Brexit shows how politics often battles with economics and the law over having the last word. The British government’s decision to trigger Article 50 was politically expedient, but the courts had to tell them to share that with Parliament. That started a process which puts technicalities and defending the interests of the remaining members first. Trade comes second, and what the UK buys from them is worth just 3% of their combined GDP.
When it comes to the law, it has long been clear that the EU27 would stick to the treaties, especially the four indivisible freedoms. When it comes to economics, Britain’s exports will need to remain subject to EU regulations, just as key sectors will continue to use migrants. Politics is going to have to accommodate that. These were referendum battlegrounds and voters have only been sporadically softened up to make these options more acceptable.
None of this would matter if the European Court ends up ruling that the UK can withdraw its withdrawal without permission from the rest of the EU, but that would create obvious different risks for the UK government. These include losing its political cover of being able to blame the EU for a bad deal given it could remain instead.
Putting all other politics to one side, the reality is that Brexit will happen and it will require the original UK lines on our future EU relationship to become less red. This would not only help the economy. After the Great Repeal Bill changing EU legislation could completely occupy Parliament if the UK recreates every supervisory regime that removes barriers across goods and services, and even beyond the EU. Regulations (instead of Acts) require less work but Constitutional law limits their use. Thus, keeping most current EU law will allow more legislative election promises to be fulfilled. The benefits of that should outweigh the costs given that power relies on having the capacity to deliver, so there are consequences if policy is stalled, especially if economic conditions also impact on spending commitments (and household incomes). While a government majority after June should get the EU withdrawal agreement through Parliament, without a people’s vote, it will matter less in 2022 once the UK has done the deal and more focus is back on Westminster.
Much could depend on what this week’s manifestos say exactly but also on who the voters are. The winning party will not be relying solely on its traditional support and that means it will have to manage conflicting priorities.
More importantly, while politics is the art of influencing people, people’s choices are not always rational. That is an eventuality that economics and the law are better designed to deal with, and it is when they can help politics out. That balanced (if not harmonious) relationship between the three will be needed a lot over the course of Brexit, instead of just more fighting talk.
The writer is a former EU policy advisor to the UK Government and also chaired the EU Employment Committee.