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May’s Brexit will create a weak and unstable United Kingdom

May 15, 2017 1:49 PM
By Nick Hopkinson, Chair of the Lib Dem Europe Group in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by Liberal Democrat European Group

Voters in next month's general election are being asked to support Theresa May's 'strong and stable' leadership in the Brexit negotiations. What voters may in fact be choosing is a weak and unstable United Kingdom. Inflation, first prompted by the 15% fall in sterling after last year's vote to leave the European Union (EU), will continue to erode real standards of living. The drip drip of foreign firms reallocating future investment and jobs outside the United Kingdom will continue. As a result Government tax revenue will decline and Tory austerity will last longer. The Scottish Government will progress a second independence referendum, and there may yet be a border poll on an united Ireland.

Theresa May's unnecessary general election is based on a false premise. Voters have been asked to give her carte blanche on grounds that the United Kingdom needs her strong leadership to secure the best Brexit deal. However, the EU is used to negotiating with whichever party, coalition of parties or dictatorship governs a partner country. In reality, having a slim majority or being in coalition can strengthen a government's hand in negotiations.

The EU referendum already extended the split on Europe within the Conservative party to the country, and again their leader is asking the country to resolve another internal party issue. Some hope the likely May landslide might lead to a softer Brexit because she will be better able to face down the ideological Europhobes. This cannot be assured. Will the Conservatives, strengthened by reabsorbing its lost UKIP base, secure a new parliamentary majority large enough to ensure sidelining the 60 (and probably larger) hard core of Brexiteers?

If May were a strong leader, she would not have given into the Brexit bullies in the first place. If she really cared about uniting the country (notably the 48%) and helping the Just About Managing (JAMs), she would not make their situation worse by progressing a hard Brexit. She has drawn the wrong conclusion from the 2016 referendum - control of immigration should not be the red line to the extent that it trashes our economy. Leaving the EU does not tackle the half of immigration coming from outside the EU.

Furthermore, her record in controlling it as Home Office minister is poor, e.g. failing to resource the Border Agency adequately, not counting people leaving as well as arriving, and excluding foreign students from official statistics. We need a Prime Minister to lead the United Kingdom, not an unsuccessful immigration minister to bleed it.

After years of falsely alleging the UK is outvoted 27 to 1 in the European Council, Europhobe Conservatives will soon find out what it really means to be isolated in Europe. In the past, the UK could count on EU allies (LSE studies show we got our own way 98% of the time). In the Brexit negotiations, we shall have no allies. While there may a mutual interest in a positive outcome, a good outcome is a lesser priority for the EU27 than it is for us.

The Brexit negotiations will be like EU accession negotiations in reverse. I took part in many high level Track II discussions between the old EU15 and candidate states after the breaching of the Berlin Wall. Central and Southern candidates found the word 'negotiations' a misnomer. They could secure few concessions other than a slightly longer transition agreement or inconsequential area here or there. Candidate countries became so frustrated with the 'structured dialogue' that they referred to it as a 'structured monologue'. Candidates had no choice but to take it, or leave it. Like the candidates, we shall find that with 2% of world GDP (compared to the EU's 22%) we shall be outgunned by this still global bloc. It is therefore delusional to believe the UK has all the cards, or even a good hand.

With the help of our allies, the UK did remarkably well as an EU member state negotiating several unique opt outs and the best deal for Britain. Now that we are alone leaving, we are headed to a likely humiliation. Humiliation will take the form of either no deal, probably because we cannot agree the Brexit Bill, or a softer Brexit. Either may yet split the governing party and United Kingdom. A vote for May's trumpeted 'strong and stable' leadership is a vote for a weak and unstable country.