There are four ways the UK can go from here with regard to Brexit, and all of them are bad. Read the first direction: hard Brexit, or no deal.
Second: soft Brexit, the EU’s deal
Hard Brexit will be unthinkable catastrophe for the UK, and cause some damage to each of the EU-27 countries. EU-27 are prepared and ready to offer a deal to the UK, but as EU-27 are better-prepared to negotiate, have better negotiators, and are in a stronger position (they can survive the damage done by no-deal Brexit; it is uncertain whether the UK can or not) the deal for the UK on leaving the EU will be set in terms that will favour the EU.
The EU will require the UK to pay the remainder owed to the EU’s budget. The amount first mentioned of 60 billion euros is undoubtedly negotiable: but the UK will have to pay up for there to be any deal at all.
Theresa May appears to have imagined until April this year that she and David Davis could achieve a deal for Brexit by opting out of all the parts of EU membership that she doesn’t want the UK to be part of, and picking only the parts she likes for the UK to agree to abide by.
This despite the clear declaration in the guidelines released by the European Council for the Brexit negotiations
Preserving the integrity of the Single Market excludes participation based on a sector-bysector approach. A non-member of the Union, that does not live up to the same obligations as a member, cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits as a member. In this context, the European Council welcomes the recognition by the British Government that the four freedoms of the Single Market are indivisible and that there can be no “cherry picking”.
If the UK is to retain free access to the EU’s customs union, the UK as a third country must agree to guarantee the Four Freedoms: the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour.
If the UK is to be covered and included by the remit of the EU agencies – including Euratom – the UK must agree to pay the appropriate fees for use of the agencies and agree to abide by the rulings of the European Court of Justice with regard to institutional disputes and trade disputes.
If the UK and Ireland are to be able to negotiate a fresh peaceful democratic settlement after the Good Friday Agreement terminates on 29th March 2019, the UK will need to make arrangements to support a perfectly transparent border between the Republic and Northern Ireland – Eire inside the EU and Northern Ireland outside of the EU. (This seems improbable.)
It is still possible that a deal may be negotiated which will leave the UK only a bit worse off than it was as a member of the EU: required to abide by all EU regulations, without any power to negotiate exceptions or changes: required to pay a contribution to the EU’s budget: required to accept free immigration from and to the EU. The UK will be less powerful and poorer as a result, but the catastrophic consequences of no-deal Brexit are avoided.
It is absolutely possible still (though time is running out) that a deal could be negotiated for some kind of transitional arrangement, which would leave the UK with almost the same status as EU membership – and bound to abide by EU regulations, justice, and law – for two, five, seven years, during which the UK can try to recruit and make use of negotiators to shape trade deals both with individual EU countries, and with countries where the UK’s trade deal was via the EU.
Brexiteer fantasies that the UK would just move directly from being part of the EU to WTO rules are too simplistic: the UK is a member of the World Trade Organisation in its own right, but hasn’t negotiated a trade deal except via the EU in forty years. Setting WTO tariffs on goods that have previously crossed EU borders without any tariffs at all, is going to be tricky – and there is a narrowing window of time in which this can be arranged before 29th March 2019. A transitional deal, where the UK has a special status not quite third-country but not full EU membership, would allow the years needed for the UK to sort out these complex plans.
Why is this a bad direction?
— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) September 28, 2017
Because it will make no one happy, and especially it will not make the Leave voters happy.
They won the referendum. We can argue that it was only a 4% majority, that it was an actual minority of the electorate, but still: it was a voting majority, they won.
What did the Leave voters want from their victory?
They wanted the UK to set tighter controls on immigration: they wanted fewer immigrants coming to the UK, “taking our jobs”, bringing their own languages and foods and cultures with them. They will not get that with soft Brexit.
They wanted £350 million a week for the NHS. They wanted the money the UK now pays to the EU to be spent in the UK. They will not get that with either hard or soft Brexit: with hard Brexit because the money won’t be there, but with soft Brexit because the UK will still have to pay fees to the EU – but won’t benefit from any of the EU funding that member countries can receive.
They wanted to “take back control” – to have the highest court with jurisdiction in the UK be the UK’s Supreme Court, not the European Court of Justice or the European Court of Human Rights. Neither hard nor soft Brexit would remove the UK from the Council of Europe and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, but with soft Brexit, all EU regulations will necessarily apply.
Soft Brexit will be headlined in tabloid newspapers and by Brexit campaigners as a victory for the greedy EU.
But the reality of soft Brexit will be the UK outside the EU, which is what Leave voters said they wanted: but if with fewer immigrants, only because the UK has proven itself to be hostile and unwelcoming: and still required to abide by EU regulations and be subject to EU jurisdiction and pay into the EU’s budget: and not only will there not be £350 million a week for the NHS, many areas which voted by majority to Leave were receiving large sums from the EU, which will disappear with Brexit and never be replaced (unless, said a Treasury spokeswoman, they can show they are “value for money and in line with UK priorities”, whatever that may mean).
Soft Brexit doesn’t give Leave voters any part of what they said they wanted by voting to leave the EU, except the bleak reality that the UK is now not a EU member.
For Remain voters, at least soft Brexit isn’t catastrophic, as hard Brexit would be: but it leaves the UK poorer and less powerful. Soft Brexit isn’t a compromise: it’s disaster relief.
For those of us who opposed Brexit, soft Brexit is better than hard, in that ramming your car into a brick wall is better than driving your car over a cliff. But Brexit is still a car crash, even if soft Brexit makes it a car crash we can survive.