James Elles is a former member of the European Parliament.
We have a chance more than a year on to have a clear perspective on the momentous events leading up to the EU referendum choice presented to the British people. These events are critical to understand what is going to happen next now that the Brexit negotiations are getting into full swing.
There are three stages which come to mind between the successful Conservative election campaign of May 2015 and June 23rd 2016.
First, the scene-setting when the Commons, implementing the Conservative Government’s manifesto pledge, decided by a huge majority to give the people the opportunity to have their say. Although the referendum was an advisory one, the Government indicated its willingness to accept the outcome, never thinking that this would be a leave campaign success. No provisions were put in place to have a minimum threshold, recognising that this was an important constitutional vote.
Second, the negotiation with EU leaders to bring in changes to the treaties proposed by David Cameron in his 2013 Bloomberg speech. During the autumn of 2015, the former PM criss-crossed Europe, looking for a deal. No one seems to have told him that this was never going to be the moment for an inter-governmental conference to change the treaties, with many countries still suffering from the economic consequences of the Great Recession. There would have been no way of getting the changes requested through their democratic procedures.
What is more, early in 2016, just at the moment that Cameron arrived in Brussels for the final discussions on a possible deal, there was a huge international migrant crisis facing the EU. There was the real prospect that millions of refugees would pour into Southern Europe from Turkey, Iraq and Syria or from the South from Libya. Any pause for thought would have told a sensible person that campaigning for a referendum in these emotional circumstances was a hugely risky undertaking.
Last of all was the campaign itself, based more on threats than focussing on the opportunities that the European Union would provide for our young generation of the future, as Emmanuel Macron does in France when he talks about the concept of European sovereignty. Never once during the campaign did any of the leaders of the Remain campaign bother to explain the way in which the EU system works; the principle of shared sovereignty, and the accountability of the EU institutions provided by our elected representatives in the European Parliament. Indeed, a bet put forward by a MEP colleague promising to give anyone £50 who heard Cameron mention the European Parliament was never met. He still has the money in his pocket!
As this illustrates, the failure of the Remain campaign to win the referendum lies firmly on the shoulders of one man – Cameron. His combination of arrogance, lack of attention to detail, his unwillingness to take on party colleagues for fear of provoking rifts following the vote, and ultimately his failure to understand the way in which the EU system functions, or for that matter the people who run it, were more weakening to the Remain campaign than the arguments promoted by the Leave side. For him to declare recently that he never liked the European Parliament makes it astonishing that he had the gall to head up the Remain campaign in the first place.
The lessons of this saga
What lessons to draw from this sorry saga? Sadly, they are that leading British politicians whether Cameron, or for that matter Tony Blair, never invested time in either explaining the EU to the British people – the principle of shared sovereignty in certain key areas – or spending time getting to know counterparts in other European countries. Looking back over the period of UK membership of the EEC and then the EU, it is hard to remember any leading pro-European ever explain the merits of belonging to the EU. It was always the whipping boy…
Most members of the Commons not surprisingly resented the strengthening of the EU institutions, and in particular the emerging role of the European Parliament. Early attempts during the 1980s to forge firm links between MPs and MEPs fell by the wayside after the Maastricht debates of the early 1990s. The result was that MEPs finally landed up with more power at every EU Treaty change, but had looser links with the Commons and the electorate with the introduction of the regional list system in 1999. This ended up with MEPs not even having a pass to enter the House after 2005.
No British national leader did anything to improve the overall situation, nor was any means created within the Conservative Party for the two strands of legislators to interact with each other. Typical of the level of ignorance of Commons members of the EU system was given by Michael Gove who commented during the referendum campaign that the European Parliament is not a real Parliament: it is a mock Parliament. This lack of explanation will ironically make it that much more difficult to get the support of the British people for the final deal which will involve compromise and need the consent of the European Parliament!
So what now? Cameron’s folly has been compounded by an unnecessary election being called with its outcome of a hung Parliament. The result is that there is no majority in Parliament to support the line adopted for a clean break – for a hard Brexit by March 2019. Here are three suggestions of how to proceed.
First, we must focus our national interest in a gradual withdrawal from the EU, do nothing that is precipitous, not least because our economic situation is weak, compared to strengthening growth within the EU. As Brexit talks unfold, the priority should be to ensure that a transitional agreement can be negotiated which will allow the UK to stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union for the time being while the domestic political situation is clarified and a final trade agreement negotiated.
Second, in recognition of the fact that we need to have the friendship not just of marginal parties but of the major players within the EU (as reflected by our partners in the ECR Group in the European Parliament), we should make every effort to overcome our historic reluctance to understand the position of other member states with regard to their concerns. Part of this approach should be reaching out to the European Parliament. Far from being a mock Parliament, it now has a substantial say on our departure terms. It may be way too late, but efforts to recognise the people there, and their policies, will be critical in delivering a smooth Brexit.
Finally, how to clarify the situation of the UK and the rejection of the hard Brexit approach? It is much too simplistic to say that just because over 80 per cent of voters supported parties in favour of Brexit, it means that those voters agreed with the Brexit approach suggested. I voted Conservative, as many others did, to avoid Corbyn coming into power, not because the Brexit approach proposed was one with which I agreed.
The months ahead will be dominated by the EU Withdrawal Bill going through the House of Commons. The referendum was won by a very small margin, and did not give any instructions as to how leaving the EU should be done. We are on course to leave the EU by March 2019 under Article 50, but with no clarity about what the detailed arrangements will be to ensure continuing prosperity for the UK. Will the final Article 50 negotiations provide us with the opportunity to join the EEA like Norway or EFTA like Switzerland or will we have a close partnership, based on a trade deal like that of Canada, which will be much less satisfactory economically for the UK ?
We will know much better by the autumn of 2018 exactly what the future arrangements will be as they will have to be voted on by the European Parliament before the final decision by the European Council. How will the final deal be approved by the UK? Given the vast difficulties between the major political parties on the substantive issues, I believe that there will be a growing clamour for the deal to be put by referendum to the British people before the final decision is taken. In truth, this is the only way that we will know for certain that the British people clearly endorse their future destiny.