The media seem to be fixating on the question of a hard Brexit or soft Brexit. But how real is this apparent conflict?
The Conservative and Labour Parties accounted for around 83% of the popular vote at the last election and the polls suggest that public opinion remains at similar levels today. Both parties contain a majority of MPs that were on the side of “Remain” during the 2016 referendum; both parties accepted the result of the referendum; and both parties are now committed to leaving the EU in April 2019. So, one way or another, it seems likely to happen.
The essential difference between a hard and soft Brexit is whether we leave both the “Single Market” and the “Customs Union”. The hard Brexit outcome would mean leaving both; the soft Brexit outcome would mean remaining in both.
The single market requires the free movement from one EU member country to another of goods, people, services and capital (the four freedoms). It removes barriers to trade and harmonises or unifies national rules at EU level.
For the UK to remain in the single market, it would require either the EU to agree that the UK could dispense with the requirement for the free movement of people; or for the UK to agree to retain the free movement of people. Realistically, neither of these is going to happen. The free movement of people is one of the prime founding principles of the EU, which is bound by those principles. For the UK the free movement of people was one of the main reasons for the Brexit vote winning the referendum. So there is a complete impasse.
The customs union states that all trade in goods between EU countries must be free of customs duties and that member states must apply a common customs tariff for goods imported from outside the EU. For the UK to remain in the customs union would require either the EU to agree that the UK could negotiate it’s own trade agreements with countries outside the EU; or for the UK to accept that is couldn’t. Again, neither is going to happen. The EU has no incentive whatsoever to agree that the UK should be free to negotiate its own trade arrangements with countries outside the customs union. On the other hand, for the UK, the ability to negotiate its own trade agreements outside the customs union is essential, if it is to develop its international trade throughout the world. So, once again there is a complete impasse.
Whether we like it or not, the simple facts of life are that the choice we have is to remain in the EU, as we are now or leave the EU and this means leaving the single market and the customs union. Leaving the EU and remaining in the single market and customs union isn’t a realistic option. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t negotiate a non tariff trade agreement with the EU; and it doesn’t mean we’ll need to establish customs controls at borders because we already have them, as we’re not part of the Schengen Agreement. Although we will need to find a solution for the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Realistically, the argument over a hard or soft Brexit is meaningless. The real argument is between those who support Brexit and those who oppose it. We live in a democracy and those who oppose Brexit have every right to do so and every right to campaign for their views to prevail. However, by campaigning for a so called soft Brexit, they are campaigning for something that can’t happen and undermining the government’s position in the process. They should be honest and campaign for NO Brexit. We must remember that we are still in the EU; so no Brexit means no change and that seems much more realistic than campaigning for a change that can never happen.