On 31 January, the UK will leave the EU. A transitional arrangement will then kick in for the rest of 2020, during which time very little practically will change, but during which time a trade deal which untangles over 40 years of complex relationships must be negotiated and ratified by all 28 parliaments across the existing EU – 29 if you want to separate out the 2 Belgian institutions that must approve it. It is likely that this will not be accomplished in the time set, meaning more negotiations and cliff edges to negotiate.
The question not asked during the election campaign by anyone in the media is what will that trade agreement look like – a question which must be predicated by what trade does the UK envisage doing?
Added to which, the medium term repercussions for the union of the United Kingdom also look terminal.
The imposition of a border down the Irish Sea, despite the protestations of Boris Johnson (apparently ignoring the trivial details of the agreement he himself had signed), together with the election of a majority on nationalist MPs in Northern Ireland for the first time, would indicate that the mood in the province is changing. I suspect the clamour for a border poll and the reunification of Ireland will grow. This is likely to be because of the new conditions on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland while trade between the north and south of the island will remain relatively unfettered.
Meanwhile, in Scotland the SNP’s resurgence and modest growth in support for independence presages a separation of Scotland from the Union. Once again the Scots are governed by a Government they rejected implementing a core policy which they rejected even more strongly. I think a referendum, even one done without the approval of Westminster, is likely in the next few years – and that will show the new desire for independence.
It will be for another time to reflect on the different parties election campaigns. For now it is sufficient to note that the votes in support of a confirmatory referendum exceed the votes in support of leaving the EU. One has to thank the tribal nature and indecisive leadership of the Labour Party as well as the misplaced hubris shown by Lib Dem Campaign HQ, as well as the built in biases of our broken electoral system, for a result which doesn’t seem to reflect the current will of the people. It is that which may make the calls for electoral reform difficult for any subsequent Government to ignore.
The reality is that there is unlikely to be any short term shock to our economy, unlike the shock that many Remainers have felt since Thursday evening. Instead, at a time when countries are coming together (including the 4th, 7th, 8th, 13th and 18th which remain in the EU), for us to unhitch and decide to go it alone is risky. Whether it will succeed, or whether the UK (ultimately England and Wales) will drift down the economic league table, losing inward investment and credit rating, is still to be seen. But I struggle to see how the latter can be avoided, as UK businesses which currently rely on trade face even more uncertainty and overseas investors will lose access to the adjacent market of around 500 million people.
It’s not all about the economy either. As our own country inevitably starts to fracture, the problems we face become ever more global, with international cooperation being ever more important. Outside a powerful political bloc, we will struggle to have our voice heard, and will end up complying with or suffering from decisions made by others. We lose our voice around the table for the comfort that we can, at last, try to make our own rules like King Cnut trying to hold back the waves.
Individuals and families will get through this. As my wife and I said to a young family yesterday, what’s important is the values their daughter will grow up with, so she knows how best to take advantage of the more limited opportunities she will have. People in their 20s and 30s already have the distinction of being the first generation that is likely to be poorer than their parents. As the impact of this decision hits our economy, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of our youth decide to emigrate – rather like Ireland’s youngsters did in the 70s and 80s. What halted Ireland’s decline? Joining the European Economic Community along with the UK in 1973.
A common phrase hurled at me on doorsteps by those during the recent election campaign who wanted to Leave was that I wouldn’t accept the result of any referendum, despite my protestations. Well, here I am accepting, like Lord Heseltine did in Friday, the result of this election. But no one can demand that I like it.