“Brexit no exit” – Will the UK stay in the EU after all?

This is the thesis of Denis MacShane who was interviewed yesterday at the Brussels Press Club by Ryan Heath of Politico about his latest book: “Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Will Not Leave Europe” published by IB Tauris.

Denis MacShane is a former UK Europe Minister under Tony Blair, who wrote an earlier book in January 2015 ‘Brexit: How Britain will leave Europe’.

That book controversially predicted the outcome of the June 2016 referendum on Britain staying in the EU. His latest book also has a controversial thesis, namely that in the end Britain will not actually leave Europe in the complete and full sense as desired by hard Brexit supporters.

That's what I am reading now #denismacshane #brexitnoexit 📖👍📚

A post shared by Edson L Novaes🇧🇷 (@elnovaes) on

The “Brexit” referendum called by David Cameron in 2016 and Theresa May’s ill-judged election gamble earlier this year to secure a stronger negotiating mandate have unleashed a wave of chaos and uncertainty about the strategic direction of the UK. Macshane argues that the exponents of “Brexit” in the UK Conservative Party form a hard core of some 60 MPs, but that the silent majority of more than 300 conservative MPs have quietly reserved their position about the UK leaving the EU. He believes that at the right moment, when a “rope bridge” has been devised to help them traverse the “crevasse” that is Brexit, they will cross over and swing in favour of a “soft Brexit” that will see the UK staying within the Single Market and within a Customs Union with the European Union.

One commentator at yesterday’s book launch quipped that when speaking off the record with Philip Hammond the UK Finance Minister, he had asked what sort of outcome Mr Hammond would prefer to see for the UK from the current negotiations with Michel Barnier, to which the Minister replied, “Pretty much what we have now, as long as the word European is not mentioned.”

MacShane argues that Brexit will not mean full rupture with Europe and that British business will overcome the right wing forces of the Conservative back benches and UKIP, which have already been weakened by the results of the recent general election. Although negotiations with the EU are extremely painful, Britain cannot and will not divorce itself from the continent of Europe. He recalled that the last referendum in Europe to vote on taking a country out of an international organisation was in 1933 in Germany, under the Third Reich when a referendum was held to take Germany out of the League of Nations. National plebiscites have since been banned in Germany.

Whilst the European question was one of the most defining current issues in the UK, the longer the negotiations on Brexit were drawn out, the more likely that some wiggle room would be created to allow a change of mind in the UK Government. MacShane drew a parallel with Sweden which held a referendum in the 1950s to change from driving on the left hand side of the road to driving on the right hand side. The public resoundingly rejected the idea with over 70% in favour of maintaining the status quo; but some 10 years’ later the Swedish Government implemented a decision to switch to driving on the right hand side of the road anyway.

There were sympathetic voices to his point of view in yesterday’s audience, one of whom pointed out that under Trade Union law in the UK it required a 50% qualified majority vote to call a strike, but that under the 2016 referendum only 37% of the UK population had voted in favour of leaving the EU.

One striking fact is that no single figurehead in the UK has emerged to champion the campaign for the UK to remain in the EU. This situation must surely change in the nearest future, as the British intelligentsia wake up to the economic absurdity of Brexit. MacShane commented that the average age of Conservative activists in the UK was 71, and that demographics in the UK were changing the balance of national opinion through natural forces with the passage of time. As we saw in the statistical analysis of voting patterns in the June referendum, younger people were overwhelmingly in favour of the UK staying in the EU. Time is not on the Brexiteers’ side.

“Brexit, No Exit” is a must-read for political analysts interested in the future of Europe, and British politics, whatever the outcome of the current UK-EU negotiations; it is available from the publisher IB Tauris, and from Waterstones in Brussels.