A Route Out of the Brexit Crisis?

Jim Gallagher | 18 January 2019

© 2018 European Union

With parliament paralysed, the country deeply divided, and trust in political institutions eroded by the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, it is easy to conclude that there is no way through the political and perhaps economic chaos which faces Britain.

These problems feed off one another. The deadlock in parliament stokes up cynicism and polarises opinion in the country even more. Even if a Westminster compromise could somehow be cooked up, the lesson of Theresa May’s inept deal-making is that getting a sustainable compromise is impossible in the face of such deep divisions.

Voters could be forgiven for concluding that the British political system is fundamentally broken. It cannot deal with the main issue of the day. They will be right, unless we do something radically different, and something which addresses all and not just one of the issues. That is the attraction of the ideas put forward yesterday by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

A Brown Study

Brown starts from some incontestable premises. First, we have in fact run out of time. May’s policy of setting a Brexit date and using it to blackmail her own party has failed spectacularly. It is now simply impossible to do all that needs to be done by the end of March. We would have to create an agreed UK position; persuade the EU to accept it; pass huge swathes of legislation at Westminster to make it work; and have it ratified in 27 EU capitals. Even if we decided today to run another European referendum, it’s too late to get that done either. Delay is therefore inevitable. That is Theresa May’s legacy.

But postponement on its own is not enough. There’s no point in going through all this again to be in the same place in May or June. It has to be for a purpose, which cannot just be more wrangling at Westminster. That does nothing for the divisions in the country, and will further damage trust in our politics. Hence the Brown plan:

  1. First, the UK should seek agreement from the EU 27 to suspend the Article 50 deadline, for a substantial period – perhaps a year – to allow the UK to reflect in a structured way on what the issues underlying the Brexit referendum were, and what relationship with Europe the country actually wants.
  2. During this period, mount a structured and systematic process of national consultation and discussion through Citizens’ National Assemblies, set up by and answerable to parliament, to identify the issues, distil the views and arguments, and replace shrill partisan debate with measured and thoughtful discussion.
  3. In parallel, the UK can engage in further negotiations with the EU on the options for its future relationship.
  4. At the end of this process, parliament would decide whether circumstances in the EU and the UK had changed sufficiently to call another referendum on whether we remain in or leave the EU.
  5. Additionally, Brown suggests, to recognise the concern of Leave voters, the UK could, even while still in the EU, take the steps available to it to manage EU migration more tightly, and to assert the primacy of the UK courts over matters which are critical to the UK’s constitution, as other European legal systems, notably Germany, have done.

The attractions of such a plan are obvious: delay is inevitable, and better it should be put to some constructive use than continued febrile, polarised and unproductive parliamentary squabbling. Some of the heat, and the artificial time pressure, could be taken out of the situation. There is a lot of evidence, additionally, that well-structured citizens’ assembly processes, not focused on binary choices, produce real participation and more thoughtful outcomes. Managed well, such processes could help reengage the public and the political system. There is also something in this plan for both sides of the argument: leavers can be reassured the referendum result stands, and remainers that a chaotic Brexit is not imposed on them in a few weeks’ time. And we can stop wasting billions on no deal preparations.

There is certainly scope for the UK to take a more controlled approach to EU migration, even inside the present rules. Other countries already do this, recognising that freedom of movement is conditional, so that only those EU citizens with a job, sufficient means to support themselves, or in full time education can remain in country after 3 months. Further restrictions can be made legally by registering jobs in high unemployment areas so they are only advertised in local job centres or registering EU migrants on arrival so the government has full visibility of who is in the country.

Similarly, it is clear that the approach of national courts to the European Court of Justice has shifted – most notably in Germany – and the recognition of national identity in the Lisbon treaty gives some backing to this. There might be scope for legislation to assert the primacy of the UK legal system on matters which are key to our (uncodified but very real) constitution, rather than in the way that the German constitutional court has made clear that the jurisdiction of the EU Court cannot undermine Germany’s basic law. Such changes would be partially real and partially symbolic, and may not be a key element of Brown’s plan: but they recognise that it has to be sold to a range of interests, especially those who voted leave in 2016.

Who would buy this?

Stopping the clock is not unknown in European negotiations, and Brussels already seems resigned to delay, as Britain clearly cannot sort itself out. Better, it might agree, to have a delay for a defined purpose, which includes the possibility, if not the certainty, of Britain changing its mind completely. If Britain does not, Brussels has a withdrawal agreement ready to implement, and may have made more progress on a long-term trade relationship. The European elections next May, however, present a problem: how could a country waiting at the door to leave send MEPs to Strasbourg? One option here would be for UK MEPs elected then to delay taking up their seats until the UK had made up its mind. Similarly, the UK’s European Commissioner might continue to be a discreet foreign office official, making no waves in the Berlaymont.

Dedicated partisans, notably on the leave side, will find this unacceptable. But both in parliament and in the country they are a minority. Those who want a referendum immediately may be disappointed, but might recognise that a referendum now exacerbates division and with an uncertain outcome: they might think jam tomorrow better than no jam at all. In terms of politically tactics, this plan avoids the need for Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May to adopt a final position on another referendum until circumstances may have changed, and public opinion with them.

Others, notably business, may be concerned about further uncertainty, but in truth that is all that faces us anyway. No one has any idea what will happen in a few weeks’ time, and even if we move into a transition period, we still do not know what the long-term relationship is. So uncertainty is with us no matter what, but with this plan a March cliff edge is avoided.

In the circumstances in which the UK now finds itself, no course of action is unproblematic. But the Brown plan – which has already attracted some high-profile support – is the only proposition on the table which looks beyond a short-term quick fix and attempts to address the underlying issues. If not this, what?

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Jim Gallagher is a member of the Gwylim Gibbon Policy Unit at Nuffield College, Oxford and a visiting professor at Glasgow University. He is a former public official in Edinburgh and Whitehall.