One month on from June 23: look to future

by Hugo Dixon | 23.07.2016

One month on from the Brexit vote, many of us who wanted to stay in the EU are still bewildered, angry or bereft. There is a temptation either to sink into despair and do nothing or to spend our energies fighting lost battles.

It would be better to be forward looking and constructive. We should minimise the damage of Brexit vote – in particular, striving to keep our country open and united – while hoping to stay in the EU if the people’s will changes.

Push for soft Brexit

In the Brexit negotiations, we should aim for a soft Brexit, not a hard one. This means maximising four things:

  • Access to the single market so our economy isn’t too badly hit
  • Free movement so our young people, in particular, have opportunities to live, work and travel abroad
  • Cooperation with the EU on solving cross border problems such as terrorism, the turmoil in the Middle East and north Africa, and climate change
  • Influence in the EU, so we don’t go from a policy maker to a policy taker.

Such an outcome would be inferior to staying in the EU. It will also be hard to achieve, in part because many Brexiteers don’t want them – including UKIP, large chunks of the Conservative party, and the press.

On the other hand, Theresa May would prefer a soft Brexit. The new prime minister has developed good initial relations with both Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande in meetings this week.

Meanwhile, the new home secretary, Amber Rudd, has effectively abandoned David Cameron’s foolish target of cutting net migration to the tens of thousands. This raises the possibility that the government might settle for modest changes to free movement which, in turn, could open the way to retaining goodish access to the single market.

What’s more, Boris Johnson hasn’t just backed Rudd’s position on the migration target. The new foreign secretary is also keen to maintain Britain’s influence both in the EU and further afield.

Repairing damage at home

But we don’t just have to negotiate a good Brexit deal. We need to repair the damage at home that has been exposed and exacerbated by the referendum.

One priority, mentioned by May in her first speech outside Downing Street, is to share the fruits of progress so people don’t get left behind by new technology and globalisation. The howl of anguish from these people was probably the main reason that Britain voted to leave. In particular, we need to make migration work for all – in part by channelling resources to those communities facing the biggest strain on their health services and schools. Merely quitting the EU won’t solve these problems.

Another priority is to combat the Trumpification of our political life. The campaign saw lies and exaggerations on both sides of the battle – though those of the Leave camp were more egregious. If we don’t stand up for honest politics and punish those who mislead the electorate, we will find that politicians will engage in an arms’ race of spin and deception that will pollute our democracy.

We also need to unite our country. We need to keep Scotland in the union, prevent a hard border being introduced between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and fight mounting racial abuse.

Hoping to stay in the EU

While we should invest our energy in mitigating the damage of Brexit, there is nothing to stop us also hoping to stay in the EU. Even though that possibility currently looks slim, some Leavers may change their minds as it becomes apparent that they were lied to and that the economy is suffering. But we must not hope for economic hardship, or seek to overturn the referendum result without a new mandate from the people.

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    There are, though, two reasonable things to push for. First, the government should secure parliament’s approval on its Brexit negotiating position before triggering formal divorce talks. Given that the Leave camp refused to spell out what Brexit meant during the campaign, it is vital that our elected representatives help define it. Pressing the Article 50 button without doing so would also be constitutional vandalism. It may even be illegal.

    Although the government doesn’t accept this point, it has said it won’t invoke Article 50 until the legal arguments have been heard. It has also made clear that it will consult parliament, though it hasn’t spelt out the form of that consultation yet.

    Second, there should be a referendum on the Brexit terms once they have been negotiated. Again, this is because the Leave camp refused to say what Brexit meant and promised things that were almost certainly undeliverable. The British people should therefore be asked whether they still want to leave once they see exactly what is on offer. This, too, may be legally required.

    But we should not invest our hope in legal arguments. Whatever the courts decide, there is a strong democratic argument for parliament to authorise the triggering of Article 50 and for the people to approve the eventual Brexit terms.

    But that doesn’t mean there’s much chance of staying in the EU. Even if we had a referendum on the divorce terms, we could easily lose it – especially if we don’t learn the lessons of our last defeat.

    One month on, we have a lot to do.

    Edited by Rachel Franklin