The Brexit crowd are right to smell a rat. In any great national debate a columnist may feel tempted to go beyond openly rooting for one side. Rooting for one side is acceptable, of course. Though some Brexiteer readers do struggle with the idea it could be legitimate for a columnist to dis-agree with the verdict of a referendum, I will merrily insist that the word ‘Comment’ at the top of a page allows for the expression of an opinion.
But what if the columnist detects a possible conspiracy to help his own side win? And, further, suspects that for the plan to work, it would be better not to write about it for the time being? Am I (if I am that journalist) on the side of the general reader who wants to know what’s happening, or the side of those I may agree with but whose interests lie in silence?
I prefer the simple view that we should tell it as it is. So, with apologies to fellow Remainers who may accuse me of letting the cat out of the bag, I must tell you that this business of a ‘transitional’ or ‘implementation’ period after Britain has formally left the EU — the plan that Theresa May endorsed in Florence last week — strikes me as carrying a secret threat to Leavers’ hopes: a threat Remainers should not disclose yet.
Were I a Machiavellian Remainer I would be telling fellow Remainers (quietly, lest we be overheard) something like this:
‘Guys, each of the steps on our journey must look like common sense when taken in isolation. Theresa has just taken the first: she has made a case it’s really very hard to resist, arguing that (1) more time is needed for the final terms of Brexit to be shaped (obviously true). Therefore (2) because British business and industry need to plan ahead, let’s leave the EU on schedule, but have a few years’ breathing space in which until further notice we carry on as we are. Two years (at the very minimum) can be used to shape the final terms of our departure.
‘This, guys, sounds pretty obvious common sense too.
‘But guys, it’s important to leave it at that, for the moment. Important to give this sensible-sounding proposal time to bed down. Important to lace our speeches with assurances that the “transition” is simply the bridge. “Time to adjust”, “buy a bit more time”, etc. Brexit is on course, but running a bit late: that’s the song we should all sing.
‘If we succeed (as we surely can) in making this argument so persuasive as to put the proposal beyond serious dispute, then we shall in due course be ready for the next step. But we’re not there yet.
‘The next step will be as follows. Imagine the March 2019 deadline for departure approaches. Imagine (though it can’t be assumed) that our 27 EU partners look ready to offer us these two years of transition. Remind yourselves of that offer. That we pay into the EU budget for another two years; accept the rules of the single market for another two years; accept continuing, uncontrolled EU immigration for another two years; but with immediate effect are thrown out of the governing councils and committees of the Union, kicked out of the European Parliament and lose our right for British nominees to sit on the European Commission and for British judges to sit on the European Court of Justice.
‘In short, guys, we are regulated, adjudicated and taxed as before but — unlike before — without a voice, without representation, without influence. Is that optimal? Is that fair? Indeed, is that even necessary? How about demanding a continuing say in EU decision-making for so long as we’re paying in, and playing by their regulatory rules? No taxation without representation.
‘And as it happens, guys, there’s a name for this suggested improved idea. It’s called being in the European Union. In what possible respect can taking their rules and meeting their tax demands, but without having any say, be a better situation than getting a say too? Guys, our argument, when we come to make it, is going to be hard to resist.
‘But (you may ask) are the other 27 going to offer us such an option?
‘Well why not? If our fellow members of the European club are content for us to carry on using the club’s facilities for two years even though we’ve formally relinquished our membership, why shouldn’t they agree to a simpler option: that we simply postpone leaving at all, until we’re ready? Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, governing a country’s departure from the EU, specifically permits such a stay of execution, so long as the remaining members all agree.
‘But guys, not a word about this yet. You know how touchy Brexit headbangers are. You know how insecure they feel, how fearful that somehow it’s all going to be snatched away from them before Britain signs on the dotted line. What they’ll fear is that until we’re right out of that door and no longer EU members, there will always be the danger that Brexit fever may abate, the electorate will move on, and other, bigger, more pressing events will intercede.
‘What (Brexiteers fret) if, four or five years on from the 2016 referendum but still a part of the EU, Britain should start to wonder if it’s really all that bad after all? So serious headbangers are desperate that momentum should not be lost. And remember: their supporters are much older than ours. They’re dying faster. Every year there are few hundred thousand fewer. And a Labour government could bring in votes for 16-year-olds. Logic may whisper that staying until we’ve agreed our leaving terms makes sense rationally; but some inner hunch, some nameless dread, whispers to them that it’s better to burn those bridges fast.
‘So guys, not a word about where this proposal for a transition period must logically lead. Not yet.’