The leave campaign won the referendum through an ability to rally around a core message – Take Back Control. This stood in contrast to the vague and muddled narrative of the Remain campaign that would not extol the virtues of the EU but rather argued for continued membership as the least bad option.
The message was clear. Britain would control its own affairs and this constituted a stronger position than contending with the various claims and concerns of twenty-seven other nations. This position of control meant different things to different elements of the population. Lord Ashcroft’s poll, conducted the day after the referendum, states the primary reason of Leave voters to be “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. This demonstrates the strength of the Leave message and the way it resonated with voters. This principle of decisions being taken in the UK subsequently encompasses concerns around immigration and sovereignty, as well as the argument of a small band of economists who foresaw increased economic prosperity resulting from Britain taking control of its foreign trade policy.
This strength of message has been lost under the May government. This is understandable as the government juggles the views of Leavers and Remainers. The argument is often made that this must be a government for the 48% as well as the 52%. While this is valid, it does not serve the interests of either camp to deliver the government’s current half-hearted message that refuses to rule out any options. The UK’s muddled approach has seen the EU close ranks and take an obstinate approach towards negotiations.
So how can the UK undo this uncertainty set a stronger basis for upcoming negotiations? It must take an uncompromising line and set out a logical standpoint: that it will be leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. It can portray this in a way that appreciates the views of those concerned about immigration yet also sets out a bold intent to be a free trading and open nation. Communicating this clearly can elicit sympathy from countries both inside and outside of the Union.
EU net migration to the UK reached historically high levels in the run up to the referendum. While some of this may have been driven by those wishing to establish residency before a possible Brexit vote, it shows why immigration was such a concern among the population. It is a concern shared by populations all over the EU and it is an issue that eighty-five percent of the world’s nations are able to control through setting their own immigration policy. Therefore, presented in the right way, it does not look closed minded nor unreasonable for the UK to state their intentions to control immigration levels through ending freedom of movement.
This position is completely compatible with pursuing an open, free trading agenda. Countries that sign Free Trade Agreements with each other do not allow for freedom of movement between each other. This is the case with Free Trade Areas the world over. The combination of the two allow a country to reap the benefits of free trade and retain the ability to control any adverse effects on industries that may come under strain as a result of this enhanced competition.
Communicating these aspirations would also benefit Remainers. All but the most enthusiastic of British federalists accepted the EU was a flawed organisation. By helping the government to articulate how an ideal arrangement may look, Remainers increase their chances of forcing change in even the most obstinate of organisations. If the requisite pressure is applied the EU may finally, as Phil Collins argued in the Times last week, be forced to make amendments to its Four Freedoms and increase its transparency, efficiency and effectiveness.
Just 11% of the British population think the government is making a good job of Brexit. The muddled thinking of a government too often wanting to be everything to everyone has made the British negotiating position obscure. This is increasing the danger of mutual destruction whereby the EU takes a defensive position that hurts both economies. Therefore, regardless of pre-referendum positions, government MPs must come together to help form a coherent negotiating position that advocates control but maintains an outward looking perspective. Only then can other nations begin to understand the logical reasons that lay behind the Brexit vote, and provide Britain and Europe with the best chance of flourishing in the future.