I’m starting to wonder whether there is a remainer case to be made for a ‘hard Brexit’, for severing trade ties completely with the EU, rather than seeking to maintain regulatory alignment, or some type of associate membership of the single market and customs union.
Many remain voters – me included – still hope that the referendum result can be undone, by parliamentary process or referendum, so that the UK can stay in the European Union. As a fall back position, we tend to advocate a ‘soft Brexit’. But, without quacking about “vassal” status, it is worth questioning the value of this option. It would be like a slightly inferior version of what we have today, with no say in the rules governing trade and the development of the single market.
This means that those rules would over time work more and more against UK interests and in favour of those of the EU27 (for example, stipulating that financial institutions must be located within the Eurozone, or slapping ever higher tariffs on the medicines and engine parts that we export). This will not happen in every case, and when it does it will not be the result of malice but of simple self-interest – and the absence of a UK voice at the negotiating table. And every time it happens, the Brexit geek chorus will start up, rattling its chains, bemoaning that we are being penalised by evil and unaccountable bureaucrats, and making Faragist demands for “true Brexit”.
So, why not let the Johnsons, Foxes and Hannans have their hard Brexit, setting sail on the high seas of global commerce to seek our fortune? I personally think that this will be disastrous for the UK – culturally, economically and environmentally. But what do I know? It may be that hard Brexit will lead to a great renaissance of the UK as a prosperous, open and respected nation, and I hope I would have the good grace to be delighted as well as surprised if that was the result.
Alternatively, hard Brexit might lead to a short, sharp and shocking decline, rather than the gradual ebb of a soft Brexit. This might be succeeded by a Phoenix-like recovery, or the shock might precipitate a collective volte-face and desire to rejoin the EU. The terms might not be perfect, but I think the continent would welcome its prodigal home.
And that’s where the irony lies. Given the simmering resentment on both sides likely to result from soft Brexit, its main appeal lies in the ease with which we would be able to rejoin the EU, but perhaps makes that outcome less likely. A cleaner break would give us a clearer view of what we had left behind, but make it that much harder to rejoin. I don’t want to underplay the damage that might be done by a hard Brexit, but worry that the rule-taking halfway house of soft Brexit may just lead to a slower and more rancorous slide to a similar end-state.
All that said, however, "nobody knows anything" as screenwriter William Goldman wrote about the inability of studios to predict confidently which films will succeed and which will bomb at the box office. As we begin another year of bad-tempered Brexit wrangling, it’s a maxim worth bearing in mind.