference to the future: digital border crossing, face recognition controls, new technology. Tacit acknowledgement we do not have a clue. The standard EU response is that the proposals are just fantasy.
With each of us pulling in different directions on Brexit, can we move forward?
Leaving the EU (or any partnership) has two dimensions: emotional and technical.
The emotional is illustrated by the abstract terms above. These terms are relative: Take ‘freedom’: in June, the EU scrapped roaming charges. Now you can use a mobile phone in any EU country without paying roaming charges.
The freedom of the user not to pay restricts the freedom of the operator to charge.
The question is not of intangible ‘freedom’ but which freedom you prefer: either your mobile operator is free to charge, or you are free to roam.
Another example is the introduction of new identity cards (renamed as ‘entitlement to care’ and ‘settled status’ cards). This will restrict our personal freedoms in the name of recapturing ‘abstract’ freedom from the EU.
And how many Lincolnshire farmers who voted to be free from Brussels knew they voted for the freedom to import chlorinated chicken and hormone loaded beef?
The technical issues are easier to deal with as they can be described by their material consequences. Like £350 million per week for NHS (which we will not get).
This promise illustrates the difficulty of technical, measurement based, evaluation. You can promise anything and deliver nothing.
In this relative perception of what Brexit is and the uncertainty of unknown future there is only one agreement: Remainers and Leavers do agree that after Brexit there will be a period of hardship of perhaps five years.
After five years Remainers claim the hardship will prevail; they see parallels with 1956 (Suez) and 1976 (UK had to be bailed out by IMF).
Leavers maintain the hardship is justified because from 2024 onwards we will be the leading nation of the world.
In the absence of a broad agreement the fudge is ‘the transition period’. Corbyn and May might settle for that – for different reasons and with different hopes of what will happen when the transition ends.
A transition period is meaningless if we do not know what we are ‘transiting into’. The ‘Brextremists’ are right: there is no point in prolonging the indecision.
The last few weeks have shown that we are more remote from a deal as ministers are even more divided and the clock is ticking.
Without a Brexit deal there will be two most likely outcomes:
We will crash out – Today this looks like ‘the best deal for Britain’ this government is capable of delivering. Off the cliff scenario.
Or we will crash in – the government will not secure a deal with the EU and will not agree to leaving on WTO terms. In panic the UK will crash in back to the EU.
Where politicians fail people have to fill the void. Ask yourself: was the EU the cause of my difficulties? Will I be better off or worse off outside?
Talk to your MP: How much EU money was spent in your area? Can your MP assure you the same amount of money will be spend in future? Is the reason why I wanted to leave likely to happen? Are Lincolnshire farmers ‘addicted to subsidies’?
The answers will tell you if you prefer crash in or crash out.
George Smid is Chair of East Midlands European Movement and has a regular column in the Lincolnshire Reporter