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May's hard brexit is dead

June 21, 2017 9:00 AM
By Nick Hopkinson, chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group in Liberal Democrat Voice

Brexiters claim that 82% of voters supporting the Tories and Labour validated Brexit in the recent General Election. This has a grain of truth in it. However subsequent polls found issues such as health, the economy, and security were more important to voters. Furthermore, the election marked a return to two party politics in which smaller parties, including ours, were squeezed. A vote for Labour was not necessarily a vote for its ambiguous Brexit stance, but arguably one for hope and an end to Tory austerity.

Shielded from many by her two former advisers and campaign managers, yet at the same time vulnerable to Tory ideological Europhobes, May's closet premiership progressed an empty Hard Brexit. Instead of trying to unite a divided country after the 2016 referendum by reaching out to the 48% voting remain, May divided the country further by progressing a Hard Brexit which few voted for. Fully aware that half of voters wanted to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union as do most businesses, she seemed unbothered about harming the economy for the sake of meeting unrealistic immigration targets which were consistently missed when she was Home Secretary. Businesses could only engage with Government Ministers if they were enthusiastic about Brexit's (unknown) opportunities. Her General Election bid for a personal blank cheque on Brexit (and seemingly everything else), possibly along the lines of the Canada-EU deal, left the electorate cold. So last week the people called time on her 'bunker' Brexit. So too it appears has business, her Cabinet, and parliamentarians.

A weakened May is now in discussion with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to prop up her minority Government. Meanwhile her Brexit secretary makes contradictory statements saying last Friday that the Government has lost its mandate for leaving the Single Market and Customs Union whilst implying the opposite on Radio 4's Today. However, the DUP wants to avoid a hard Irish border, a demand which appears incompatible with the Tory manifesto pledge to leave the EU customs union. Similarly, the Scottish Conservatives want an 'open' Brexit, which appears to conflict with the Tory manifesto pledge to leave the EU Single Market. The two, with 10 and 13 seats respectively, effectively could each veto a Hard Brexit. But let us not forget the newly emboldened, but hitherto pusillanimous, pro-European Tories. Under the new parliamentary arithmetic, a handful of them could also frustrate Hard Brexit.

The renewed prospect of a soft Brexit merits recalling Norway's, Switzerland's and even Liechtenstein's relations with the EU. As an European Economic Area (EEA) member, Norway has full access to the EU Single Market but must accept all EU policies and rules (except notably fishing and agriculture) and, unlike us, all migrating EU and non-EU nationals. As noted in a 2012 Norwegian Government report: "This raises democratic problems as Norway is not represented in (EU) decision-making …our form of association with the EU dampens political engagement and debate in Norway and makes it difficult to monitor the Government and hold it accountable in its European policy." Norway also has to contribute to the EU budget.

Switzerland, outside the EEA, has an even less advantageous deal. Unlike Norway, the Swiss have to negotiate ad hoc bilateral agreements ad nauseam, adding uncertainty, bureaucracy and cost. Most of Switzerland's financial firms do not enjoy access to the Single Market, so in the past they set up major London operations. The access to the Single Market and EU research funding which Switzerland enjoyed was jeopardised by a 2014 referendum which narrowly rejected free movement. However last December, the Swiss Government was obliged to back down and agreed to continue granting EU nationals the right to work in Switzerland subject to Swiss residents having precedence over foreign applicants.

Liechtenstein, another EEA member, has a similar arrangement to Norway's 'pay, no say' model. Additionally it enjoys a little known immigration safeguard measure (EEA Protocol 15) allowing exemption from free movement. While the UK is hardly small Liechtenstein, the latter's EU arrangement shows there is not inevitably a tradeoff between full Single Market access and immigration control (i.e. we might be able to have our cake and eat it too).

Although these countries' arrangements fall far short of the best British deal which we currently enjoy as an EU member, a less destructive Brexit now appears possible. If the May government is to survive, it will have to accept a softer Brexit. May's problem is that some of her 60 ideological Europhobes may not like this. May, or her successor, therefore might have to seek cross-party support for a softer Brexit in Parliament. Lib Dems can therefore still play a meaningful role in moderating, perhaps even burying Brexit.