An Interview by Martin Banks of the Parliament magazine with Denis MacShane
What is the main reason for writing this book?
In January 2015 I wrote a book, ‘Brexit: How Britain will leave Europe’. It predicted the outcome of the referendum which David Cameron, then the Prime Minister, proposed to hold on Britain staying in the EU. I took the book to ministers, MPs, the media, think-tanks on Europe and diplomats, but I could find no one who shared my concerns. Right up to the day of the referendum, the British political-media-business elites refused to listen to my arguments and campaign effectively to stop Brexit. My new book also has a controversial thesis, namely that in the end Britain will not finally leave Europe.
But didn’t people vote for that?
The words single market, customs union, or jobs and wages were not on the ballot paper. It is perfectly possible to ‘leave’ the EU but stay in the single market and have open borders for trade as countries like Norway and Switzerland show.
So what does Brexit actually mean?
As I explain in my book, it is useful to think of Brexit in the plural, not singular – there are many Brexits, not one. If Brexit means leaving the EU treaties and thus leaving the EU, it is perfectly possible to have such a political Brexit without amputating the UK from economic and trade relations with Europe or putting all sorts of bureaucratic obstacles in place of the current unfettered access for UK goods and services.
Can you explain your thinking?
In March 2019 the UK can stop electing MEPs and no longer nominate a Commissioner or take part in any Council meetings which decide Europe’s direction of travel and its rules. My own preference would be to stay in the EU for a while, maybe by extending the negotiating period until such time as it is possible to maybe hold a new referendum as the full facts of the cost and consequences of Brexit become more widely known. They can keep trading and selling in Europe’s 450 million strong market.
What happens now?
Brexit is mainly about political positioning and posturing. The Conservatives are split with fissures along a spectrum from a total Ukip-style amputation to many sensible Tory MPs who realise it is an economic disaster but do not want to go head-to-head against their leader, Theresa May. She has chosen since July 2016 to interpret Brexit in terms of what the anti-European faction, headed by Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox, Michael Gove and others who have campaigned against Europe for many years, believe in. British firms or British citizens still enjoy all the current rights that go with EU membership. So while there is a definite change of mood and much greater concern, public opinion has not moved comprehensively against Brexit. Business in particular will not engage in a public information campaign and instead prefers quiet lobbying with ministers. In consequence the country drifts towards Brexit in the same way that it drifted into the Suez campaign or the Poll Tax fiasco or the Iraq and Libya interventions, with disastrous consequences.
So what happens now?
I set out examples in my book of countries that have taken major decisions by referendum and then as the facts became clearer they found ways of changing their minds. We have to wait for the second anniversary of the referendum but I don’t think the Tory party will want to commit economic suicide. But much depends on business. If economic actors are prepared to speak truth to political power public opinion can change.
So in the end your book’s title may not turn out to be true.
I am less certain of a happy outcome to the Brexit mess we are in than I was in January 2015 that Brexit would happen if David Cameron insisted on his referendum. But I refuse to believe that MPs, mainly but not exclusively Tory MPs, are willing to take the UK into the economic Dignitas clinic. Perhaps we have to see what life is like isolated from our partners and region before we wake up to what a disaster Brexit will be. It seems a shame that we may have to do great damage to the nation’s economy and the right of the next generation to be able to live, work, travel and even retire in Europe with all the rights of EU citizenship before we realise that Britain is part of Europe and we should be rule-makers in Europe’s future not isolated rule-takers.
Denis MacShane is a former UK Europe Minister under Tony Blair and is the author of “Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Will Not Leave Europe”