Only a sensitive, collaborative approach to Brexit can protect the British economy
It’s been nine months since the British people voted for the UK to withdraw from the EU.
The intervening period has been filled with speculation, uncertainty and some pretty graceless posturing. We’ve had the meaningless ‘Brexit means Brexit’, followed by worrying threats that the UK will ‘change our economic model’ if the government doesn’t get its way, and then the wholly irresponsible ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’.
Today, for better or worse, this stage of the process will come to an end. The government will trigger Article 50 by handing over a letter to European Council president Donald Tusk, and the two year negotiations will formally begin.
That letter will contain the UK’s opening position, and the other EU countries will finally have something to respond to. Within a few weeks, the European Parliament will have set out its vision for the negotiations, and national leaders in the European Council will have issued a set of guidelines for their negotiator, Michel Barnier, to follow in the months to come.
Up until now the Tories have been able to make meaningless assertions like ‘in our new strategic partnership we will be aiming for the freest possible trade’ without giving any indication of how they will actually achieve that. Such hazy thinking cannot continue. After today, they are going to have to back those assertions up with a lot of detail and a healthy dose of realism.
There are two ways this could go. The UK team could sit down opposite their EU counterparts in a spirit of constructive cooperation, prepared to negotiate in good faith and find an outcome that works for both sides. They could acknowledge the needs, desires and concerns of their European allies and use the triggering of Article 50 as an inflection point, at which they make clear they are moving away from the aggressive rhetoric of the last few months and towards a more conciliatory stage.
Or they could choose to double down on the pseudo-Victorian, arrogant posturing of recent months. They could continue to patronise Italians about Prosecco exports, insult Germans by making crass references to the Nazis and anger the French by threatening to undercut their economy.
They could keep acting as if it’s 1870, the sun never sets on the British Empire and ‘Johnny Foreigner’ will simply wilt under the pressure of the UK’s intellectual superiority.
If we go down the first route, there is a chance that we can — through tireless negotiation, detailed planning and hard-fought compromises — carve out a post-Brexit deal that protects the UK economy, British workers and citizens. It will be hard work, and require real intellectual and political dexterity, but it is possible.
The second route is the choice of charlatans and posers.
It is guaranteed to end in failure, and the ‘no deal’ scenario which the likes of Boris Johnson — through mendacity or incompetence — seems to think would be acceptable. It would be welcomed by some of the most hardline Eurosceptic Tories — a breakdown in negotiations that leads to the UK crashing out on the hardest possible terms, left to fend for itself.
That scenario might be feasible for multimillionaire cabinet ministers who have vast personal wealth to fall back on. But it would be appalling for ordinary Brits. As always, it would be working people on middle and low incomes who would bear the brunt of their political arrogance.
We must do all we can to encourage the government to pursue a constructive, collaborative approach to these negotiations. We must hold them to account at every turn.
In the nine months since the vote, the Tories have been arrogant, aggressive and insensitive in their rhetoric around Brexit. The triggering of Article 50 offers an opportunity to turn the page and start again.Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.