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A public policy blog from AEI
Towards an Imperfect Union: A Conservative Case for the EU
The UK’s former foreign secretary Boris Johnson was right to note in his resignation letter that “the Brexit dream [was] dying.” But that is not Prime Minister Theresa May’s nor Brussels’ fault — nor is it a problem of “needless self-doubt,” as he put it. In reality, the dream of a great global future that supposedly waited just around the corner was always just that: a dream. The resignations of leading Brexiteers in the Cabinet, including the Secretary for Exiting the EU, David Davis, are acknowledgments that unlike referendum promises, the actual Brexit will be tedious and unrewarding.
Shambolic as her leadership seems at times, Theresa May is an unsung Sisyphean hero of the story. Her job is to reconcile the irreconcilable: to give Westminster flexibility on trade and domestic regulation and ensure that new economic barriers are not erected between the UK and the EU; leave the single market to limit migration from the EU, yet somehow retain economic access to it; and to “retake control” of the UK’s border while preventing a hard border from emerging in Northern Ireland, which could compromise the peace process.
The “Chequers Agreement,” which Mrs. May’s Cabinet reached on Friday, (with Messrs. Johnson and Davis present) was as good an attempt to square the circle as any — even if it is hard to see in what ways its outcome would improve upon the status quo of the UK’s EU membership.
Neither is it clear with what reaction the proposal will be met in Brussels. The bloc’s negotiators, as well as governments of France and Germany, have been adamant, perhaps unreasonably so, about the indivisibility of the four freedoms of the single market: of movement of goods, services, capital, and labor. What makes the UK’s position so difficult is that it is trying to do the exact opposite and disentangle them. A realistic choice facing the UK over the next decade is between some form of membership in the single market, if not the EU, and a looser association provided by a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement, with the potential for economic disruption.
Mr. Johnson surely knew that his famous promise of having the cake and eating it was unworkable. Unsurprisingly, neither he nor any other hardline Leaver has proposed an alternative plan to the inherently unsatisfying Chequers Agreement. As Anne Applebaum notes in her excellent column, there just isn’t one:
Or, to be precise, there isn’t one that satisfies them, the Europeans, British business and British workers. There isn’t one that corresponds to the ludicrous promises they made. They cannot come up with something that, on the one hand, avoids any jurisdiction of European courts of any kind; avoids any payments into a European budget; avoids all membership in a European customs union and allows Britain to do trade deals with other countries; while, at the same time, keeps supply chains running smoothly; keeps the Irish border open; preserves tariff-free trade with Europe; and imposes no costs on anybody — and all of this by next October in order to leave the following March. It just cannot be done.
Of course, if the UK government decides to leave the EU without an agreement and sever all their ties to the continent, it can be done. But such an act of “retaking control” would come at a steep cost for the UK’s and the EU’s economies, for Western political unity, as well as for the UK’s clout in Europe and the world, not to speak of falling short of the lofty promises that British voters were given by Mr. Johnson and his ilk ahead of the referendum. One can only hope that such Brexiteers understand that their own political careers would not be served pushing the UK off that cliff in March next year and that they will instead let Mrs. May get on with her Sisyphean, unsatisfying task until a moment when the country is ready to move on.
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