At the weekend I joined over 100,000 other people marching for a ‘People's Vote’ in London. This marked the second anniversary of when Britain narrowly voted to leave the European Union. Negotiations to formally leave the EU have been ongoing for the last 15 months. As things currently stand, Britain will Brexit on 29 March 2019.
Forget soft or hard Brexit, neither seems likely to happen. There is hardly any sign that Britain is heading towards a soft Brexit, where Britain remains inside the Single Market and the Customs Union after Brexit. The House of Commons recently rejected the opportunity to stay within the European Economic Area (EEA). The Conservative Government appears reluctant to commit to any kind of customs union, especially since the Labour opposition now support ‘a customs union’. The linchpin of any soft Brexit is membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). However, there is no sign that either the government nor the opposition is considering EFTA membership, let alone actively putting together a formal application to re-join EFTA.
As for a hard Brexit, the EU is unlikely to grant a Brexit deal that allows for all of the current benefits with none of the costs. Tory Brexit fantasists who dream of a ‘Global Britain’ are living in a previous century. With the rise of right wing populists in central Europe from Italy to Austria and potentially even Germany; there is even less chance of Brussels conceding to the wishes of hard Brexiters. Added to this, the lucrative trade deals that were promised by hard Brexiters seem currently next to non-existent. Hard Brexit was always a delusional fantasy and as reality begins to dawn this is especially the case.
There are only three possible outcomes to the Brexit negotiations; No Brexit, Free Fall Brexit and Zombie Brexit.
A No Brexit scenario is where Britain doesn't leave the EU after all. It may be the case that after two years of negotiations, given the looming impact on the economy and businesses quitting the UK, that government ministers pull the plug on Brexit. It may also prove to be the case that due to a mixture of government incompetence and unrealistic expectations that the Brexit negotiations fall flat. Should the issue of the Northern Ireland border prove to be insurmountable, then the government could choose to abandon Brexit as the best way of maintaining peace on the island of Ireland.
There would be an obvious political cost to a government that has devoted itself to the project of Brexit. Right wing newspapers would be merciless in their attacks on the government. The Prime Minister may be forced to resign and the Conservative Party itself could fracture. The potential political chaos of a No Brexit scenario would be minuscule compared to the potential economic and diplomatic chaos caused by the next possible Brexit outcome.
Free Fall Brexit
Unlike with the No Brexit scenario, where Britain steps back from the cliff edge; this event is where we collectively jump off the cliff. This is when negotiations fall flat and come to nothing and we choose to Brexit regardless. No transition deal, no economic safety net, no protection for citizens' rights, no open border on the island of Ireland, no trade deal and no preparation for the loss of EU rules and regulations. In other words, Britain goes into free fall.
This could potentially be the biggest political crisis in modern British political history. The worst-case scenario would be like the Suez Crisis and the 2008 Financial Crisis rolled into one. This would leave lasting (and possibly permanent) damage to our economy, our living standards and our diplomatic relations around the world.
There is another potential fear attached to a Free Fall Brexit and that is the rise of political extremism. Far from undermining the hard right, a Free Fall Brexit could embolden them yet further. Take for example the rise of hate crimes that followed the Brexit vote in 2016. An uglier, more hateful and nationalistic form of politics could emerge if we collectively jump off a cliff edge.
The final possible outcome of Brexit is a Zombie Brexit. This is where Britain is kept in a perpetual limbo state many years after officially leaving the European Union. This is the fudge of a never-ending Brexit transition deal; where Britain is neither officially inside nor outside the Customs Union and the Single Market. Britain would be unable to strike trade deals with other countries and membership of EFTA would be impossible. Britain would be utterly powerless, both politically and economically; nothing more than a voiceless piece of flotsam and jetsam on the periphery of a European economic superpower.
The effect on the country would be a state of semi-permanent political and economic paralysis. Uncertainty for business would be rife and as a result Britain would be over-exposed to any future economic crisis. This Brexit of the living dead would achieve one unexpected outcome, which is managing to enrage A.C. Grayling, Anna Soubry and Jacob Rees-Mogg in equal measure. This zombie-like fudge of a Brexit would satisfy neither Remainers, nor soft Brexiters, nor hard Brexiters.
A People’s Vote: Our Last Hope?
As the Brexit deadline looms ever nearer, one of these outcomes seems extremely likely. None come without consequences, however the No Brexit scenario is by far the least damaging. There may however be one way for the government to limit the potential risks and that is to hold a ‘People's Vote’ in early 2019. Ironically this could offer the Tory government the only meaningful way of saving face when confronted with the potential calamity of Brexit. Should the Tories refuse to give the people the final say, then their electoral prospects look dire regardless of which outcome comes to pass. However, this is nothing compared to the lasting damage of a Zombie or Free Fall Brexit. By accident or design Brexit must be stopped. Britain's place in the 21st century depends upon it.