Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs Brexit Analytics.
NatCen, the ivory tower in which the wild-haired psephologist John Curtice is deposited between elections, released a startling fact a few months before June’s poll: if people had voted in the EU referendum with the same type of turnout as in the 2015 election, only 49 per cent would have voted leave. We know that the turnout in 2017 featured significantly higher numbers of remain voters than leave ones. Were 2017 general election voting patterns to be repeated in a referendum, a Remain victory at least as clear as Leave’s in 2016 could well happen.
If this possibility has been embraced by die-hard pro-Europeans, who now argue that Brexit could be stopped, it is feared by Leave campaigners. I imagine they feel like Lions who’ve pulled off a sensational victory against the All Blacks, only to have Ritchie McCaw tell them: we won in ’74, you in ’16. Best of three?
A third referendum would, however, be a mistake. The Prime Minister’s error was to interpret a 52–48 referendum result as a specific instruction from the public to sever most economic ties with the EU in order to reduce immigration. If pro-Europeans think there is now public desire to overturn the result, they are making the same one in reverse.
The pair of votes tells us something quite different — that while there’s no consensus to remain in the EU, there’s also no consensus in favour of the aggressively anti-European Brexit that characterised our campaign.
The more swivel-eyed sort of Leave voter will now point out that 80 per cent of voters picked parties whose manifestos called for leaving the Single Market. The retort to this is that in 2015, almost 90 per cent of voters picked parties committed to remaining in it. Neither argument cuts much ice.
The political reality is that it is not the letter of manifestos that matter, so much as the overall tone of the political campaigns of which they are a part.
The Prime Minister called the election to obtain a nationalist mandate, and the people rejected her offer. Compromise is now necessary.
It is also eminently possible. The binary nature of referendums, and the Cartesian logic of partisans on either side who frame the choice as In or Out, obscure the truth that European integration is composed of several independent elements and Britain has never been inside all of them. Leave’s victory indicates that the public are unhappy with the current arrangements, but doesn’t entail that, to coin a phrase, no arrangements are better than bad arrangements.
European integration is in reality made up of six strands:
- A common legal area (essentially the Single Market but including environmental legislation and so on), that aims to make the legal framework apply equally to all EU citizens and companies, regardless of the country in which they are based. National differences in policy are allowed, but the rules that apply to you should be the same. An Irish owned company and a Danish owned one should, for instance, be treated the same in Denmark. The same is supposed to be true of people. British proposals to allow the free movement of goods, services and capital, but not of (self-supporting) people were rejected because they break this non-discrimination principle.
- Common macro economic management (the Eurozone, banking union, and so on). This isn’t complete, not least because Germany is wary of French overspending, but after Macron’s election progress is likely to be made on this front. Britain of course isn’t in it.
- Common frontiers (Schengen). Britain is outside this of course, partly because the public debate here conflates the administration of border controls with the legal right to settle and work.
- Common agriculture and fisheries policies. Britain was only very reluctantly in these. Norway and Switzerland are outside them.
- Common foreign and security policy. Here Britain was keen to be involved but prevented it developing in a direction it didn’t want.
- Customs Union (common goods trade policy). Turkey of course is in this, but not the EU. While Norway is closer to being in the EU but isn’t in the customs Union.
Core European countries are (or are signed up to be) members of all strands, but variations are possible. The UK was never in 2) or 3). Norway, in contrast, is in 2) and 3) but not 4) or 6). Switzerland’s position is quite like Norway’s, but it administers its arrangements in a hideously complicated manner. It has been disappointing that the referendum campaign and the year of debate since has been rather limited to arguing that since we could not deconstruct the Single Market and limit immigration we should then abandon the rest, even threatening major destruction of our own economy (by walking out without any kind of deal), to do so.
If the electorate administered a useful lesson two weeks ago, it is surely that winner-takes-all politics hasn’t produced decisive leadership, just presented ephemeral changes in the propensity of certain social groups to turn out as though they were deep changes in public opinion. In a country as divided as this one, far greater efforts to obtain a compromise are needed. Both proceeding with a hard Brexit, or attempting to stop Brexit altogether, would entrench rather than resolve the phenomena that split the country so equally into two. Either outcome could at a given instant, be endorsed by a narrow majority of the public. But neither can command a lasting national consensus in its support.
The difficulty now is that the clock is ticking. We don’t know yet what outcome can command a broad consensus among the British public, let alone be accepted by the EU27, and it’s unlikely one can be constructed before the Article 50 deadline elapses. Attempting a final status deal by April 2019 would be folly.
Instead, we should accept the need for a time-limited transition, the outcome of which should be left open, except to exclude EU membership and leaving with no deal at all. If the country is to be reunited, everything else, from Norway-style membership of the EEA, to a hard brexit where we trade with the EU under WTO terms must be left be open to consideration.