You’d expect that the more we find out about the UK government’s negotiation stance on leaving the European Union, the less uncertain things become. But it’s just the opposite.
We’ve seen a fair number of revelations, comebacks, denials and even insults (for this last bit, read Foreign Trade Secretary Liam Fox’s recent accusation: “This country is not the free-trading nation that it once was. We have become too lazy and too fat on our successes in previous generations.”)
First, it transpired that Prime Minister Theresa May would reject a points-based system for immigration, which was a beloved theme of the pro-Leave camp during the campaign before the referendum.
Then she had to come down on her own Brexit secretary, David Davis, for saying that Britain will probably have to give up access to the single market, since it wants to restrict the freedom of movement of EU citizens.
“This government is looking at every option, but the simple truth is that if a requirement of [single market] membership is giving up control of our borders, I think that makes it very improbable,” he said.
An official from Downing Street was quick to point out that David Davis had expressed his own opinion, rather than the government’s official position in negotiations. But if you read his exact words and combine them with May’s own statements about controlling EU citizens’ right to work in Britain, what other conclusion can you come to?
The unnamed Downing Street official quoted by The Guardian said: “He is setting out his opinion. A policy tends to be a direction of travel: saying something is probable or improbable is not policy.”
Fine, but this sounds suspiciously similar to the “Brexit means Brexit” soundbite. It’s all well and good to say that “policy tends to be a direction of travel”, but on this particular journey Britain has company –until it reaches the EU’s exit door. And it must, to some extent, accommodate its travel companions.
The government has not yet explained why the EU would grant access to the UK to its single market while allowing it to pick and choose only what it wants from the union’s four fundamental freedoms.
Nor did it say how it will persuade 27 countries that are rather miffed after the June 23 vote (hands up if you like being rejected by plebiscite) to allow London-based banks to continue to do business elsewhere in the EU and to clear euro-denominated transactions once the City is outside the EU.
The chairman of J D Whetherspoon, Tim Martin, argued that the UK doesn’t need an agreement with the EU and should just leave. Looking strictly at imports and exports in absolute terms, he believes that, since the UK has a trade deficit with the EU, it’s the EU that needs Britain, more than the other way around.
He may in fact have a point, although not because of the deficit; it is not such a big problem for the EU, as the UK only counts for some 7% of the trading bloc’s total exports, whereas it sends there around 45% of its own exports.
It’s because his position is probably the same with that of the 52% who voted for the UK to leave the EU. The vote was about leaving, not about leaving after agreeing a trade deal. So why try to reach any deal at all? Why not just simply leave? Isn’t that what “Brexit means Brexit” actually means?
And if it isn’t, then how can the British people just rely on the government to come up with a deal that would be acceptable to everybody? Shouldn’t the government organize a referendum on the conditions of leaving the EU, just as it did on the decision whether to leave or remain?
These are important questions but very few in the UK public sphere try to answer them. Instead, as usual, public debate has defaulted back to immigration.