There are a great many reasons why politicians should get real about the EU, the single market and the avoidable damage foisted on a widely misled public about a golden future in a mythical sovereign Brexit wonderland. They could start by respecting the evidence and own up to the fact that such a Brexit was never, and can never be, realisable. Is anyone honest enough to extinguish the bonfire of lies?
The sovereignty myth
Brexit is grossly dishonest. The pretence that everything would be fab if we left the EU ignored the most basic political and economic facts of life. All ‘sovereign’ states in the world are economically and politically linked, with the arguable exception of North Korea. No state is ‘sovereign’ or fully autonomous in the way that deceitful politicians suggested the UK could be once freed from the alleged ‘meddling’ of the EU.
States trade and interact with each other for mutual benefit. This applies from defence cooperation to sport and cultural exchanges. Every link relies on a willingness to adapt, accommodate different interests, negotiate and, thereby, recognise that in the real world, full autonomy and independence are neither desirable nor attainable.
It makes no more sense for Sheffield to proclaim itself an independent, sovereign state in Great Britain than it does for the UK to deny that it needs the closest possible relationship with the EU. In the EU, we were sovereign and had chosen to make laws together. We had a say over what happened. Now we have to ‘suck it up’.
All the evidence points to the dangerously destructive impact of pursuing mythical sovereignty regardless of the economy crashing around us.
Internationally our influence is negligible. Even at home, we can’t just assume that our government will behave fairly, democratically and accountably when we can see the power of our institutions to uphold our interests being eroded. We can’t rely on the fundamental rights and guarantees we had in the EU to guard against abuses of power. Our MPs now have less control over our government than the EU’s MEPs do over all the EU’s ministers representing national governments in the Council of Ministers. So much for sovereignty. How did it come to this?
Going it alone
Going it alone – as the Brexiter government decides the UK will do – flies in the face of economic wisdom and political reality. It is like saying that sovereignty is the key to prosperity. It’s like pretending that if Sheffield isolated itself from its nearest market – a future-looking England – it would prosper, attract investment and the brightest minds. It could safely ditch British laws and values. It could use its newfound ‘sovereignty’ to lower standards and safety requirements, create a hostile environment to deter English ‘migrants’ from staying, and overlook the fact that its commerce, public services and jobs thrived thanks to them and people being able to trade and travel freely, to and fro, outside, as well as inside, the city’s boundaries.
Yet that is precisely what we Brits face cut off by our government from the single market. No longer can we up sticks and go and work and live in any EU country whenever we like, for as long as we like, accessing healthcare, jobs and social welfare and having our professional and trade qualifications recognised on the same basis as the locals. We are no longer entitled to benefit from being ‘EU citizens’ who can and do have these benefits.
Now we have to join a separate queue to fly there and, by the end of the year, will have to buy visas. That is unless, like a very large proportion of MPs, we can claim EU citizenship on the basis of Irish heritage, for example.
A bonfire of our EU benefits, rights and protections
British kids from all socio-economic groups no longer have access to the kind of social and educational funds that gave them the opportunity to go to EU colleges and universities for part of their study time. The UK benefited disproportionately from the Erasmus+ programmes funding education and training, and the replacement UK Turing scheme hasn’t matched the funds and opportunities we have now lost. Adults no longer benefit from wide-ranging community and wellbeing courses funded by the EU.
Environmental standards have been put on the bonfire of REUL (retained EU law revocation and reform bill), along with our working conditions, maternity rights and right to protest. After all – to be sovereign, the government insisted the UK ditched the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (including workers’ rights), that previous UK governments had helped create. We now have fewer rights and protections than the Irish and other EU citizens living here.
Regions have seen investment and development funding cut and re-directed to government seats regardless of need. The idea that funds should be allocated based on need, not politics, was something the EU and UK insisted on to stop such sweeteners depriving areas in decline of desperately needed support.
It’s puzzling why politicians keep pretending that Brexit could work. The evidence of it being a disaster for business and us as individuals is all around us. We are pitied in Europe. We are the example of what not to do. Public opinion in Europe is increasingly pro-EU. None of the states envies us. The media deplore our destructive, ‘bitter’ future. Politicians reel off what’s lost by not working together. Are we still persuaded by mealy-mouthed politicians dismissing and misrepresenting the facts?
Why is the EU enthused by the idea of the single market’s 50th birthday in 2043, and by doing even more together? The costs of ‘non-Europe’, of not doing things collectively, are publicised regularly in highly critical but constructive reports designed to inform better policymaking. These range from energy, Covid, robots and AI, migration, crime, and digital transformation, to “mainland Europe’s stairway to space”, and enabling society’s potential. All future looking. All things we could do better together than alone.
Benefits of the single market
And that’s the point of the single market. It was set up to overcome opportunities lost by adhering to a ‘non-Europe’ of sovereign independent states. The aim was to make it as easy for people to cross borders and trade within a defined European area as it was for them to do so within their own country. It is estimated that the single market has added between 8% and 9% to EU gross domestic product. With 447 million consumers and 23 million companies.
Governments wanted to realise economies of scale together to boost prosperity and Europe’s international competitiveness. So they created an external trade border around the perimeter of the EU’s states and removed internal borders inside it through the ambitious project known as the four freedoms of movement: of goods, services, persons and capital. It demanded patience and imagination on the part of leaders.
They agreed that Europe was not just there for business but there for everyone to enjoy on an equal basis, and created EU passports, education and cultural initiatives, removing as many barriers as possible, including expensive roaming charges which we now face.
The single market obliges everyone to make and implement laws and rules by consensus, compromise and negotiation. That means playing by the same rules – approved by the European parliament – and penalising those who don’t. The UK was never forced to adopt legislation that it did not accept, and chose to allow Northern Ireland to retain access to the single market. It’s done better than the rest of the UK, especially over the past two years. So what is it about compromise and playing by the same rules that our government fears?
The big fat blame game?
Taking the UK out of the EU was never going to work. Maybe it was never supposed to. Perhaps Brexit was just a fad, thoughtlessly grasped and depriving us of opportunities the EU works to make happen. It did not have to be like this. The UK chose not to retain access to the single market. We could now be celebrating its 30th birthday. Instead, we have a gaslighting government still pretending Brexit can work.
Politicians used the EU as a convenient scapegoat for their shortcomings. Our experience outside the single market has shown us all that blaming us for Brexit’s abject and inevitable failure is down to them. And them alone. Will anyone extinguish the bonfire of our rights and opportunities lit by governments bent on Brexit?