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Only time May tell. (Photo: Jwslubbock )

Brexit means Brexit

Theresa May has repeatedly stated her ambiguous slogan “Brexit means Brexit”. At first you might think it’s a pretty straightforward message. Surely Brexit can only mean Brexit. But there are many possible degrees to Brexit. The referendum only asked the electorate whether they want to stay in or out of the EU. Even nearly three months after the referendum, it seems, the Brexiteers still don’t have a plan what Brexit means. 

by the Know Nothing Enquirer   26/09/2016

They always point to the ongoing and future negotiations with the EU and other trading partners. Britain wants the best terms and will therefore not make any details public, including those on the future of EU nationals currently working in Britain. May has stressed numerous times that “We [the government] are all Brexiteers” and that she will respect the will of the people. David Davis, the secretary of state for exiting the EU, stated in parliament’s first sitting after the summer break: “Simply, it means the UK leaving the European Union. We will decide on our borders, our laws, and taxpayers’ money”. The rest of the speech did not give too many hints at what Brexit would mean in reality - with immigration obviously dominating it.

"The country voted to leave the European Union, and as prime minister I will make sure that we leave the European Union.” - Theresa May

But what kind of a future does the new government want? May has appointed several prominent Brexiteers to key cabinet positions, such as Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, David Davis, Andrea Leadsom and Priti Patel. Of course this is also a tactical move to give actual responsibility to Brexit hardliners (instead of them constantly complaining as backbenchers) and to reunite the deeply split Conservative Party. Some of the recent policy demands and comments by cabinet ministers give a hint at what could follow. It seems like a return to the 1950s or a time when grammar schools were still the norm. When climate change wasn’t an issue. When political correctness and multiculturalism was a foreign concept and racist comments socially acceptable. When development aid didn’t exist. When Britain could win conventional wars. When trade delegations sailed on the Britannia to exotic places (i.e. the Commonwealth). In other words, when the Empire still existed and Britannia ruled the waves.

 

Think these are just the fears of some left-wing loony? May abolished the Department for Energy and and Climate Change and turned it into a new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy led by Business Secretary Greg Clark. More worryingly Andrea Leadsom was appointed Environment Secretary, previously holding the position Minister of State Department of Energy and Climate Change. She is in favour of fox hunting and sceptical - to put it mildly - about renewable energy and climate change. Needless to say she is also opposed to Britain remaining in the European single market.

"When I first came to this job one of my two questions was: 'Is climate change real?' and the other was 'Is hydraulic fracturing ["fracking"] safe?' And on both of those questions I am now completely persuaded." - Andrea Leadsom

Boris Johnson, now the Foreign Secretary, is infamous for his politically incorrect jokes and has insulted numerous foreign leaders in the past as well as making questionable remarks, such as claiming that black people have lower IQs. He has also recently supported the idea of Tory backbenchers (led by Micheal Gove) to recommission the Britannia, the Queen’s former private yacht that hosted trade voyages in the 1990s, to promote trade with Britain - or as the Telegraph put it: “Bring back Britannia to rule the waves after Brexit”.

 

Priti Patel, the new International Development Secretary and one of the most prominent Brexit campaigners, suggested only three years ago to scrap the DfID (Department for International Development), her new department, and prioritise international trade and private sector investment in developing countries. She seems to support the idea that the trickle-down effect benefits the poor the most and therefore foreign aid should be scrapped altogether. The UK is currently one of the few Western countries that meets the 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid spending commitment. Even though Patel has since stressed that she will stick to the pledge, she has highlighted that she wants to redirect money to “deliver for our national interests” and boost British trade. She also criticised the department for lacking transparency and wasting too much money on “inappropriate projects”. Patel appointed Robert Oxley, previously director of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and head of media at Vote Leave, as her special advisor. At the Taxpayers’ Alliance he has criticised the government spending target for foreign aid numerous times and has campaigned to completely cut aid programmes for emerging economies, such as India and Brazil (which was ended by 2015 despite severe poverty in parts of the country). Not exactly reassuring developments at a department that has set the goal of “promoting sustainable development and eliminating world poverty” (one third of the world’s poorest live in India). While increased international trade and private sector investments in developing countries will eventually make the poorest better off in the long-term, it is hard to see how this will help those who die from easily preventable diseases and hunger, promote women’s rights and ensure that children receive basic education. Not to mention the millions currently living in awful conditions in refugee camps.

“A long-term strategic assessment is required, including the consideration to replace DfID with a Department for International Trade and Development in order to enable the UK to focus on enhancing trade with the developing world and seek out new investment opportunities in the global race. It is possible to bring more prosperity to the developing world and enable greater wealth transfers to be made from the UK by fostering greater trade and private sector investment opportunities.” - Priti Patel

The eurosceptic newspapers have happily pointed out that the British economy isn’t doing as bad as expected or - in their words - “project fear” never turned out to be true. Indeed, the FTSE 100 and 250 are higher now than before the campaign was launched. Consumer confidence remains high and retail sales are predicted to grow in the last quarter of the year. But this isn’t necessarily a sign that the “scaremongering” was wrong. Brexit negotiations haven’t even officially started yet and the government is pretty vague at when article 50 will be triggered. Businesses are still hoping that Brexit means Brexit light, where Britain formally leaves the union but remains in the single market and customs union.

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Priti drinking a pint with her mates Michael and Boris. (Photo Ben Stevens/I-Images)

However, for the time being the uncertainty will not be favourably for large investments and jobs. Why should, for example, a Japanese company with European headquarters in the UK make any investments or hire new staff if doesn’t know whether Britain will be in the European Economic Area (EEA) in three years? Many foreign businesses and investors chose Britain because it is a member of the EU. This will be especially crucial for banks in the City of London who might lose passporting rights to operate across the EU. While it is a priority for May’s government for Britain to stay in the EEA, immigration appears to be the utmost priority. The EU and all member states have repeatedly said that membership of the single market is only possible if Britain accepts the free movement of EU citizens. David Davis even recently admitted that there is a real chance for EU negotiations to fail and the UK having to revert to WTO tariffs. Liam Fox, International Trade Secretary, has stated several times that Britain will leave the customs union. Many bankers and foreign businesses are already expecting the worst outcome for them and are preparing the next steps.

“This government is looking at every option but the simple truth is that if a requirement of [EEA] membership is giving up control of our borders, I think that makes it very improbable.” - David Davis

Throughout the campaign the Brexiteers have repeatedly claimed that Britain will be able to “control its borders” (i.e. not allowing freedom of movement of EU citizens) while also being part of the single market. Even though the British government (and the EU) has always maintained that this will not be possible, Vote Leave campaigners preferred to ignore this fact. Or as Micheal Gove put it: “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” Including three hardline Brexiteers in key government positions (especially concerning Brexit) was a political move to reunite the Tories. It might turn out to be a pretty risky one. The pro-Brexit ministers have so far failed to give any details on what Brexit should mean for the economy in general or specifically the City. The increased uncertainty and reduced confidence will deter businesses from investing in Britain and - even worse - will eventually force companies to leave the country or at least move large parts of their employees to EU countries. This will not only be restricted to foreign companies using Britain as an EU hub and international banks, but also British companies that depend on the EU market. Further, it will harm many other parts of the economy that have been widely ignored, such as British educational institutions (through EU funding and cooperation), regional agricultural produce (thanks to the EU’s protected geographical indication) or the increased cost for British ports and the Eurotunnel. Not to mention the benefits of cultural exchange that has been made possible through the EU.

"They’d have us believe there’s some automatic trade-off between what they call access to the single market and free movement. Complete baloney ... Nothing to do with each other." - Boris Johnson

Vote Leave campaigners were completely irresponsible to make an incredibly contradictory and uninformed debate on immigration the central issue. Britain has never been a member of the Schengen area and thus could always control the amount of non-EU nationals entering the country. EU nationals have contributed greatly to the UK economy and the British are actually amongst those who made the most use of the EU’s freedom of movement (not only British pensioners in Spain!). The appointment of hardline Brexiteers to crucial positions is a risky move that will not help to make the divorce any less nasty. Most importantly there is a huge conflict of interest. Many of the cabinet members would like to see Britain has a slightly larger version of Singapore in Europe, with minimal regulation (Leadsom might have changed her position on climate change again…) and radically free markets. Of course this is not the reason why the majority of the electorate (especially working class voters in northern England) voted to leave the EU. It seems like the Brexit ministers are trying to please them with tough immigration talk. However, this might turn out to harm the interests of the working class even more and risk Britain having to leave the single market. Very risky indeed.

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