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Europe is enjoying the Brexit chaos – up to a point

June 29, 2016

I have just spent a couple of days in Brussels, not at the European Summit but at an event for fund managers and financial institutions, but it was enough to add a different perspective to the post-Brexit chaos.

David Cameron1

Cameron: held in contempt

Most striking was the utter contempt in which they hold David Cameron, veering towards bitter anger. They blame him for putting party advantage before the country’s interests in ever holding the referendum and then pour scorn on his campaign to persuade us to vote Remain. As to walking away from the mess he created they just see that as totally irresponsible.

Many Belgians – possibly the most pro-EU nationals as a group – followed the campaign closely and felt the Remain campaign was almost as dishonest as the Leave campaign, not talking about the benefits of EU membership, showing where EU money was spent and being honest about free movement and the need for immigration in a developed, growing economy like the UK.

They also cannot believe that the Leave campaign is clueless about what to do now it has won.

The real surprise was the unspoken welcome for the chaos that has gripped the UK politics since the referendum. They see this as a warning to other governments about what might happen if they bow to public opinion and hold similar votes. This is partly why the SNP MEP yesterday was given such a rapturous reception in the European Parliament when he pleaded with Europe not to abandon Scotland. They want to encourage the chaos and the profoundly challenging consequences of Brexit.

However, they don’t want it to go on for long. They are frightened of the consequences of that uncertainty. They want to know what Brexit really looks like, they – financial institutions – want to make major decisions about how they will trade across borders in the future and do not want the contagion of disillusionment with the EU to spread across Europe. Almost everybody wants the negotiations to start as soon as possible.

This is essential. There are no significant benefits for waiting before starting the Article 50 process. Three million people may have signed a petition asking for the referendum to be re-run under different rules but I still believe that would be wrong.

You cannot spit in the faces of 17m people who voted to Leave and expect there not to be a backlash. To go down that route would risk UKIP sweeping the pro-Leave parts of the country in a General Election with the prospect of a right wing Tory/UKIP coalition at the end of it. It would also deepen all those bitter wounds we inflicted on ourselves in the referendum and that are going to take such a long time to heal.

And what would a second referendum clarify? We are no nearer knowing what Brexit would really look like than a week ago.

The only sensible course is to get on with it and start the Article 50 process. It is what should happen at the end of that process that we should focus on.

It will take at least two years so we will be into early 2019 before anything could actually happen. That is the moment to pause and turn to the British people once again, not in a referendum but in a General Election. Parties can then campaign on the reality of Brexit – and probably a  much changed European Union too. That would be a much more honest way of moving forward.

Those who want to remain in the EU could then look Leave voters in the eye and say “Look, we listened, we have negotiated the best deal for what you wanted. Now you have seen it do you still want to go ahead?”. If they do then they will vote for a Johnson-led Tory party or UKIP. If they don’t then the Liberal Democrats, Greens and the SNP would be their options. I have no idea what the Labour Party might stand for by then, except having proved it is chronically unfit to govern.

Playing that longer game might also prevent the break-up of the United Kingdom.

It is the only sensible game in town.



  1. Nick Starling permalink


    Surely the problem with Article 50 is that it is a one way process. There is no choice at the end of it: you are out in 2 years. You can’t change your mind. So the UK could invoke it, and the rest of the EU could do nothing and let us go. Unlikely, but nevertheless embarking on a process where you don’t know what the outcome is reckless. All the evidence is that the Leavers, backpedalling wildly, want to retain substantial access to the single market. They might not get it. In any negotiation where there is a clause like that, you do all the negotiations first, reach agreement, and then press it.

    So it really is a nuclear button, designed precisely so that countries do not leave. And if a new PM pressed it, the markets would go into meltdown because it would be the real thing. The Remainers were absolutely right in their predictions there.

    I find it a bit of an irony that a Scottish MEP, committed to break up one union, is cheered to the rafters in defence of another.



    • Why can’t we pause at the end of the Article 50 negotiations? This is a process without precedent so there must be scope for adopting a pragmatic approach, especially if the EU still sees a value in retaining the UK as a member. Without the Article 50 process the ridiculous arguments about whether you can remain in the single market without free movement will go unresolved along with many other issues. We have just been through a referendum campaign where truth and certainty seemed to be conspicuous by their absence so we need clarity if the issue is to be re-presented to the British people.


  2. The word that stands out to me is “intention”. I can’t see anything in the actually wording that says once you start you can’t pause or decide to change your “intention”. And it does contain provisions for extending the process and for ratification of the agreement at the end of it. It is far from clear to me that my option isn’t possible. We’ll have lawyers arguing every which way over the next few months like they usually do – pays your money and takes your choice.


    • Nick Starling permalink

      That is a risky strategy. But whatever the case, it puts the advantage massively in the hands of the EU. All they need to do is put forward something so unpalatable that it is clearly unacceptable to the UK. They might then relent and let us stay. But I return to my previous point: entering a negotiation without any idea of the outcome is a mug’s game. What I hope is happening is behind the scenes discussions as to what might be delivered. It is Merkel and Hollande who can deliver that. Juncker and MEPs are irrelevant.


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