Article 50 Editorial: “Taking Back Control” Now Becomes a Reality

When Theresa May triggers Article 50, it becomes the moment that Britain’s exit from the European is inevitable. It is also the moment that “taking back control” - the central premise of Vote Leave - becomes a reality.

The forty year cornerstone of British economic, trade and security policy will end within two years.

To the exclusion of much else, Britain’s relationship with the European Union has dominated public discourse for a year now since David Cameron returned with his renegotiation package. Following the referendum result in June, the debate has become more heated and, if possible, less temperate. Yet it has been a phoney war. The EU has refused anything but the most informal of informal talks: invoking the article is a precondition of talks.

That Theresa May has waited for nine months for this moment is to be commended. She resisted the siren calls of those on the right, such as Nigel Farage and Andrea Leadsom, her leadership rival, and on her left from Jeremy Corbyn, to start the process as she began her premiership.  The praise is limited and ends there.

May’s leadership has been about speaking not for the country or even to the 52% who voted Brexit but to the right flank of hard Brexiteers. She has debased political debate with a crude interpretation of democracy that has stubbornly refused to reach out beyond a narrow section of her own party.

The coming months will show whether her optimism of being able to negotiate a bespoke deal for Britain is justified.

On every level, “no deal” would be disastrous

One of the most worrying aspects of the debate has been that the creaking institutes of parliament have proven unfit for the occasion. Gina Miller fought a battle to ensure the right of invoking Article 50 to parliament. This was a fight that parliament could have taken upon itself without going to the courts.

Once that right was set, they failed. By whipping his MPs through the government lobby, the Labour leader signed a blank cheque for the prime minister. This is a failure that could have significant repercussions.

May said, in her Lancaster House speech, that no deal was better than a bad deal. This may be a negotiating position. However, the economic dangers of leaving the single market and reverting to WTO rules are serious.

As the Foreign Affairs Select Committee reported, the imposition of tariffs across a range of sectors would have a differentiated impact, ranging from 5% to 40%. Brexiter insouciance is woefully misplaced. In evidence Derrick Wyatt QC said: “The worst-case scenario trade deal would actually be better than WTO terms, but I don’t think we would tolerate WTO terms for long.”

On every level, “no deal” would be disastrous. And the complexities of settling not only an EU divorce deal but a future trade deal - within the limited time frame set down by Article 50 - make this a possibility. Beyond the risks that we know about, there are also worries around economic confidence, and negative reactions in the currency and gilt markets. The risks we can plan for are grim, the unknown ones could be worse.

Yet Parliament failed to secure a meaningful vote on this possibility. They allowed the executive power without the balance of a check.

There is the potential for humiliation for the government

The triggering of Article 50 may be a significant milestone but the moment Britain leaves the European Union is historic and it is still two years away.

Disclaimer makes no apology for its belief that Remain was the more sensible proposition. That we continue to believe this does not mean we do not accept the result of the referendum. It is absurd to argue that Britain benefits from a closing down of debate and the absence of scrutiny.

Democracy rests not just on ideas of sovereignty but also on enlightened leadership. On any measure, Brexiters have failed their country. It therefore becomes the duty of Remainers, whatever the backlash. Every point needs to be fought, questioned, scrutinised.

A Treasury paper found that trade in goods was 73% higher between EU member states than in any potential free trade area, while trade in services was 16% higher; the OECD has noted that the potential impact of leaving the single market does not take into account future growth that developing the market will bring. There remains no evidence that bilateral trade agreements, negotiated by the British government, can compensate for this.

Yet this is what Theresa May is doing. She is banking on being able to negotiate the politics of the European Union to bring about a tailored arrangement where Britain is able to pick and chose which bits of the EU to accept. For many, in the remaining bloc of 27, the choice is binary. The sticking issue is freedom of movement as a price for membership, and even access.

As David Davis admitted, immigration is central to the British economy. That it is the reality of open labour markets that will continue to guide the post-Brexit economy, surely means that this supposed control is in name only.

There is the potential for humiliation for the government and, much worse, economic uncertainty and disaster for the country.

And all this for three little, deceitful words: “taking back control”.

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About the author

Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.

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