Oxford for Europe
​by Peter Burke, Chair, Oxford for Europe.
Wishing you a happy and peaceful Christmas and a Brexit-free 2019. 
​​
The Next Hundred Days
We are now under 100 days short of March 29th, and the Prime Minister has renewed her promise to “the people” to deliver Brexit. The Cabinet is advising business to step up contingency plans for leaving the EU without a deal. Why this insanity? We might well ask.

Oxford for Europe is not a party political organisation. Nor indeed do we wish to cast aspersions on the many good people who voted leave in good faith, for a wide variety of complex reasons – some have since changed their minds but many have not and that is their right. When I refer to Brexiteers, I’m not speaking of those voters, but rather of those who led what I believe to have been at best a misleading campaign, and continue to do so. However, our views about the way forward are clear.

To paraphrase Abba Eban, both of the major parties can be relied upon to do the right thing, but only after having exhausted all the other alternatives. We in OfE firmly believe that doing the right thing means preserving the very great deal which the UK currently has with the EU, in other words ensuring that 29 March goes down in history for nothing at all. This in our view is the only way forward. What, after all, are the alternatives? There are three main ones, and they do not look attractive.

  • Mrs May continues to promote her withdrawal agreement, in the face of all reason. It may not be dead but it is currently on life support with little or no prospect of survival. Even its proponents have given up trying to sell it as being in any way beneficial. It is a form of damage limitation and in the Prime Minister’s view the least worst form of Brexit. The government’s own impact assessments show it leading to perhaps 2% reduction in GDP at best. This is about the same order of magnitude as the 2008 recession. The UK loses its voice in Europe and loses its ability to mould the future, as it places itself in an unequal relationship with 27 other countries who have an effective veto on progress. Some voters are prepared to accept the deal, wildly different though it may be from their aspirations, purely on the grounds that it draws a
line and ends discussion on Brexit. In practice of course nothing could be further from thetruth. March 29 will only be the beginning of 5 to 10 years of difficult and complex negotiations in which the UK has voluntarily placed itself at a disadvantage. These negotiations will cover trade in goods and services. The Prime Minister’s objective is to ensure tariff free trade in goods, and this may well be possible given the significant trade deficit this country currently faces. On the other hand, trade in services will be negotiated separately and there is no earthly reason why the EU 27 should make any concessions in this area -  they have every incentive to attract service industries to their own countries. Given that services account for 80% of the UK economy, this would be catastrophic. As to the northern Ireland backstop, although it may be that both the UK and the EU are unwilling to see it coming into effect, the default position is that it will, unless a technological or other solution is found to avoiding a hard Irish border, and such a solution has eluded both sides despite over two years of serious effort. A permanent backstop would create stalemate. No wonder that even hard Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab agree with us remainers that the deal we have is vastly better than the Prime Minister’s deal, and no wonder it has no more than 20% support from the public in opinion polls. How any government can promote such a thing as “the will of the people” is astonishing.
  • We are hearing more and more about the possibility of a No Deal Brexit. Yet this is something favoured by only a very tiny minority of kamikaze Brexit extremists, who refer to it incorrectly as “leaving on WTO terms”. The reason why this is an incorrect description is that the UK  is  not currently a member in its own right of the World Trade Organization (WTO). It 
would have to apply, as it would have lost the membership it currently holds through membership of the EU. Being made a member would require the approval of countries such as Russia and Argentina, who may well have reasons to block any application unless concessions are made to them. Anyway, the WTO lacks teeth. Even leaving this aside, it is a deeply unattractive proposition. All the industries which depend on just-in-time technology, from manufacturing cars to selling flowers, would essentially cease to function. This is not “project fear”,  but rather the prediction of the industries themselves, 
backed by such people as Mr Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, who envisages much of the Japanese industry in the UK evaporating. I for one am much more minded to listen to the views of such people than to those of Liam Fox and Jacob Rees Mogg who have already proved themselves highly unreliable as prophets of the future (remember ‘the easiest deal in history’?). The Government’s own impact assessments place the potential reduction in GDP at almost 10%, i.e. five times the reduction which took place in the 2008 recession. In money terms this comes to £200 bn a year, or £4000 million a week. ​The government is now seriously making “preparations” for a No Deal Brexit, and advising others to do the same. For some businesses this may be possible, although the most important part of their preparations will be relocating themselves from the UK to other EU 27 countries, thereby permanently damaging the UK economy. Many small businesses know only too well that the only realistic response they have to a no deal Brexit will be to declare bankruptcy, and the only possible preparation is to pray. We heard many first hand accounts of this at our recent OfE Business meeting. It is unspeakable that the government should be facing them almost insouciantly with this prospect. If and when a no deal Brexit happens and, inevitably, many small businesses go under, the government plan will undoubtedly be to blame the victims, to tell them that they were warned in good time (!), that they were advised to “make preparations” and that they failed to do so. This is criminal irresponsibility. There are some politicians who claim that no deal Brexit will be unproblematic, and anyone who looks at the evidence will realise that they are lying or deluded or both. Pretending that a perfect Brexit is possible, these same people are already preparing to blame others, namely us remainers, the nefarious civil service, and the treacherous Europeans, when things go wrong. Other politicians, including the Prime Minister, admit it would be hard but see it as a realistic threat to use in order to achieve their ends. To Mrs May, a no deal Brexit is the bogeyman she can hold before us remainers, just as she can use “no Brexit” to threaten the hard Brexiteers. This is like playing chicken with other people’s lives and livelihoods. It really is time to call in the adults in the room.
  • We are hearing increasing talk of the “Norway plus” solution. We might as well call this the “Liechtenstein plus” solution. It effectively means staying in the single market by means of rejoining EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, of which the UK was a member prior to EEC accession. There is the additional complication that this would not solve the Northern Ireland problem on its own, so membership of the customs union would also be required.​​ However, membership of EFTA
would require the agreement of the four existing members, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Each would have a veto on UK membership and also on future international agreements entered upon by the UK. Imagine that: Prince Hans Adam II, the hereditary, unelected and absolute ruler of the statelet of Liechtenstein, population approximately the same as Banbury, would have a veto on international agreements entered upon by the UK government. Is that what is called taking back control? I think not. Not only that, but the UK would be unable independently to negotiate external  trade agreements  and would simultaneously  have lost its voicein the decision-making bodies of the EU so would be in the words
of Boris Johnson “a vassal state”. Furthermore, free movement of people would continue, and this is something which the government, perhaps unwisely, has undertaken to end. There are no possible benefits in this solution, and while technically it would amount to leaving the EU in compliance with the referendum result, it would leave the overwhelming majority of Brexiteers dissatisfied and angry, and the rest of us mourning what has been lost..
  • Other tailor-made solutions, such as “Canada plus plus” are equally fraught with difficulty. They are unlikely to lead to a satisfactory solution to the Irish border problem or to trade in services, and the more complex they are the longer they will take to negotiate, when the UK does not have time on its side. Furthermore, even friendly countries such as Canada itself, Australia and Norway would wish to block such a deal if it resulted in more favourable terms given to the UK than to themselves. Such solutions are increasingly desperate attempts at damage limitation put forward by people who lack the courage to admit that for the UK all possible forms of Brexit are deeply harmful and that we need to bite the bullet and accept that the U.K.’s proper place is at the heart of Europe.​​
But surely, many people will say, the Prime Minister was right when she says that “the people have spoken”, and that the government has received an instruction from the British electorate which it cannot ignore? Mrs May has consistently said these things in a way which implies that the 16 million people who voted to remain do not exist or do not count, similarly the 700,000 who marched in London on 20 October. She ignores the fact that there are over 47 million people in the UK who did not vote for Brexit, but who will be profoundly impacted by it. Indeed, even in the referendum the majority of working people who voted chose to stay in, and this has if anything strengthened in the intervening two years. How can anybody say that people are  bound forever  by a decision taken on a particular  day?    “If a democracy
cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy” in the words of, of all people, David Davis. The world has changed very dramatically in the last 2 ½ years, and we have come to realise that the support which Brexiteers predicted from the rest of the world is not forthcoming, especially since the election of a deeply isolationist government in the USA. “If the facts change I change my mind, what do you do?” - John Maynard Keynes. All this would be true even if we did not have the rapidly accumulating evidence of foul play on the leave side, including blatent Russian interference. In response to this we hear from leavers that we are bad losers and we should get used to it. This shows a profound misunderstanding of the gravity of the issues, of the hurt which is being caused, or of the solidarity which we feel towards our fellows who are suffering. The ‘bad loser’ jibe compares the referendum to some kind of sporting event. I find this a helpful analogy, because I can say in response that if you win a gold medal for running a race and then are caught out having used performance enhancing drugs, you give back your medal without question. The same thing should apply. And it is no good leavers telling us that there was lying on both sides. The falsehoods on the remain side consisted mainly of inaccurate predictions, and often of an understatement of the importance of our trading relationships with Europe. We did not illegally use the NHS logo to pretend we had support where we did not. The remain campaign was weak, but that does not in any sense enhance the Brexit case. Quite the reverse. Furthermore, for a matter as important as this it would be normal in government or in business to ensure that full evidence was assembled and due diligence practised before any final decision was reached or implemented. It is negligent of the government to fail to observe these basic principles. And I need hardly mention that the greatest stakeholders, namely EU national taxpayers and young people, were disenfranchised. So, in short, the people may have spoken, or at least some people have, but that is really not sufficient response to fundamental criticisms of the government’s Brexit plan. The fact that Brexiteers increasingly fall back on this one single argument of itself underlines the intellectual bankruptcy of their case.

The Prime Minister, with many others, argues that a referendum would further divide the country, and by implication that proceeding with Brexit would in some way unite us. That is a gross misunderstanding of the more than half of the population who never wanted to leave the EU in the first place and who feel alienated. It is also a misunderstanding of the leave supporters. Most of that group see her as selling out their cause by settling for a so-called BINO, ie Brexit in name only, which does not deliver on the expectations. Many, when they see Brexit leading to the loss of their jobs, will take to the streets, so the dire predictions of rioting are likely to come true whichever course the government follows and should in no way influence the decision that is made. And when was it ever a sufficient argument for a policy to say ‘there will be violence if we do otherwise’?

The only people who actually want a hard Brexit are those who have lost the plot or wish the country ill. Few people are actively pursuing it. Despite this it is possible that it could happen as a result of sheer ineptitude and of Mrs May’s bluff being called. That would be tragic.

We are witnessing the unique prospect of a Tory Prime Minister driving, against concerted opposition, a policy which she knows will damage not only the economy but her country’s place in the world. She believes she can get away with doing this solely because of the referendum result. Future generations will not be kind. She will have to answer for her actions as she is completely aware of the consequences. Ironically her predecessors Margaret Thatcher, architect of the single market, and Winston Churchill, founder of the European movement, must now be turning in their graves.

​Is the people’s vote campaign just a wheeze to allow us to stay in the EU? Staying in is of course one of our objectives, but it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. We recognise the value of being able to influence the future of Europe, of being rulemakers rather than ruletakers, and we want to pass on a prosperous nation to our children. We would like, irony of ironies, the financial cost of the referendum to be held at the £40 billion it has already reached, rather than to go even higher. If people choose to criticise us for this, so be it. But there is another objective, that is to restore respect for democracy. Allowing a deeply mendacious campaign to win and that victory to stand, while depriving the electorate of any opportunity to look at the evidence and think again, is a travesty of democracy and must not be allowed to happen.​

So, what next? All is still to play for. The momentum developing behind the People’s Vote movement is extraordinary. I as a doctor can speak with feeling, as many healthcare organisations have lent their names to the call for a people’s vote, recognising the catastrophic effects that any form of Brexit will have on the NHS. These include the BMA and the Royal Colleges of Nurses, Midwives and General Practitioners. We have the support of much of industry and academia, and of three of the four surviving ex-Prime Ministers. Many MPs, even Tories, are moving gradually to the point where they grudgingly see people’s vote as the least worst of the many deeply unattractive alternatives. And they need to be reminded, again and again, by us and people like us. And we need to engage with the public, to make the
case I have outlined in this article. We do of course have work to do to achieve the people’s vote, and let us have no illusions about how difficult it will be to win when we get it. However if we succeed the prize is well worth fighting for and our children will thank us for making the effort. 

May you have a happy Christmas and a Brexit-free 2019.

NB Although the above is broadly in line with the policies of Oxford for Europe the views expressed are those of the author​​.



Next:
The Definition of Insanity
Forty days
Brexit Myth meets Harsh Reality

All letters from the Chair

Oxford for Europe