The time has almost arrived. For months the Government has earmarked 15 March as the day the UK will formally trigger Article 50, setting in motion an avalanche of negotiations over the new few years.
In my previous blogpost for CoVi, I called on the Government to place workers’ rights at the heart of any Brexit strategy. Since then, we have had little more than empty platitudes followed by a deafening silence. Theresa May and David Davis promised to ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained, yet backbench Tories filibusterd a Bill in January intending to concretise the Prime Minister’s promise. As we fire the starting pistol for Brexit, it appears almost anything is on the table: workers’ rights, the status of EU nationals living in the UK, and freedom of movement. With the prospect of a ‘bargain basement economy’ looming, we must demand more clarity and assurances from our leaders over Article 50 ‘red-lines’ that must not be crossed.
We do know, however, that it will be a ‘hard’ Brexit. So far, the Government has been headstrong in their pursuit of a clean break from Europe; threatening to reignite a debate akin to the ‘peers versus people’ debacle of 1910 should the Lords frustrate the Article 50 Bill with amendments protecting the rights of EU nationals living in the UK. It is a curious twist that Brexiteers so keen to salvage parliamentary sovereignty from the bureaucrats in Brussels are now sweeping it by the wayside. Nonetheless, mounting pressure on Theresa May to guarantee the rights of EU nationals – even from within her own party – may ultimately avert a constitutional crisis, for now at least.
Even still, we should be wary of allowing our public discourse to degenerate to the extent where opposition to the Government’s Brexit proposals is somehow thwarting the will of the people. May’s choice of Brexit is deliberately ambiguous and just one path of many. It must therefore be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. A transparent and accountable Brexit, encompassing a plurality of voices, is not giving away the Government’s hand to the EU – which will inevitably leak before the negotiations begin anyway – but is a necessary process to ensure our exit is the most agreeable and the least damaging.
Whatever happens, the disentanglement of forty years’ worth of EU and British law will be messy. Renegotiating our relationship with the EU could be even more difficult, with each member state possessing a veto on any new arrangement. In this regard, the position of Gibraltar, the UK’s existing infrastructural commitments to Europe, and the rise of continental Euroscepticism suggests a have-your-cake-and-eat-it deal is hopelessly optimistic. To ensure a lasting and mutually satisfying breakup, the divorce process will therefore require immense levels of negotiating prowess. We may have ‘had enough of experts’, but over the next few years we’re going to need them more than ever.