Thinking and planning ahead in UK-EU relations

As someone who’s just passed the 8th anniversary of his Brexit-related podcast (do sign up, it’s gripping), I feel I’m well-placed to consider the issue in the longer run of UK-EU relations.

I also feel broadly justified in summing up UK policy on the matter throughout the post-war period as “errrm”.

There’ a lot of reacting, not much proacting [?] and plenty of this:

As such, for a long time now my main question about Brexit has been: “what next?”

It was evident even before the 2016 referendum that it was not really going to be an engaged and thoughtful debate about the UK’s role in the world or the purpose of any particular form of relationship with the EU. It was a bun fight.

The lack of planning by either the government or the Leave campaigners for the eventuality of a Leave win meant 2016-17 was another bun fight over owning that result to advance agendas, most of which had nothing to do with UK-EU relations per se.

The horrors of 2017-19 and the fighting of many battles in Parliament stemmed from the profound lack of consensus (or even majority) in all this.

The runctions over the Northern Ireland Protocol that ran from 2020 have only continued to obscure the wider issue of what to do in the broader sense.

So I’m always on the look-out for people with ideas.

The most satisfying pieces have been those that focus on process. Anton Spisak’s work is a good example of this, as the recent Lords European Affairs Committee report (and not because I get quoted). Such pieces are at least as important as overviews of policy areas, which might set out opportunities, but not logics.

With all this in mind, I’ve been discovering something a bit different again: what we’ll call (because others call it that) the O’Malley Pivot.

For those who know about it, this might be point where you tut and note that the first part of this plan is shutting up about it. To which I’d make the rejoinder that a free Substack feed isn’t the place you put things you actually want to stay secret.

In essence, O’Malley argues that Labour should be left to be quiet about ‘Europe’ until they win the next general election, whereupon they form an independent commission to consider future relations and then sell the result as ‘actually getting Brexit done’, even as you end up much closer to a Norwegian model of relations. Sidestep the politicking, reach across the aisle, assume most people aren’t too bothered, especially if you can rebrand Freedom of Movement of people.

In its defence, it’s not the worst idea I’ve seen, by some distance. There’s no will to power, no heroic assumptions, no breaking of international law.

Certainly, if such a commission where to occur, I’d be happy to try and make a contribution to it.

But still, we come back to the questions of intent and legitimacy.

A commission of the great and the good [insert any punchline you like here] might be able to take a longer view, but any relations with the EU necessarily require a set of understandings about the UK itself and what it wants to achieve.

Maybe that’s about being a global force for good, or a major trading partner, but what if that leads you to seeking EU membership again? You might be able to revisit what Leaving looks like, but to revisit Leaving itself is another matter.

Even if you don’t arrive at a rejoining position, the technocracy of a commission and its attendant obfuscations about terminology are still problematic. Remember that one of the big drivers of euroscepticism across Europe is the sense of a lack of connection with the EU as a system. The assumptions of the permissive consensus don’t stand up any more, as was seen so often during the referendum.

None of which is to say that there isn’t a need to avoid falling into a cul-de-sac of European policy, where no-one is willing to expend the political capital needed to arrive at a policy that is anything other than least-offensive.

So process does matter. It needs all relevant parties to try to treat with each other openly and constructively, trying to take people along with them rather than dropping a little gift on their laps. And it means not prejudging the outcome, but accepting that a fair process is more likely to produce a fair result.

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