Today
Sat 23 January 2021

Mike Buckley assesses how the new EU-UK Brexit arrangement involves the country relinquishing control – not taking it back

The justification for Brexit has always moved with the times.

As late as 2016, we were told by Leavers that Britain was against political but not economic integration – Brexit would mean a return to the Common Market we entered (not the severe rupture we ended up with).

The problem for Leavers is that there are no upsides to Brexit. Even the Prime Minister, brandishing his new trade deal, has struggled to come up with any benefits of Brexit that would help struggling voters. The BBC fact check of the supposed advantages he has mentioned is a short list of half-truths and things that the UK could have done anyway. Others list the more blatant lies he has told about the deal. 

Since 2016, the justification for Brexit shifted from the mirage of achieving the “exact same benefits” the UK had as a member of the EU with no costs and obligations to a single fact: the Britain would take back sovereignty and control of its borders, money and laws. This was the prize that would make the economic pain – which even Michael Gove began to acknowledge before the end – worth it. 

The brutal truth is that the sovereignty sold by Boris Johnson and his allies is a lie, “a definition closer to that used by North Korea than to any other free-trading western nation”, some have argued.

Whereas true sovereignty is about protecting a country’s interests, deep harm to the UK’s interests is deemed to be a price worth paying for sovereignty that is supposedly a prize in itself. 

Having control of its borders may mean that the UK can stop people coming in, but it has no control over people, businesses or manufacturers who choose to leave. BASF’s decision to close its Tees Valley plant and move production to France, with the loss of hundreds of jobs, is a case in point. And it will not be alone. 

The economic and business reality is that a domestic market of 60 million is too small to build “world-beating” businesses. Britain learned this lesson once before and was instrumental in creating a domestic market of 500 million, making such businesses possible. It is no coincidence that business interests have all but been ignored since 2016. 

Just as the country will find that it has less control over the value and health of the economy within its borders, so it will find that it has less control beyond its shores. Trading across borders means regulating across borders. The more a country wants to trade, the more regulations are required. This holds true for services and data as much as for goods. Sovereignty means a country having control, not only of regulation in its domestic market, but in the markets it sells to and buys from. 

In the 1960s, Britain discovered that it had no control over the European market and that its domestic market was too small for its manufacturers. Joining the then European Economic Community was the inevitable outcome. Far from diminishing Britain’s sovereignty, it was extended by its sharing – increasing the country’s power and the potential growth opportunities for UK manufacturers. 

This sovereignty is less emotive than photos of the White Cliffs of Dover, which seem to get the blood racing of a section of the population and political class, but emotion doesn’t sell goods or generate income and benefit to the exchequer.


Another Narrative Is Possible

Real sovereignty means having a seat at the table, a voice in the debate and a vote on the outcome. It means the UK having the ability to access and influence its major market and to influence the role of Europe in international affairs – which will only matter more as time goes by.

Britain had all that and has thrown it away. Its allies, both within and beyond the EU, are incredulous because countries do not regularly act against their own interests in the way that the UK has done. 

How could Britain’s political system and media fail so comprehensively that a national catastrophe of this magnitude could take place? And how can it repair what has been broken?

The longer Britain exists in Johnson’s status quo, the more businesses and manufacturers will abandon the country for Europe, and the poorer it will become. Left unchallenged, the Scottish National Party will use the same logic for Scottish independence, further damaging the economy of the whole of the UK and making it harder for England and Wales to elect a non-Conservative government. The stakes could not be higher. 

Events will make some of these arguments by themselves. Reclaimed sovereignty will have a bitter taste to the now redundant workers of the BASF plant in Tees Valley, just as it will for the fishermen who have discovered that it is no longer economically viable to sell their catch into the EU. 

But those of us who still believe in a better Britain also need to make arguments that we have so far failed to make. Remainers for four years failed to argue that Brexit meant throwing away control, not taking it back, yet it was an argument ready to be made.

The Remain camp similarly failed to tell a story about what is wrong with Britain and what needs to change, at least in part because it was a broad church politically. Leavers were left with the only narrative in town – arguing that the problem was EU membership and being free to control our own affairs was the fix, even as they kept what would get better and how nebulous. 

A different story would acknowledge that the economic model of the past 40 years has increased inequality and insecurity and needs reform, and which is honest about the fact that sovereignty only has value if it is pooled, shared and used instead of hoarded. 

Ironically it was left to Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, to take the first step towards ending the lie. Confirming the Brexit deal, she said that sovereignty “is about being able to seamlessly work, travel, study and do business in 27 countries. It is about pooling our strength and speaking together in a world full of great powers. And in a time of crisis it is about pulling each other up – instead of trying to get back to your feet alone”.

In place of borders and barriers, she argued that sovereignty is about the tangible benefits of cooperation and power. She made it real. We must do likewise. 

Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’


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