Hard and soft Brexits aren’t the only options

Geraint Talfan Davies assesses the position as the Brexit talks get under way


The Queen got it right – “it is difficult to escape a very sombre national mood”. This is a joyless period for  the country. Grief, fear, anger, disillusionment and, today, a strong sense that the Government is embarking on the most important negotiation in half a century in a state of muddle, uncertainty and weakness.

When the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, sat down yesterday with David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union – a title that coud be out of Gilbert and Sullivan –  he may have learnt a little more than the British public knows at present. Quite what, we can only guess.

Why? Because the UK government’s formal public position has not changed since it issued its 12-point statement last January; or if it has, it has been to adopt an even harder position. In January it was clear the Government was intent on having its cake and eating it. It wanted access to but not membership of the single market plus bits of the customs union, as well as deals that looked after the interests of the City, the car industry, aerospace, and our universities. It didn’t want to pick cherries, it wanted to shovel them up.

But if its official position is publicly unchanged, its political brain must know that on 8th June the electorate killed a hard Brexit stone dead as a political objective. There would be no Parliamentary majority for it. It would be opposed by all the devolved administrations. It would endanger the union in Scotland and peace in Northern Ireland.

As we speak, we know nothing of any formal change in the Government’s objectives – despite the sharp rebuke from the electorate 10 days ago, and despite the angry mood in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, that has also killed the prospect of a low tax, regulation-lite Britain of which the more crazed Brexiteers dream.

In the last few days the UK has suddenly backed away from its insistence on dealing with the costs of the divorce and the separate issue of the content of a new deal in parallel. Instead, it has indicated that it is prepared to deal with the two matters sequentially, as the EU had requested.  This is not some kind of clever last minute tactical move, but rather an indication that – with half David Davis’s ministerial team having been sacked by Mrs May after the election – they have a desperate need for more time to agree on what sort of deal they want.

There has been a public assumption that the choice is between a hard or soft Brexit. The devolved administrations are all pushing in that direction – even the DUP in Northern Ireland. Scotland and Wales never accepted Mrs May’s original stance of prioritising the curbing of immigration over the interests of the economy. Neither did the bulk of British business. It wants jobs and the economy to be the top priority.

But we need to remember two things: first, that a soft Brexit – this bowl of cherries – is not in our gift and, second, that hard and soft Brexits are not the only options. There is a third option – no Brexit. This elephant in not yet in the room, but it is loitering on the garden path.

In the General election the country managed to derail the hard Brexit train. But there is no guarantee that we can lever a soft Brexit train onto the tracks. The assumption is that soft Brexit is an alternative option. That may be the case, but one cannot be confident of it.

The Brexit lobby will threaten mayhem if anything like the Norwegian option comes into view. Norway contributes cash to the EU, obeys its trading rules so getting full access to the EU market. It even allows free movement of people. But it gets no say in EU decisions.

The EU, even if it wants to strike a deal with the UK, will not agree terms that are equal to those we have as a full member. Countries have both economic and political objectives. That also applies to the EU.

At some point in the next eighteen months, the gap between the benefits of our current EU membership and any deal on offer will become clear and, perhaps for the first time, measurable. Or it will become clear that no deal is poossible. If it becomes clear that a soft Brexit is unachievable or unsatisfactory and that a hard Brexit is still unacceptable, that will be the point at which the third option – no Brexit – will thrust itself forward.

Do not expect public opinion to be static in the next two years.  British politics is in a precarious and febrile state. Although many in the Conservative party would dearly wish to keep yet another general election at bay, Theresa May’s hapless performance over the last week does not suggest that will be possible.

Labour may relish the prospect of power, but if that were to come about it is its own internal divisions on the European issue that will come to the fore.

Although shares in Corbyn have risen sharply, it should not be forgotten that the ambivalence of both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell on the issue during the referendum was, arguably, of material and perhaps decisive help to the Leave cause.  Pity Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow spokesman on these matters.

Brexiteers, on the other hand, are advancing the completely specious argument that in the General Election 84 per cent of voters voted for two parties arguing to Leave. I say specious, because our ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system, and the high prevalence of tactical voting means it is impossible to be categorical about the wishes of the electorate on a single issue.

Brexiteers also argue that half the Remain vote is now in favour of Leave. Again, that is far too simplistic. People have not so much changed their minds, they have just been worn down by poor and repetitive debate during three major campaigns in three years. They just want it all to stop. I’m afraid it’s not going to.



Geraint Talfan Davies is a member of the Executive Committee of Wales for Europe and former Chair of IWA

4 thoughts on “Hard and soft Brexits aren’t the only options

  1. The elephant in the room! Its presence needs to be pointed out more widely. The recent election was fought on anything but leaving the EU, and the feeling seemed to be ‘we’ve had enough of all this’, which was many people’s motivation for voting leave in the referendum, ironically. Voters will eventually realise that their ‘net worth’ is not sufficient to survive leaving the EU, with a vertiginous drop in public spending, and that ‘all this’ will go on and on for years. At some point public opinion will pivot, but it needs a leader to advocate it. If its big and grey with flappy ears…

    The EU referendum was advisory because it had no detailed proposals. Those who voted ‘leave’ need to be asked what, in detail, they thought they were voting for. There are a million or more answers, and a more mature political leader might have said – ‘you’ve made your decision now let’s see what that means’ – a Royal Commission on Leaving the EU, or suchlike, Chilcot style.

    An independent Wales, it would be comforting to think, would have avoided the whole stinking mess by not having a ‘dog whistle’ referendum in the first place The Westminster system is broken and teetering.

    When David Davis, in his press conference with Michel Barnier yesterday reiterated the need to ‘take back control’ it sounded so pathetic and petulant, especially in contrast to the EU bending over backwards to make sure that the UK were not suffering unduly as a result of their inexplicable decision to leave. If Jeremy Corbyn and some of his colleagues prevaricate on narrow ideological grounds, as they did for the referendum, then they will be equally pathetic.

    I spy big footprints. I spy big piles of dung. I spy elephants!!!

  2. With respect, GTD does wrong to conflate Her Majesty’s perceptive description of the sombre national mood – specifically a response to Grenfell Tower, the various terrorist attacks, and, perhaps, the indecisive result of the General Election – with his personal feelings about ‘Brexit,’ which are not shared universally or even by the majority.

    He is, however, correct to say that the whole ‘hard versus soft Brexit’ is not a matter of choice. The Europeans have made it abundantly clear that they want ‘hard Brexit,’ even if it is against their own economic interest.

    So ‘hard Brexit’ it is. Do not blame the government, who have made their preference for a trade deal perfectly clear. Blame the EU, which is one again proving itself to be nothing like the wise and benevolent master painted by the ‘Remain’ campaign.

    If the EU or, more likely, its apologists in this country still sustain any fantasy that taking a strong anti-British line in negotiations will prompt the UK to try to withdraw the notice under Article 50 and beg the EU to take us back on almost any terms they are showing the same lack of understanding of the British people that lost them the Referendum.

    In any case, it is doubtful that the EU would welcome such an attempt in the unlikely event it was ever made. They made it perfectly clear, before, during, and since the Referendum campaign, that they are not really that interested in keeping us in. One cannot blame them for that. It has been obvious for some time that they are as uncomfortable with us as we are with them.

    All that the General Election said about ‘Brexit’ was that the one party which campaigned actively against it was flattened.

    Huw is doubtless correct that an independent Wales would probably have avoided a referendum. Its centralising tendency means that the Welsh political class would be most unlikely to trust the actual Welsh people with a major decision – which is why an independent Wales would be such a bad idea.

  3. There is a danger here of confusing the differing stages of Brexit. The EU has made clear that it is dividing the negotiations into two phases, departure issues and subsequent relationship issues. I agree with JWR that we shall no longer be members of the single market and no longer members of the Customs Union after phase one of the negotiations. This I understand to be the purpose of Article 50, though that Article does not define what withdrawal from the EU means. In the current context, it would mean no longer sending representatives to the European Parliament and no longer having a seat on the European Council. But if I’m right in what I say above, then the result of the EU referendum would have been honoured.

    The more uncertain question is what will replace it in terms of a trading relationship between the EU and the UK. This was not the subject of the 2016 referendum. It would be possible, for example, for the UK to reapply for membership of the Customs Union as this would nullify the issue of a hard border in Ireland. The cost would be that the UK could not negotiate our own trade deals outwith the EU. However, this is not the big deal that Liam Fox makes it out to be for the simple reason that you do not need a trade deal in order to trade. The EU does not have a trade deal with the USA but plenty of trade between those two economic entities occurs every day.

  4. I used to think Norway-style membership of the EEA could not happen because it was so obviously inferior to full membership of EU – most of the costs and benefits of membership but no say in the rules. Brexiters would be bound to gamble on something harder, which would probably be worse still but which allowed the hope that it might be better in the long run. But I’ve changed my mind. Being in EEA means single market access but no common fisheries, no common agricultural policy, maybe no customs union so permitting many of the anti-EU constituencies to be satisfied. Meanwhile the horrible waste of government time and the high risk of failure involved in trying to negotiate a bespoke deal is becoming more obvious. So EEA it should be. That would be better for the EU too because the Brits are incorrigibly insular; we have never been enthusiastic members and are always holding things up and pleading for special conditions, opt-outs etc. They are well shot of us and we can renounce idle dreams of global influence and retreat into an offshore world which suits the current temper of the British people. So perhaps the best outcome for all concerned after all.

Comments are closed.

Also within Uncategorised