Defeatist talk will cost Britain dear
Project Fear has not gone away. There is a tangible sense that some of those who were on the losing side in the EU referendum are almost willing a calamity in order to damn those who voted for Brexit. The outcome exposed a deep fissure running through British society that now risks being widened by the manner of the response.
It is apparent that many Remainers regard Leavers as reckless at best and xenophobic bigots at worst. Anyone who hoped this exercise in popular democracy would settle the EU issue without rancour has been disappointed.
Ironically, David Cameron hoped the referendum would end Conservative divisions once and for all. Instead, it has triggered turmoil inside the two major parties. Mr Cameron’s decision to step down as Prime Minister has opened up the contest for his successor.
In the Labour Party, meanwhile, nearly half the shadow cabinet has resigned in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s stewardship. He seems certain to lose a vote of no confidence by MPs yet he is determined to stay on, claiming a mandate from the largely Left-wing membership. Even if Mr Corbyn is challenged – and no alternative candidate has yet emerged – he is likely to stand again and win, yet have no authority where it matters, in the House of Commons.
These are uncertain times. The referendum has consequences for Britain that will be hard to manage if there is political upheaval. There can be no great surprise that people feel uneasy, even fearful, given the apocalyptic warnings of economic catastrophe issued during the campaign.
But it is now incumbent upon everyone concerned for the country’s future to abandon the doom-mongering. Mr Cameron and George Osborne must now publicly avow Project Fear and speak up for Britain’s economy. Once the dust has settled, there is a great potential Brexit dividend that needs to be grasped. Of course, it won’t be easy to unravel a 43-year relationship with Europe; but there will be opportunities, not just for the UK but for Europe as well if its leaders draw the right conclusions from what has happened. If they think it has exposed divisions only in Britain then they are not paying attention to what is going on in their own countries.
There is no earthly reason why a country severing a political relationship that was already pretty half-hearted should not flourish unless we talk ourselves into a crisis or one is foisted upon us.
The functionaries of Brussels want to expedite the British exit but their hand has been stayed by elected leaders like Angela Merkel who appreciate the dangers to the whole EU project of taking precipitate action. Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schauble has raised the prospect of a new associate status for non-eurozone countries that might meet Britain’s desire for greater independence without breaking up the institution.
It is in Britain’s interest to take this slowly by not invoking Article 50 to withdraw until informal talks have taken place to prepare the ground. But it is in Europe’s interest, too. While the Commission may rejoice that their most recalcitrant member has decided to leave, it cannot possibly be to the advantage of the member states to engineer an acrimonious divorce.
Indeed, if wiser heads prevail then the future relationship between the EU and the UK can develop in a mutually beneficial way. That needs to be the aim now, not more recrimination and unnecessary alarmism.
There are many political uncertainties to negotiate. The country voted against something without being able to say what it wanted in its place. That is now a matter for Parliament, where there is a pro-EU majority among MPs. While they must fulfil the wishes of the people to leave the EU, how it is done will be a source of huge controversy. Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday said continued access to the single market must be the primary objective of negotiations, with a “trade-off ” that means accepting limits on the UK’s ability to control immigration from the remaining 27 states. But some in the Brexit camp will argue that this runs counter to the country’s wishes implied, if not expressed, in the referendum result.
Another major issue will be the future of the United Kingdom itself. Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, yesterday signalled that Scotland could veto the UK exit because the Scottish parliament has to agree a Legislative Consent Motion allowing Westminster to pass laws that have an impact on devolved matters, as a Brexit clearly would.
The constitutional implications of last Thursday’s political earthquake, therefore, remain unclear and may require a general election to address. But, in the meantime, there must be an end to defeatism. As Franklin D Roosevelt said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Cameron and Osborne must now publicly avow Project Fear and speak up for Britain’s economy It is in Britain and the EU’s interests not to invoke Article 50 until after informal talks