Nearly three years after Britain’s European divorce, the Conservative Party is not ready to take the consequences. But the prime minister wants visitation rights.
The phase of slamming doors and empty threats shouted into Brussels letterboxes is over. Rishi Sunak understands that his only hope for political survival lies in economic recovery, for that he needs a functional relationship with the EU. But the compromise in Brussels poisons the mood of conservative MPs, making political survival more difficult.
It is an impossible conundrum because the facts about Britain’s reliance on the single market offend the hallowed core of Brexit. This is why Eurosceptic extremists reacted angrily to reports that senior government figures were proposing a “Swiss-style” deal with the EU.
The terminology is useless. The Swiss also don’t like having a Swiss-style relationship with the EU. It’s a mess of multiple treatises. The main transaction is access to the single market, in exchange for which Switzerland pays into the European budget, while complying with regulatory dictates and accepting the free movement of people – the three unforgivable curses of submission to Brussels in the Eurosceptic tradition.
Sunak’s government wants something more nebulous that could ease friction in trade, but on terms that can’t be described as a betrayal of Brexit. Keir Starmer wants the same thing, not out of ideological conviction but in the belief that the safest profile Labor can have in any European debate is a low profile, on the sidelines of Tory dysfunction.
It may be a political expedient, but it makes the opposition complicit in Brexit’s most persistent and pernicious myth: to deny the imbalance of power between Britain and a bloc of 27 countries at its doorstep.
Ignorance or willful misrepresentation of the single market was the leitmotif of a threefold fallacy in the economic case of leaving the EU. First, Europe has been dismissed as the moron of the sclerotic and declining global economy. The real prize was therefore trade agreements with more distant emerging powers. Secondly, Britain would still not lose the benefits of the single market, as EU businesses would lobby to maintain access for UK consumers. Third, the cost of regulatory compliance with EU rules outweighed any gains from membership.
Sunak mentioned all three in an article explaining his decision to vote leave in 2016. Europe’s share in the global economy was shrinking compared to other continents, he explained. “Canada, South Korea, South Africa and all trade freely with Europe without giving up their independence. As one of Europe’s biggest customers, I see no sensible reason why we couldn’t reach a similar deal.” Furthermore, “excessive bureaucracy” has stifled all British businesses, even those that do not export to the continent.
It is clear from these arguments that Sunak’s understanding of the single market was limited to the repertoire of dogmatic ditties that a young, energetic Tory learns to sing if he is to be selected as a parliamentary candidate in a safe seat. Ministerial colleagues and Treasury officials say his understanding of the issue was later enriched by the experience of serving as chancellor. At that point, Brexit was a fait accompli.
As a notorious spreadsheet nerd, Sunak cannot ignore data showing exclusion from EU markets as a drag on Britain’s economic performance. Since he and his clerk used the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts as the basis for the fiscal consolidation announced in last week’s fall filing, it is reasonable to assume that both also accept the OBR’s conclusion, released the same day, that Brexit has had “a significant negative impact on UK trade”. Jeremy Hunt does not admit the link in public, preferring to blame Russia and the legacy of the pandemic for Britain’s economic woes. These are factors, but the OECD also predicts the UK will have a longer and deeper recession than any other G7 country, none of which have chosen to sabotage their closest trading partnership.
Frontal acknowledgment of this fact is taboo, so it comes out laterally from the government. Hence last weekend’s rumor of a Swiss pivot in the direction of travel. But any hint of heresy arouses the probing zeal of Conservative MPs, who demand a public vote of mercy. “I believe in Brexit,” Sunak said on Monday, insisting that under his leadership there would be no alignment with EU rules. That’s because “normative freedom” is the key that will unlock the benefits of empowerment from Brussels that autonomy in trade deals has mysteriously failed to provide.
This – the third mistake – is the strongest pillar of the Eurosceptic faith, and the one to which Sunak clings the most. As a leadership candidate over the summer, he promised to revise or repeal 2,400 legacy EU laws, which were incorporated into UK statute after Brexit, and to do so within 100 days of taking office. (A video promoting the engagement showed Sunak feeding papers into a shredder to the tune of Ode to Joy.) It was a wildly implausible engagement, now reasonably abandoned. The only way to accomplish the task would be to devote the majority of Whitehall to sifting through EU laws full time, or scraping them without even trying to figure out what they do and whether they might be useful or popular.
Liz Truss’ version of the same bill is a bill already presented to the Commons, which sets a target for December 2023 and includes a “stop clause” to automatically vaporize any EU rules that have not been revised in time. (There is an option to extend the deadline.) Unions and NGOs fear the incineration of social and environmental protections in an ideological fire. Companies say they don’t need or want a major regulatory upheaval, which only adds to uncertainty and discourages investment. There are indications that the government is heeding that complaint and preparing to relax the bill.
The monomaniac obsession with eliminating the legacy of Brussels bureaucracy threatens to stifle growth more than the regulation itself, much of which existed to harmonize rules so that British goods could move unhindered across the continent. Replacing EU standards with British ones is neither a domestic liberation nor a major magnet for international investment, since anyone trading in either jurisdiction would have to comply with both sets of rules. It matters little whether the UK regime is theoretically more competitive (or simply permissive). There is no escaping the gravitational field of the single market.
The pragmatic side of the prime minister could push him to postpone lighting the bonfire of bureaucracy. But he doesn’t dare to turn off the dream. It is what keeps Brexit supporters warm in delusion as the cold economic winds blow ever harder in their faces. This is more comfort than we all have.
Nothing remains of the Brexit case that Sunak himself once made. He says he still believes, even though his tone sounds more pleading than passionate – an affirmation of faith from one who cannot ignore the evidence; a leader separated from any good political option, who tries not to be completely alien to reality while living far from the facts.