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The EU may have been far from perfect, but now we face a much riskier future

Brexiteers taking refuge in tub-thumping notions of Britain's regained 'greatness' are cold comfort for Rick Wilford. Remember the old saying: be careful what you wish for

Published 04/07/2016

Supporters during a pro-EU rally in Trafalgar Square in London. Photo: Ian West/PA Wire
Supporters during a pro-EU rally in Trafalgar Square in London. Photo: Ian West/PA Wire
Vote Leave campaigners celebrate referendum result
David Cameron
Rick Wilford

The outcome of the EU referendum has left me, like more than 16 million other UK citizens, reeling. From that you will deduce that, unlike a majority of my age group, I was/am a Remain voter - and unapologetically so.

This is not the place to rehearse the Remain argument, it's obviously too late to do so.

However, I can engage in some hand-wringing and cringe at the utter misguidedness of voting Leave, though I can take some consolation from the fact that majorities in Northern Ireland, Scotland and London were Remainers.

Let me explain. I don't, indeed never did, nurture a starry-eyed view of the EU, never believing that it exemplifies a smooth, well-oiled decision-making machine: few Remainers did, or do. Its institutions appear sclerotic, remote and, for many, unaccountable.

It is, moreover, under extreme economic pressure and harbours within its borders populist movements and parties bristling with raw, hyper-nationalist sentiment, racism and xenophobia.

Grappling with such problems is a formidable undertaking, as is the task of confronting security threats, whether home-grown or foreign-based.

That the EU could, indeed should, have been more agile in the face of such challenges is a fair criticism. Nevertheless, in order to manage, if not resolve, these challenges demands integrated and collective responses.

To put it at its simplest, there is strength in numbers in pursuing political and economic stability in an increasingly uncertain, globalised world - an uncertainty that has been magnified by the UK's decision to take the Brexit door.

Leaving the EU is not to "take back control", whatever that means, nor is it to assert sovereign independence. The UK was sovereign in the EU and will remain so now that we have left. The EU was/is not a sovereign entity, let alone a sovereign state.

Decisions made by the 28 member states were and are agreed through a process of accommodation and consensus among member governments, not the European Commission: where proposals were deemed inimical to the national interest by the UK Government, they could be - and were - vetoed.

The consensual approach to decision-making in the EU exemplifies values and behaviours that we prize in our own devolved institutions.

Moreover, the UK exerted enormous power and influence in the EU, often in concert with France and Germany, accepting its obligations to our advantage, not least in relation to the single market, the world's most extensive, tariff-free trading bloc.

The vote to leave the EU renders the UK ever more vulnerable to market forces over which it cannot exert control.

Moreover, it will deprive us of access to the single market unless, that is, the new UK Government endorses the free movement of people from within the EU, a policy that Brexiteers will find it impossible to accept.

So, while Leavers assert our sovereign independence, which we never lost, we now run the real risk of jeopardising our economic future, let alone the damage that will be wrought to our place in the world.

Have no doubt that the process of negotiating a trade deal with the forthcoming 27-member EU will take years and years. The two-year time frame that will begin when the new Government triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will focus exclusively on the terms of departure. Thereafter, and only then, negotiations to effect the terms of a new deal with the EU will begin: the UK does not have the capacity to do both at one and the same time.

So, we are in for an extremely long haul. And the longer it takes the more uncertain our position becomes, not least because markets, like nature, abhor a vacuum.

In the run-up to the referendum it seemed to me unquestionably clear that the attendant risks of Brexit far outweighed the mooted benefits espoused by its advocates. And, note, that many of the apparent commitments made by Brexiteers - ending the free movement of people, spending an extra £350m per week on the NHS, remaining within the single market - are now turning to ashes.

Persuaded by sane, rational and, dare I say it, academic appraisals of the attendant risks of leaving the EU, I opted for Remain, as did a majority of electors in Scotland and Northern Ireland. For them, like me, risk-aversion was a factor influencing my decision.

One aspect of the Brexit campaign that I found especially disturbing was its anti-intellectualism. This was epitomised by Michael Gove's ill-judged, lofty and risible dismissal of "experts". It is more than faintly ironic that these very experts will be drawn on by the new Government as it embarks on the tortuous process of withdrawal. And experts, from within the civil and diplomatic service, academia, the legal profession, the private, public and voluntary sectors, will be key players in the process of redrawing our relationships with the EU and the wider world.

Voting Remain on the grounds that it minimised risk suggests a primarily negative motive. However, it is not negative to be risk-averse: on the contrary it is both sensible and necessary.

In deciding to go it alone outwith the EU the UK is now exposed to a much riskier future. Had the vote gone the other way, the means of risk management at our disposal would have been far more robust.

Anyway, we are where we are. But, wait a moment, where exactly are we?

Let's start on the domestic party front. Currently, the Labour Party is in utter disarray over Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. Until that is resolved the country is deprived of an effectual Opposition.

Indeed, if he wins the impending contest a weak Opposition will contribute to our collective disadvantage. He has to go, preferably gracefully.

Meanwhile, the Tory Party had been contemplating whether to replace one old Etonian Bullingdon boy David Cameron (below) with another, Boris Johnson, but it now has to look elsewhere given Johnson's withdrawal from the leadership race.

Whoever emerges as the new Prime Minister has to unite the party and, more importantly, the country: it is a decision that will be made ultimately by members of the Conservative Party, who constitute a miserly 0.003% of the UK electorate.

Herein lies a genuine difficulty. While the winning Remain vote in Northern Ireland, that included majorities in four unionist constituencies, does not - despite Sinn Fein's calls for a border poll - imperil its constitutional status, the vote in Scotland does threaten the unity of the UK.

Though there has been much made of the possibility of the Scottish Parliament withholding its legislative consent to Westminster legislation to withdraw formally from the EU - a route also available to our own Assembly - even if it did so, UK parliamentary sovereignty will prevail. However, that would by no means end the matter.

The Scottish independence genie is already well and truly out of the bottle, as Nicola Sturgeon has made clear. Although Cameron has assured the Scots, the Welsh and us that our devolved leaders will be involved fully in the Brexit negotiations, the terms of EU withdrawal must satisfy the Executives in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Stormont as well as the English.

Leave voters in the north-east of England, the Midlands, the Lincolnshire Wolds, Cornwall or the shires bordering Wales will not look kindly on a UK Government perceived to benefit the devolved nations at their expense.

Here the pressure on the DUP in general - and Arlene Foster in particular - will be intense. As a Leave-voting First Minister she must ensure that the resources available to Northern Ireland post-Brexit will, at the very least, match those available from our existing membership of the EU. In fact, Northern Ireland's current status as a net beneficiary of EU membership will require enhanced monies from the UK Treasury as tariffs are imposed by the remaining 27 member states, including at the border with the south: and have no doubt, the border will be reactivated. The only issue is how hard that border will be.

In short, the UK is in a pickle. It is abundantly clear that the Leavers do not have a plan, not even a Baldrick-like cunning one. So, is there space for cautious optimism?

No: for me and 16 million others the case is not proven. Taking refuge in tub-thumping notions of Britain's regained "greatness" is cold comfort: none can gainsay the strategic, political, economic and constitutional uncertainties that confront the UK for the foreseeable future, including an increasingly protectionist USA. And don't expect the EU to do us any favours.

EU membership helped the UK to avert political and economic decline, whereas departure threatens a new downturn. Many may console themselves with the thought that we Brits always find a way, that we'll muddle through and all will be well in the end. Try as I might, I am not persuaded.

Anyway, when I'm asked "What did you do in the referendum?", I'll be able, unlike the majority of my age group, to answer my children and grandson with a guilt-free face.

I fear for them, that Brexit will prove to be a classic case of be careful what you wish for.

  • Dr Rick Wilford is professor of politics at the school of politics, international studies and philosophy at Queen's University, Belfast

Belfast Telegraph

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