Much of the Brexit commentary, especially from Remainers, is that nothing changes tonight. Trade talks have yet to begin. Nothing resolved. It’s all just symbolic.
No it isn’t. Tonight we lose citizenship of the European Union, and the protections and privileges that went with it. That is much more than a symbolic act; more than just taking down flags.
One of the problems Remain has had since before the Brexit referendum has been its unwillingness to regard Europe on anything other than terms of trade . Yes, of course economics matters. But so does freedom of movement, and the sense of being in a common European home.
This is a huge defeat for everyone involved in the Brexit debate. The Brussels negotiators, ex-President Donald Tusk in particular, should have made greater concessions earlier. They hung David Cameron out to dry by refusing to give him anything meaningful in the way of assurances on immigration.
Then they hung Theresa May on a similar hook, admittedly one of her own making – refusing to make meaningful concessions on the Irish border or regulatory alignment. Donald Tusk listened to Tony Blair rather than the British voters and was persuaded that there was going to be another referendum, as had happened in countries like Ireland.
So they played hardball with Theresa May, who admittedly was a weak prime minister. Then when Boris Johnson came along, with a more robust approach, they immediately caved and reopened the deal within weeks. They gave the new PM most of what he wanted, including a porous Irish border with Northern Ireland remains in the UK Customs Territory.
But the greatest responsibility for this fiasco must lie with parliament. They above all were duped by the Peoples Vote campaign, promoted assiduously by wealthy pro-European interests in the courts and the UK media.
The idea, promoted by Labour, that billionaires were behind Brexit, abetted by the Russians, was a misrepresentation of capitalist reality. Some wealthy individuals, like James Dyson and Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, may have been pro-Brexit.
But corporate Britain was almost entirely pro-Remain. Not just activist billionaires like George Soros, but the entire Confederation of British Industry. The car manufacturers, the pharmaceuticals industry, banks like Goldman Sachs were all massively pro-European.
Hardly surprising since the European Union is a neoliberal club run essentially by German bankers. We saw that most clearly in the way that Greece was treated after the sovereign debt crisis. This doesn’t mean it the EU is valueless.
For all its many faults, the European Union was a great achievement in that it created a vast economic space, encompassing 500 million people, free to trade and move without borders. It was also a moral space, in that membership of the European Union required commitment to democracy, human rights, honesty, transparency and a free press.
And once we are out we are out. The Scottish National Party may believe there is a way back for Scotland, but that will be many years down the road. My own view is that Scots will not be easily persuaded to leave the UK single market for the European, since it will mean a hard border at Gretna.
The prospect of Scottish, and British re-entry, might have been plausible if we had remained in the European Single Market after Brexit or at least in regulatory alignment with it. But such was the incompetence of our Westminster parliament that they succeeded in delivering the worst Brexit possible.
The EU Withdrawal Act passed last week is a legislative horlicks and far more damaging than need have been the case. It is essentially Theresa May’s Brexit Bill, but without the various concessions offered to Labour, without the Northern Ireland backstop and, most important, without parliamentary oversight.
The protections on workers rights and the environment have been removed from the legislation, as has the idea of a regulatory level playing field. Protections for refugee children have been scrapped, along with other Lords amendments.
The option of an extension to the transition period, due to end in December, is now ruled out by the WAA. The much-debated Political Declaration is shorn of any legislative significance. MPs will have no say on the negotiating mandate in the coming trade talks. Parliament will have no role in scrutinising the future trade deal.
And that’s not all. The “Henry V111” provisions allowing the government to change laws by secondary legislation, bypassing parliament altogether, have been beefed up. The courts will not have to abide by the letter of EU law during the transition period.
It’s a comprehensive power grab. The Scottish parliament will not be getting its ball back any time soon. Those powers over agriculture and the environment will remain in Westminster, even if responsibility for administering them will be returned to Holyrood.
If the entire UK had remained aligned with the single market, Scotland might have found a half way house. But Brussels has now ruled out Scotland getting similar concessions to those granted to Northern Ireland. They won’t even talk about it.
None of this was inevitable. Under May’s deal, had it gone through in amended form, parliament could still have been a major player in Brexit. For three long years, MPs had the power and authority to shape the Withdrawal Agreement – but they blew it. Now, Boris Johnson can do whatever he wants.
Intoxicated by social media flattery and clever arguments from lawyers, Remainer MPs thought that a combination of street demonstrations and court actions could stop Brexit. They should have been working to minimise disruption to supply chains, distress to migrants and damage to trade and investment.
Labour were largely silent last week, probably out of sheer embarrassment. They must know that they helped to make leaving the EU far harder than it need have been. They placed opposing Brexit higher than making the best of Brexit, so they ended up with the worst.
It was common knowledge that most MPs favoured a Norway-style option of remaining in the single market while leaving the political institutions of Europe. Hard Brexiteers might have complained that joining the EEA was a sell-out, but I’m pretty sure voters would have accepted staying in the single market as the most sensible short-term solution.
Voters weren’t bothered about free trade but about sovereignty and identity. Brexit wasn’t about erecting tariffs but curbing Brussels bureaucracy. It wasn’t really about immigration either. Boris Johnson is already relaxing immigration rules.
There was no need for this Brexit to have been such a hard and brutal departure. The Brexit vote had to be honoured, certainly, parliament had every opportunity to strike a deal with itself that could have kept the UK broadly in the EU ambit.
And even if Norway proved unacceptable, there could have been a Swiss solution, which basically involves accepting the rules of the single market without actually joining it. This was really what Theresa May’s Brexit deal was moving towards. It sought “frictionless trade” by keeping the closest possible relationship with the EU.
Her Irish Backstop would have kept the entire UK in regulatory alignment with the single market. But the opposition parties weren’t having it. The SNP which had argued cogently for Norway plus for two years, suddenly turned into hard-line Remainers.
Remainers thought they had Boris over a barrel; that he couldn’t reopen the Withdrawal Deal. But he did. His backstop leaves Northern Ireland as a regulatory colony of the EU, but it was undeniably a new deal. Labour condemned it on the grounds that it abandoned Northern Ireland, even though they’d previously claimed the PM was in the pocket of the DUP.
The Brexit debate turned into a toxic culture war which had very little to do with the real issues of trade and citizenship. Everyone was too busy calling each other Nazis and racists or unpatriotic appeasers.
I know this is not how many of my Remain friends on Twitter see it. To them Brexit was all about fighting fascism and “nativism”. But the talk of creeping authoritarianism, “dark money”, Russian interference was a kind of paranoid displacement activity – an excuse for not coming to a sensible compromise.
The devolved parliaments last week voted to refuse consent to the Withdrawal Act. But any leverage the Scottish government may have wielded has been lost by the general election result. Holyrood will now be sidelined in future legislation on fish and farming.
Today on the eve of Brexit Day, Nicola Sturgeon says she will give her latest timetable for independence. But the SNP has no answer to the new constitutional reality: it will now be arguing for independence outside the European Union rather than from within it.
We’re out of Europe, and we’re going to stay out for a long time. There will be no referendum this year or next. Brussels is determined to impose a draconian trade deal. Investment in Britain has stalled.
Brexit really did mean Brexit after all.