It was badged as ‘Super Saturday’: the day on which Parliament made a definitive decision about the Prime Minister’s negotiated deal with the European Union. That might have meant that Brexit would be almost over, or that the difficult discussions were just beginning. Which of these judgements you make on Brexit probably depends on your point of view about the last two years, but also on your diagnosis of the root causes of the effective near-breakdown of the UK’s political system. And, as it was, the definitive ‘meaningful vote’ in the House of Commons on Saturday afternoon did not quite turn out as expected – which has become our expectation of the Brexit saga.
After the Prime Minister and the European Commission reached – perhaps unexpected – agreement on a revised set of arrangements for the UK’s departure from the European Union last week, some opinion polling reported people relieved that it was ‘all over’. Indeed, the Conservative Party’s conference slogan played into this story: ‘Get Brexit Done’ was a clear message about leaving the European Union by the 31st October 2019. There’ll be many people, inside and outside the university who are looking forward to a news agenda not dominated by the minutiae of disagreements about the terms of departure. There’ll be many people who are looking forward to political debate moving on to matters which are, superficially at least, more obviously related to the challenges facing the nation’s economy and society: housing, health, education.
But they are disappointed. The House of Commons has declined to approve the Prime Minister’s deal without further guarantees. It’s no longer clear quite whether we will leave the European Union in ten days’ time. Even if we do, it’s unlikely that the news of political agenda will move on. The really difficult questions, about the terms and conditions about our future relationship with Europe, are still to be addressed. Parliament has now linked approval of the Prime Minister’s deal to the passing of the formal Withdrawal Agreement Bill – a complex piece of legislation which is contentious and which will almost certainly be amended. Even when that’s done, under the Prime Minister’s deal a fourteen month, and potentially extendable, transition period kicks in during which the United Kingdom is formally outside the institutions of the EU but effectively bound by them. It’s during that period that intense negotiations take place to shape the long-term relationships with our nearest neighbours and trading partners. There will be tough decisions to be made about where to strike agreement on labour rights, environmental protections and trading standards, about which there will be ferocious debate in and beyond government. In the long-term, will the United Kingdom want to become rather more like Norway – outside the EU, but closely bound to it in standards, regulations and practices? Or will it want to become more like the United States, with lower regulation, different standards and a different social settlement? These questions have not been resolved during the fractious debates since the 2016 Referendum, and in what is now a low-trust political climate they will cause deep division. But the political culture has been poisoned by fractious disagreement, and there is no prospect of the issues becoming any less difficult.
I find it difficult to find the words to describe my own reactions to an imminent departure from the European Union. I understand the argument that the 2016 vote needed to be respected, but I am personally deeply disappointed. I have been, since 1992 when the European Community became the European Union, a European citizen. I’m still awed by the achievement of the EU, which has, in not much more than two generations taken a continent broken by war, its infrastructure and societies shattered, and created an open and free trading and co-operation framework based on the principles of free movement and shared citizenship. It has created one of the most advanced regulatory regimes on the planet, with high standards for food safety, agriculture, safety at work and environmental protection. It gives its members access to trade deals with other countries on terms negotiated using the leverage of the massive European consumer market. It distresses me that these achievements are not recognised for what they are. The UK is exiting these arrangements. It’s my view that those who have advocated departure have done so with an unforgivable casualness about the consequences. We will regret departure. We will regret losing our status as a great European power. We will regret losing influence, access and authority. We will regret the opportunities this departure denies our children and their children.
Despite our own personal response to these developments, we have, as a university, obligations: obligations to our European colleagues and students, our European research partners and collaborators, and importantly to our local and national community, which is divided and disenfranchised by today’s political turmoil. As a university, we will continue to do all in our power to mitigate against the potential risks posed by Brexit, and to support our staff and students. And as a major institution and voice in our region, we also have an obligation to use our influence and resources to try and help heal a divided Britain. Whatever happens on October 31st, the most important task ahead is to forge a more positive dialogue on the future of this country. We must play our role in that conversation. Brexit may be ‘done’, according to some, but Britain still has much that needs doing.
The university’s updated Brexit information micro-site which provides information and FAQs for staff and students can be found on our intranet here.