“Brexit means Brexit”.
Other than causing quite a stir, the phrase coined by the newly appointed Prime Minister Theresa May back in July last year also proved to be one of those long-lasting memes – we still scratch our head over what it really means but we love to repeat it.
After such an enigmatic opening gambit, parties and civil society across the political spectrum provided their own interpretation and tried to piece together possible scenarios. The terms “soft” and “hard” Brexit are now used to conjure up two potential outcomes after Britain leaves the EU and are becoming increasingly charged as the general elections approach.
A ‘soft Brexit’ scenario sees the UK remaining very close to the EU and a member of the single market, which still regulates our trade relationship with the other 27 countries of the bloc. Within the single market, countries can trade freely under the so-called ‘four freedoms’, of movement of goods, capital, services and people.
One problem is that in order to keep its membership of the single market, Britain should also comply with the four-freedoms and keep its borders open. This would not sit well with the many Leave voters who chose to give up on the perks of the EU membership for the sake of reducing net migration, possibly to the “tens of thousands” as May promised during her time as Home Secretary (most recent estimates indicate about 273,000).
While Theresa May remains clear that the UK will seek a clean break from the Union, the Labour Party is campaigning for a soft Brexit, where the country negotiates preferential access to the single market, perhaps keeping some sort of porous border with the EU.
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer spoke against “a reckless Tory Brexit” and set out the party’s alternative for Brexit, replacing the Great Repeal Bill issued by May with a bill more reflective of the need to protect workers’ rights and the perks of EU membership. He agrees though that the country, even in this “soft” scenario, would need to take back control of immigration to reflect voters’ choice. Specifically, he said that freedom of movement could continue as long as migrants have a job to come to when moving to the UK.
However, the EU sets out a very specific definition of freedom of movement which contrast with Starmer’s creative interpretation:
Will the EU accept such a change? All signs point to no.
EU Council president Donald Tusk made it very clear what the bloc’s stance will be throughout the negotiation process:
“The brutal truth is that Brexit will be a loss for all of us. There will be no cakes on the table, for anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar. If you ask me if there is an alternative to this bad scenario, I will tell you that yes, there is. And I think it is useless to speculate about soft Brexit because all the reasons I mentioned. […] In my opinion, the only real alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit”
The latest Brexit guidelines approved unanimously by the EU leaders on April 29 also reiterate that preferential access to the single market is uncompromisingly tied to the four freedoms and there can be no cherry picking.
As the EU keeps steady on the only admissible ‘quality’ of a British exit, the debate over soft or hard Brexit boils down to an election token deployed to gain the favours of the widest possible voter base.
But no matter the makeup of the next government, it’s negotiators from both sides that will decide the fate of the UK. Once the talks are underway, party politics will be almost irrelevant.
For insight on what Brexit will really look like in 2019 we should be watching continental Europe and the political games taking place in Brussels rather than London.