I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Perhaps I’ve read too much Tony Blair, and absorbed the idea that there’s always a ‘third way’ somewhere. I think there is a form of Brexit that gives both Leavers and Remainers something that they want. I call it Medium Brexit.
Medium Brexit might also be called ‘hard in theory, soft in practice’ Brexit, but that’s a bit wordy. It involves all the trappings of hard Brexit – leaving the Single Market and Customs Union, removing the UK from ECJ jurisdiction and ending free movement of people into the UK from the (rest of the) EU.
At the same time, it also involves using the UK’s new-found independence judiciously. Having the right to ban all EU citizens from coming to work in the UK, but using it sensibly. Having the right to deviate substantially from EU regulations, but doing so only where it truly offers benefits that outweigh the costs – including the costs of increased barriers to entry to the EU market, and the costs of establishing a hard border on the island of Ireland. No longer being subject to ECJ oversight, but retaining existing jurisprudence and giving the Supreme Court the right to draw on ECJ judgements in determining its own stance.
Medium Brexit gives the Leavers much of what they want. Not necessarily a dramatic change in policy, but a repatriation of previously pooled sovereignty. Parliament would have the right to copy or to ignore new EU regulations. The Courts would have the right to emulate or set aside ECJ decisions. Ministers would have the right to admit or to exclude EU workers, to direct them towards sectors with specific needs – like agriculture, science, finance and healthcare – and to deny them whatever benefits they choose, but would not be obliged to do anything unless they thought it best for the British economy and for British society.
Medium Brexit also offers Remainers some of what they want. In particular, it leaves considerable room for regulatory alignment with the EU, avoiding a race to the bottom in areas like workers’ rights and environmental protections, and allowing European co-operation in areas currently working well, like financial and medical regulation. It would allow for movement between the UK and the EU – not unfettered movement, but not the travel bans and mass deportations of some nightmare scenarios. It would minimize – again, not necessarily eliminate, but perhaps reduce to a tolerable level – the need for border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Theresa May’s biggest mistake was treating the question of what Brexit should mean as one she should answer alone. She should have consulted, openly, widely and for as long as it took to thrash out a compromise vision. Had she done so, we might have wound up with something that looks like Medium Brexit. Hard in terms of sovereignty, soft in terms of divergence. Not perfect, by anyone’s criteria. But perhaps acceptable to a majority – unlike anything May has come up with alone.