In this post, I would like to discuss the merits of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) which has been agreed by the May Government and EU.
I won’t summarize the content of the WA here – many summaries exist – yet I would like to set out three reasons why I would find it difficult to oppose the agreement. I accept many of the arguments commonly advanced in favour of the WA – in my last post I argued that the result of the 2016 referendum should be implemented – yet in this entry I shall advance three rationales which I consider particularly germane to the present situation and have preoccupied me for some time.
Advocacy of the WA does not preclude the proposal for a ‘Norway’ v ‘Canada’ referendum which I set out in my last post. The WA concerns the terms on which the UK will withdraw from the EU, rather than the nature of a future relationship; this future relationship would be negotiated during the transition period which is set out in the WA.
1/ Opposition to the WA can be interpreted as Eurosceptic
The facts are clear; the European public authorities and the 27 member state governments consent to the WA (or are about to do so). Given this is the case, resistance to the WA involves opposing the position of pretty much every significant actor in European politics. It can be argued that this constitutes classic Euroscepticism. In fairness to liberal opponents of the WA, current circumstances are unique. The position of Remainers is similar to a dilemma long faced by Northern Irish Loyalists; when the entity to which you are loyal acts in a fashion contrary to your perceived interests, do you remain loyal in these particular circumstances?
Though there is no easy answer to such questions, this issue makes me reluctant to oppose the WA. Trenchant Remainers might like to reflect on their attitude to European supporters of the WA such as Guy Verhofstadt. Do they excoriate European liberals such as Verhofstadt? If they do not, they should extend the same courtesy to British liberals who support the WA.
2/ Opposition to the WA involves a gamble with disorder, a trait foreign to moderate political traditions
A key strength of moderate political traditions is aversion to disorder. This is particularly true in the British case; most factions within mainstream parties place a premium on institutional continuity. It is difficult to see how rejection of the WA squares with this tradition. Arguments for rejection of the WA often involve the embrace of disorder. In the case of supporters of Jeremy Corbyn or UKIP, this is unsurprising. Both worldviews are predicated on change through the overthrow of institutions; Corbynite advocacy of rejection of the deal to trigger a General Election and UKIP support of a ‘no deal’ reflect this tradition.
The position of liberal Remainers is less consistent. Despite a historic relationship between liberalism and continuity/order, liberal arguments for rejection of the WA involve gambles with disorder. Let us reflect on the rationales of Remainers. If the deal is rejected, one may (charitably) calculate that the chance of a second referendum, including a Remain option, is 50%. The prospects of a subsequent Remain victory might be (perhaps also charitably) calculated at 50%. If one thus surmises that the chance of remaining in the EU is c25%, with scenarios associated with a 75% probability involving serious damage to this country, it may be concluded that liberal opposition to the WA involves a tremendous gamble with disorder, inconsistent with principles of moderation. As someone who identifies with the moderate tradition, I am uncomfortable with this.
3/ Party politics should not underpin positions on the WA
It is highly likely that the Labour Party will reject the WA. Given that Labour support leaving the EU, including the Customs Union and Single Market, all reasonable analysts agree that this position is based on party politics; the Labour Party’s six tests are vague and used in a specious manner.
Underpinning rationales differ between Corbynite and moderate wings of the party. As I assert above, the Corbynite worldview is compatible with opposition to the WA; the primary aim of Corbynites is comprehensive, socialist institutional change, if necessary achieved through rupture with existing institutions. Many will contend that such a gamble is not in the national interest, yet Corbynites do not believe in a coherent national interest, asserting that this is a construct created to defend the interests of the rich; Owen Jones has articulated this position particularly clearly. I can hardly approve of such a stance and it is partly opportunistic, yet it undoubtedly reflects Corbynite principles.
There are of course few Corbynite Labour MPs; the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) are moderates. Though certain moderates like Chuka Umunna are ardent Remainers, bringing us back to point two, it is fair to assert that most moderate Labour MPs are committed to the implementation of Brexit; this is rooted in the desire to respect the 2016 vote. The Brexit which these MPs would effect is also very similar to that which is set out in the WA/other plans of the May Government. Given that the factors which underpin (and partly mitigate) the stance of Corbynites are not applicable to moderates, I find the position of these MPs particularly contemptible; they are acting purely on party political grounds and little can be said in their defence. This is compounded by the fact that, were the Government supported by a significant number of Labour moderates, the WA would easily pass the Commons.
In 2016, I was one of the most active Remain campaigners in Wales. In great part, the rationales which underpinned my engagement were the points I make above: support for the position of EU public authorities, opposition to disorder and the belief that the national interest should be above party politics. For exactly these reasons, I would be unable to oppose the WA. My points are obviously drops in the ocean of a much larger national debate, yet I hope that such arguments are reflected upon in coming weeks.
Dr Thomas Prosser is Reader in European Social Policy at Cardiff Business School.
This post represents the views of the author and neither those of the Welsh Brexit blog nor Cardiff University.