Deal or no deal: Why is Brexit so hard?

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The Brexit issue has become quite a confusing mess (Image via publicdomainpictures.net)

Dr Martin Hirst discusses the pros and cons of the United Kingdom leaving the EU.

The vote to leave

ON 23 JUNE 2016, over 30 million Britons (in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) voted in a referendum over whether or not the United Kingdom would resign its membership of the European Union. The turnout was nearly 72% of eligible voters and the "Leave" margin of victory was 51.9 to 48.1%.

The vote was mixed; in some working-class areas there was a strong pro-Leave majority, but in Northern Ireland and Scotland there was a majority for "Remain". There has been a lot of analysis of the referendum vote and some commentators have made the argument that the Leave voters represent a racist and anti-immigrant position that has been developed by right-wing organisations like the anti-Muslim UK Independence Party (UKIP) and conservatives like the odious Nigel Farage. Some on the Left have argued that the working class response to Brexit is a class-conscious rejection of austerity; others suggest that a strong Remain vote among trade unionists and minority groups is a better indicator of class consciousness.

Farage and some Tory Leave campaigners argued that the EU is elitist and globalist, echoing many of the memes generated by hardcore Trump supporters and imported to the UK by the Far-Right there. The basic argument is that European “elites” in Brussels dictate to the British and that this somehow dents British pride, keeps wages low, allows foreigners free reign and stifles British industry.

What I see in all of this is that the referendum was a giant British poker game in which the Conservative leader and Prime Minister, David Cameron, was trying to outmanoeuvre the Far-Right UKIP by promising to hold a vote on the UK’s membership of the EU. Cameron wanted UKIP votes, but he didn’t really want to leave the EU. Unfortunately, his bluff was called — the British voting public narrowly accepted the Leave arguments and Cameron resigned.

Cameron’s replacement, Theresa May, was given the task of having to execute the Brexit. May took her Brexit plan to an election in June 2017 and almost got wiped out. She was forced into an uncomfortable alliance with the reactionary Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (DUP) to hang on to the keys to “Number 10”. Since then, it’s been a constant round of defeats and setbacks.

Should I stay or should I go?

Since the referendum, the Leave or Remain argument has continued. The tide of public opinion has advanced and receded on the issue and the main contentious points about trade, immigration and saving money have been "relitigated" on an almost daily basis. The May Government has been paralysed on the issue and has come close to losing several confidence votes in the Parliament. Several Tory ministers have resigned over the issue and the Party is split wide open. Now the splits have started in the Opposition Labour Party with a group of around ten MPs resigning to establish a new centrist formation called the Independent Group.

All of this has only deepened my confusion, so it’s important to make an attempt to understand the issues. Firstly, I have to admit that I hold a British passport. One selfish reason I might support the Remain position is that I currently have a right to free travel in what is known as the "Schengen Area", or common passport zone. I also have the right to work in the European Union. I will lose this if the UK leaves the EU on 29 March.

The Leave people don’t seem to care about my right to work in Europe; they have been more focused on stopping Poles and Romanians from working in the UK. This seems very short-sighted to me. Migrants are often happy to do a lot of the jobs that nobody else wants to do and it seems some don’t understand just how important the international flow of cheap labour is to global capitalism. These Brits are too proud to do the dirty work, but they don’t want foreign workers to do it either.

Then what about trade? Well, this is a bit more complicated.

There are certainly benefits to being in the EU, such as British goods having access to European markets, but the Leavers argue that the UK could make better deals with other countries if it wasn’t tied up with European “red tape”. We’ve heard these arguments before, they are the same ones made by conservatives all over the world when they want to dismantle environmental regulations or labour laws, product safety codes, or minimum wage standards. They are the arguments of neoliberalism and they are not likely to persuade me of the Leave position.

The only thing that the Leavers are left with is the argument about “sovereignty”, which, in simple terms, means taking back control over “our” country from the “elites” in Brussels.

Are my frenemies’ frenemies my frenemies too?

The last two years have seen British politics in disarray. There are hardcore Remain and Leave camps in both major political parties and the party leaders –Tory PM Theresa May and Labour Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn – have had to face down open revolt. Both of them are clinging to their positions with a very tenuous grip. The centrist Independent Group typifies the turmoil. It was initially founded by a small group of dissident Labour MPs, but several disgruntled Tories have now joined and it has effectively become a swamp with both Blairite and Thatcherite tendencies. It is a hybrid monster and most likely will go nowhere.

Outside of Downing Street and the Palace of Westminster, it seems that the public mood has swung away from Brexit and towards staying in the EU. This might not even be possible because the trigger point for initiating a “hard” Brexit – exiting the EU without a negotiated deal – has passed. On 27 March 2017, a year on from the Referendum, Theresa May activated Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which set in motion the full Brexit process that ends in the UK falling out of the EU at the end of this month.

Article 50 is the right to leave with a two-year negotiating period, but the fallout from Brexit has meant that attempts to negotiate a deal have failed. There are too many obstacles, including what to do about the border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (not part of the UK). This is only one issue, but it highlights the deep divisions and potential catastrophic consequence of Cameron's bluff.

Currently, there is free passage of people and goods over the Irish border because both sides are part of the EU free trade and movement zone. This is known as a “soft” border. After Brexit, there may well be a wall (sound familiar?) and families will be cut off by a hard border. The IRA and the Ulster Unionists have both signalled a return to active hostilities should the hard border be instituted. So far, appeals to the EU to allow this bit of Brexit to lapse have been rejected.

What happens now?

Current opinion polling suggests that the majority of British people would now reject the Leave arguments and if the Referendum were run today the Remain majority would be as high as 10-15%. Some commentators even suggest there would be a majority of MPs in favour of the Remain option. The problem is political paralysis.

Prime Minister May seems to be committed to Brexit but claims she won’t support a “no deal” exit. Given there are less than 30 days to negotiate a deal with the EU, May’s position seems redundant. A hard Brexit is just around the corner.

Perhaps a second referendum can sort out the mess. At least it would allow the Government and Opposition leaders a graceful way to flip-flop their way to a Remain position.

Easy? Perhaps not. Not only is time a critical factor, but so, too, is the prospect of further splits in the major parties. May is facing chaos in the Tory ranks and Corbyn is effectively under siege inside the Labour Party, though he’s signalling he may back a second referendum.

Winners and losers

According to analysists, the only winners from the Brexit chaos are big business and global corporate interests with close ties to European capital.

Workers can’t win with a “no deal” Brexit and they can’t win, it seems, if by some miracle the Remain position triumphs in the next few weeks. This is because the real interests of working-class Britons lie in renationalising large corporations, banks, the steel and coal industries and the railways (among other things). These are the policies apparently supported by Jeremy Corbyn, but they would be ruled out if the UK stays inside the EU.

This is how Nick Clark put it earlier this week in the Left-wing Socialist Worker:

The original vote to leave the European Union was contradictory. But at its heart was a kick against the establishment by ordinary people who have suffered years of attacks on jobs, wages and services.


Corbyn held out against a second referendum because it would be viewed by the millions of Labour voters who supported Brexit as siding with the elite. Coming out in favour of the EU would help the racist far right pose as the only anti-establishment alternative.

This complicates things for me. I must admit that I’m tempted to acknowledge the truth of this statement and, on balance, declare myself a Leaver. How about you?

You can follow Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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