The Sad Man of Europe

By the editor, Jul 22 2017 05:01PM

Just before the EU referendum, one of this writer’s neighbours said he’d be voting Leave because he thought there could be a good deal “if we get the right leadership”. This qualification neatly captures a key issue at the time and foretold a key element in the current state of play. No one – whether Remainer or Leaver – thinks we’ve got the right leadership at the moment. No one could have foreseen precisely the rudderless situation we find ourselves in, but it wasn’t that hard to envisage that all would not be plain sailing.

As a blog here before the referendum set out –'s-Brexit/10304973 – a responsible decision to vote Leave should have taken into account the range of possibilities that such a vote might trigger, and considered how probable they were. Part of this assessment should have factored in the chances of the UK running into difficulties during negotiations over the terms of exit, and the difficulties of resolving different views as to what exiting should entail. To do this in a very informed and detailed way is of course difficult for the average voter who (like this writer) has limited time and knowledge. (That is one reason why the referendum should never have been called.) But it would not be beyond most people’s capabilities to work out that the chances of significant damage from leaving are considerable, given the range of different possible outcomes. A vote to leave was only justifiable if there was a high chance of an outcome that conferred considerable benefits.

To be fair, there are respectable arguments that such benefits might result. The free trade Brexiteers (Dan Hannan, Douglas Carswell and so on) have argued with some force that the UK may well expect to do increasing amounts of business outside the EU, and the EU could be an impediment to free trade with those countries, and therefore a drag on the UK's future prosperity. There are plenty of other valid objections to membership of the EU, including the problem of democratic accountability, and a range of wrongheaded policies, from big noticeable ones like agricultural subsidies to a plethora of minor ones, which can slip under the wire, like attacking vaping. To all of these arguments, there are good counter-arguments. But regardless of which arguments are stronger, a free trade Brexit is only one option. It has very little in common with its uncomfortable bedfellow in the Vote Leave campaign, the anti-immigration vision pushed by UKIP. One outcome was all about breaking down barriers, and the other was all about putting more of them up. And neither had much in common with a hard left Brexit, freeing the UK from the shackles of a capitalist club so that we could ditch free trade altogether and get back to nationalising industries. And none of those three had anything in common with a Norweigan soft Brexit either.

A hard or clean Brexit now looks increasingly unlikely. The proponents of any of those options are in a minority among the electorate, in Parliament, and anywhere else with influence. Before the last general election, the free trading Brexiteers had a chance because they had sufficient power within the Conservative Party. Now, with the Government having lost its majority, and with signs that the electorate is less keen on Brexit than a year ago, the Remainers and the Soft-Brexiters are more vocal and have more influence. The deal between the Conservatives and the DUP is significant, because the DUP wants both a hard Brexit and a soft border with the Republic of Ireland. Achieving both is impossible, and it is most likely that the soft border will be preferred. The tabloid press – which had cowed many Conservatives before the election – has now, after its failure to secure Theresa May’s patriotic landslide, lost a lot of its pro-Brexit swagger. Business (the Conservative Party’s paymaster) is pushing the Government towards a softer exit.

A transitional phase, after the exit and before a new trading agreement, seems to have been accepted by all Brexiteer ministers. They had worried that this would be a slippery slope towards a soft Brexit or an eventual re-entry. And they were right to worry. As another blog here – – set out, there is a real chance that a period of partial engagement with the EU will eventually develop into a form of associate membership, if that is what both the UK and the rest of the EU decide they want. Quite clearly some of those who voted Leave would regard this as a democratic betrayal, and they would have a point. (This is yet another reason why the referendum was such a bad idea: it asked far too simple a question, at one particular point in time, about a massively complex issue, and risks poisoning democracy by failing to deliver what it promised to resolve.) But it may well be that if this comes to pass, the majority of the electorate at that time would prefer such an outcome to any of the others available, having been exposed to some of the consequences of partial disengagement and alerted to the potential consequences of a fuller disengagement. There would still be a very good argument that democracy hadn’t been subverted, since the EU referendum question only asked whether the UK should leave the EU, not the terms on which it should leave (and by explicitly leaving the result as advisory rather than binding on Parliament, implicitly left it to Parliament to determine those terms). The difficulty would be that whatever the true constitutional position, many Leavers would feel that they'd been done over. But that may well be the case whatever the eventual outcome, given that it was never clear what a vote to leave actually entailed, so there are bound to be disappointed Leavers anyway. Resentment at perceived democratic failure may simply be something we have to live with.

In the 1970s, the UK was called the Sick Man of Europe. We’re not that sick now, at least not yet. Our economy has been doing okay, although it seems to be slowing, comparatively, which may well be caused, in part at least, by the prospect of Brexit. (Perhaps what has stopped a more severe economic slowdown since the EU referendum is a hope among businesses that the sort of semi-disengagement referred to above will be found once the politicians are forced to choose it.) But it is clear that the UK is not a happy place politically. Even the Brexiteers have lost their optimism, and are sliding into internecine conflict. As we now stumble towards a compromise that appears to suit neither Leavers nor Remainers, other EU countries regard us with pity (if they’re charitable) or amusement (if they’re less so) rather than anger. We picked a fight with Europe, and now we’re fighting with ourselves. It seems unnecessary now for the EU to punish us for leaving, so as to deter others, because they can leave it to us to do the job for them. There are unlikely to be many countries eyeing us enviously at the moment.

The blame game among Leavers is already beginning, and we haven’t even left yet. They will say that it’s not their fault that we ended up with the wrong sort of Leave. It wasn’t the Leave they voted for. There just wasn't the leadership. How could we have known it would be messed up so badly?

Well they could have thought about that at the time. There was always a good chance of a bad outcome. In fact, the Leavers have got the leadership they deserved. The rest of us will suffer alongside them, and we can just hope that something serviceable can be cobbled together from the ruins.

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