Peter Young finds Britain’s future with Europe top of the agenda after a holiday in England . . .
ARRIVING back in The Bahamas after a pleasurable Christmas and New Year trip home to England gives a timely opportunity to reflect on ‘Brexit’ since the subject of Britain’s impending departure from the European Union (EU) following last June’s referendum came up for discussion wherever my wife and I went.
It has become a modern political phenomenon about which everybody has a view and which has divided not only the nation as a whole but even caused rifts in families and amongst friends.
With both our sons voting to leave, and evidence of other young people doing likewise (including a cerebral and well-informed niece), it is clear that it was not only, as claimed, the older generation who opted for ‘Brexit’. A discussion with a farmer godson about replacement of EU agricultural subsidies was revealing, as was being lectured by a young banker about the need to protect, post-Brexit, the UK’s vibrant financial services sector.
The fact that the referendum result was relatively close - 52 per cent voting to leave and 48 per cent to remain, with more than 30 million people participating - has made the outcome all the more controversial, so a fierce domestic debate continues about how the result should be implemented. But what is already clear is that Prime Minister Theresa May’s government will honour the wishes of the majority by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (the formal procedure for quitting the EU) by the end of March.
By common consent, the process of Britain’s disengagement from more than 40 years of EU membership will involve the most complex and demanding negotiation of a generation. The immediate debate has now largely boiled down to a choice between a hard or soft exit, which essentially is taken to mean complete withdrawal or retaining full access to the EU single market which, in turn, requires adherence to the four EU freedoms of the movement of goods, capital, services and people. The latter is a major sticking point for the UK because the key message from the referendum was public concern about continuing uncontrolled immigration from within the EU.
In her first television interview of 2017, Mrs May made it clear that the UK was leaving the EU and should not attempt ‘to keep bits’ of its membership. Rather than viewing the issue as a choice between hard and soft, the government intended to seek the best possible deal for the nation in establishing - from a position of strength given the existing bilateral trade imbalance in the EU’s favour - a new relationship with the bloc from outside it. This would mean, ideally, continuing to operate within the single market and strengthening co-operation in other areas but immigration had to be controlled. Despite her reluctance so far to reveal the government’s negotiating strategy - and accusations by her ambassador in Brussels (subsequently retired) of ‘muddled thinking’ - this may now be clarified publicly as early as this week.
Meanwhile, the British economy is booming, with the stock market at a record high and a lower pound sterling boosting exports. New investment has been announced by companies like Siemens, Nissan, Google and, most recently, the US-based messaging and social media firm Snapchat which is planning to establish headquarters in London. Sixty per cent of business leaders polled by the Institute of Directors in December were optimistic about business prospects during the coming year while former governor of the Bank of England Sir Mervyn King has called for Britain to leave the single market and customs union in order to be able to embrace the opportunity of new trade deals with, for example, the US, China and major Commonwealth countries.
All this makes a mockery of the pre-referendum predictions of economic gloom and doom by the previous government, the Bank of England and bodies like the International Monetary Fund, not to mention the ill-judged intervention by President Obama. Some economists are now admitting that their analyses were simply wrong. However, what foreign commentators, in particular, have failed to grasp is that a fundamental issue in the referendum, apart from trade and the economy, was whether to put an end to the supremacy of EU law and thus prevent further curtailment of the Westminster parliament’s capacity to legislate - put simply, whether Britain should continue to be bound by laws and regulations emanating from Brussels or return to being a democratic, self-governing country while co-operating as much as possible in other ways with neighbouring EU countries to their mutual benefit.
Furthermore, the referendum sent a clear message that, after the government of the day chose earlier not to sign up to the eurozone single currency or the Schengen agreement on open borders, the British public rejected the notion of ‘ever-closer union’ towards an EU federal superstate and the dismantling of the nation-state.
The promised revelation of the government’s ‘Brexit’ strategy will be a hugely significant next step. The fervent hope of so many is that Mrs May will not only ensure that the clear wish of the majority ‘Leavers’ prevails but also that, in seeking to heal divisions over ‘Brexit’, her government will try to find a way of accommodating, to the extent possible, the views of the ‘Remainers’ - surely a difficult balancing act but an important one since respecting the views of the minority is a central premise of democracy.
• Peter Young is a retired British diplomat living in Nassau. From 1996 to 2000 he was British High Commissioner to The Bahamas.