Why is anyone infatuated with a no-deal Brexit?
Gideon Rachman: All sides need to re-learn the art of compromise. And they do not have long to do it.
Given the unique political, strategic and economic ties between the EU and the UK, it is not unreasonable to accept that the post-Brexit relationship should also have its own unique characteristics.
Shortages of medicine; the garden of England turned into a lorry park; a surge in red-tape; new tariffs on cars and food; factories halted for lack of parts. Those are the grim scenarios conjured up by planning for a “ no-deal Brexit”. Who in the world would volunteer for that kind of chaos? Quite a few people, as it happens.
There are hardline Brexiters who regard the British government’s current proposals for Brexit as a betrayal – and so would prefer no deal. There are ardent Remainers who hope that the spectre of no deal could provoke a political crisis that stops Brexit altogether. And there is the European Commission, which sees no deal as preferable to compromising on the basic principles of the single market.
Together, these three groups could lead the UK and the EU into no-deal territory. But they are all deluded in their own way. In their refusal to compromise they risk jointly unleashing a dangerous crisis, whose endgame they can neither predict nor control.
The motivations of the hardline Brexiters are, in some ways, easiest to understand. They believe that the proposal of Theresa May’s government would be the worst of all worlds: leaving Britain with the obligations of EU membership, without the supposed benefits of Brexit. But their argument that Britain should hold out for something better depends on dismissing all the warnings about no-deal as scare stories or “Project Fear”.
So what are the hardliners really thinking? Perhaps they believe their own propaganda and simply do not accept or comprehend the legal and regulatory consequences that flow from no deal. Maybe their reverence for Britain’s “finest hour” in 1940 has created a certain nostalgia for rationing and the “blitz spirit”?
But the Brexiters are surely mistaken if they believe that the chaos unleashed by crashing out of the EU would create national unity. It is more likely that Leavers and Remainers would round on each other with renewed fury, and that the political careers of many prominent Brexiters would come to an end.
It is this last prospect that leads one school of Remainers quietly to embrace the idea of no deal. They argue that the only way of finally discrediting Brexit and politicians like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg is to let them have their way, and to force them to take responsibility for the results.
But that argument is uncomfortably close to a Marxist embrace of the immiseration of the people as a necessary condition for political progress. It also rests on the questionable assumption that an economic and social crisis would strengthen the centre ground in politics. In the real world, it is more likely to empower the political extremes.
There is also a milder version of the Remain case for no deal that, I admit, I have been attracted to. This rests on the hope that the May government is simply unable to negotiate a deal, or cannot get a hard-won agreement through the House of Commons. Under those circumstances, the Remainers hope that parliament would call a halt to proceedings and ask the EU for extra time to negotiate. The passage of time would make it possible to call a second referendum and Brexit might actually be stopped altogether.
But, alluring as that option sounds to Remainers, it is actually a very hazardous long-odds bet. There is no guarantee that the EU would be willing or able to stop the Brexit clock. And there is no guarantee that a second referendum would be won.
For Remainers, the more pragmatic, if depressing, option is to accept that Brexit will go ahead and to push the UK government to embrace the least-damaging version. After Brexit, economic and political logic is likely to lead Britain and the EU gradually to rebuild ties. The EU is evolving and Britain might eventually rejoin a second tier of the club focused mainly on trade and the single market.
But where do the EU’s interests lie? While there might be a certain schadenfreude in Brussels at the sight of the British hoarding food and stuck in massive traffic jams, chaos in the UK is not ultimately in the interests of the rest of Europe. For while the hardest economic blows would fall on Britain, there would also be serious consequences inside the EU, particularly in economically vulnerable areas like northern France.
A bitter rift between the EU and the UK would also be geopolitical madness at a time when Europe is under mounting pressure from Russia, China and the Trump administration in Washington.
The EU cannot micromanage British politics from Brussels. Nonetheless, it is clear that if the EU side forcibly and explicitly rejects the May government’s proposal - essentially that the UK stay inside the internal market for goods, but not for services - it will make a no-deal Brexit much more likely.
The European Commission has consistently argued that the “four freedoms” of the single market can never be divided, and that Britain must therefore choose something like the deals offered to Canada or Norway.
But given the unique political, strategic and economic ties between the EU and the UK, it is not unreasonable to accept that the post-Brexit relationship should also have its own unique characteristics.
All sides need to re-learn the art of compromise. And they do not have long to do it.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018