Allie Renison is Head of Europe and Trade Policy at the Institute of Directors.
I always thought a referendum on the UK’s membership was inevitable. In a previous professional capacity I even campaigned for one. While my once resolutely Eurosceptic views have long since abated, and I was personally in favour of remaining in the EU on June 23rd, I do not regret that the referendum was held. Perhaps this is why I was not surprised by the results as they came in on the early hours of the 24th; I always thought it inevitable that the UK might leave the EU, too. Any democracy should ask itself difficult questions from time to time, and those who voted Remain should not regret it. A hard ask, I know, given the present state of uncertainty that can sometimes feel all-consuming.
My views may have changed, but they never went full circle. I still maintain that the arguments for or against staying in the EU were quite finely balanced – neither side to me ever had, nor could ever have had, a slam dunk case. The more I learned about the EU over the years, investing huge amounts of time in understanding how it worked, the genesis of much of its legislation, the amazing feats that cooperation could produce when pushed – the more convinced I became of how misunderstood and miscommunicated it was in the UK. But membership asks countries to concede significant swathes of control well beyond what any trade agreement would ever envisage, and it is a project of political integration well beyond what any other grouping of sovereign nations entails. That fundamental fact remains, as does Britain’s longstanding discomfort with the expansion of the scope of that sovereignty-pooling. The question then became whether the benefits were enough to offset that discomfort, and would the potential disruption flowing from leaving ultimately be worth it.
If the case for staying or leaving was finely balanced, so, too, are the decisions and trade-offs in deciding how we might best leave. Nothing has been obvious about either one.
That said, I’m fairly confident that rushing for the exit door at the first sign of trouble without a deal in place is an ill-thought-through exercise. In my capacity as Head of Europe and Trade Policy for the Institute of Directors, I tried to give an honest taster of what some of the necessary trade-offs are between the EEA, Customs Union and a free trade agreement in our recent Brexit report. Setting out in detail not only some of the challenges but a range of possible mitigating solutions. By talking to thousands of business people from all different sectors up and down the country who are members of the IoD, I have gained an insight into the challenges the Government faces in navigating massively complex and competing set of interests. I take my hat off to the politicians and civil servants entrusted with trying to make this work for as many people as possible.
A word about civil servants. I deal with them on a daily basis. The notion that they are in any way setting about the task of exiting the EU with begrudging antipathy is markedly unfair. Every single one I know cares deeply about trying to get the best possible outcome for the country, not staying attached to the EU in every possible way just for the sake of it. And in light of the Prime Minister’s speech, they appear to have energetically committed themselves to the task of making a free trade agreement with the EU work. There is no grumbling, only a willingness to listen, and certainly not to simply say “no, it’s too difficult”.
Many of them have been battling with the EU for years across a host of different policy areas, and are used to prickly battles and thorny negotiations. Brexit is obviously on a completely different scale, but –whatever their personal views- these are the people you want fighting the UK’s corner in the months and years ahead. Indeed, it is the people who know every negotiating trick and technicality in the book, who we want round the table negotiating with their European counterparts at the eleventh hour. I hope backbench Conservative MPs and Whitehall officials have more regular interaction as this process unfolds, so the any lingering distrust can be overcome. We have to realise, we are on the same side here.
The issue of trust is in fact key to any eventual success. That need for trust goes both ways. Many on the Leave side still have a genuine fear that the result will be overturned by hook or by crook. It is at times a pathological fear, but a very understandable one as well, egged on by the comments of highly vocal Remainers who suggest just that – the vote should be ignored or overturned.
Meanwhile, the mass of Remainers who accept the results of the referendum dread that many Brexiteers’ dislike for the EU will determine too much of our direction of travel on the way out. There is a worry that Brussels might put politics before economics in approaching negotiations, but it is an accusation that could well apply to both sides of the argument. What we all must realise is that the EU is generally a tough negotiator, a reflection of it being an immensely powerful trading and political bloc.
So, too, is the US. I remember one US Trade Rep official telling me that TTIP was the first time the Americans knew they were up against an equal ‘demandeur’ in negotiations. Are we really willing to do a trade deal – any deal – with the US when it plays hard ball, but unwilling to show similar flexibility with an equally tough EU? It behoves all of us, across the spectrum of views on the EU, to commit to making Brexit work, but also to stick these negotiations out, even when the going gets tough. It is perfectly sensible as a negotiating tactic to set out a willingness to walk away from a deal, and to mean it. But all efforts at this stage need to be squarely focused on sketching out what kind of formal relationship we want between the UK and the EU, not trying to pave the way now for an exit without one.
The cynics among the Remain camp turn their noses up at the Prime Minister’s attempt to move the narrative beyond divorce, to setting up Brexit as a new framework for partnership and cooperation. In Brussels, still reeling from the shock of the referendum result, wounds are deep and still raw. The idea of viewing this as anything but a divorce seems a far-off prospect. We have to change this. We have to stop letting our desire to be right about Brexit colour everything about the way that we approach these negotiations.
I am not naïve enough to hope opposition parties and politicians can see past this as a moment for opposing a free trade agreement with the EU just for the sake of opposing it. It is unfair to characterise those fighting to remain, either full stop or to stay in the EEA, as political opportunists. For many there is a deep-seated fear that this will do damage to our economy, and a deep-seated devastation at the prospect of moving away from existing integration with the EU. But I can only plead with them to try and make positive contributions to the way forward, using a trade agreement as our starting point. There is still much to play for within that framework, particularly around our engagement with the many regulatory agencies of the EU, and in setting up new mechanisms for cooperation and enforcement. Many of the EU’s standards we will want to keep and follow. A significant part of Brexit negotiations will centre around how and to what extent we agree to do that, even outside of the Internal Market.
The legacy of the referendum will play out over decades. It will be a long time before we stop interpreting every piece of economic data published according to how we voted. But I’m asking that we try, and make an actual go of it. We throw around these labels, “Remoaner”, “Brexit fanatic”, with alarming alacrity, not realising how painful divisions are being cemented more deeply with every passing day. For Remainers, the cavalier attitude with which some Leavers appear to treat negotiations which warrant a more serious approach hardens their certainty about impending disaster. There are opportunities which await the UK out of the EU, but the challenges are more immediate and must be acknowledged and tackled to take full undiminished advantage of those dividends.
Conversely, many on the Remain side seem determined to wallow in the sheer complexity of it all, more interested in proving that the EU will smite the UK, than advancing arguments for cooperation with their European friends. It is imperative that we meet each other half way. We must stop letting mediums get in the way of this message about forging a cooperative and positive approach. Dismissing the arguments of others because of who they are, how they voted, or what we think they think won’t help. This is not a time for smugness and satisfaction, on all sides. It’s a time to muck in and start doing the legwork to come up with solutions to problems.
We are doomed to being in a perpetual state of rerunning the referendum battle if we don’t start talking to each other honestly, openly and seriously about the future. And calmly. Many of the meetings on Brexit I have been to, or spoken at, are echo chambers, full of visceral disdain and downright loathing for those who advocated a different position to them. I try my hardest to approach every discussion with an open mind, given Brexit is putting the UK and the EU into unchartered waters where there is no real precedent. To find the grey in a continuing sea of insistent black and white. This is not a time for being sure of anything, good or bad.
In some ways, the referendum itself feels a distant memory, so quickly have I shifted to focusing on how I can help make this work. This is perhaps a reflection of my dealings with businesses every day, those who can’t afford to stop and wallow. I realise that for many people, the shock is still real, as too is the sadness. Instead of poking fun at these “Remoaners”, Leavers would do well to try and show they understand that, even if the sentiment is in no way shared. But they don’t call Britain a “carry on” culture for nothing. As Winston Churchill put it, “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future”.