Bill Jamieson: ‘Brexit means Brexit’ means what?

Prime Minister Theresa May meets Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster, left, and her deputy Martin McGuinness at Stormont. Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty
Prime Minister Theresa May meets Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster, left, and her deputy Martin McGuinness at Stormont. Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty
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DESPITE Theresa May’s brisk assurance, leaving the EU may prove more complex than it sounds, writes Bill Jamieson

More than a month has passed since the referendum vote to leave the EU. But any hopes that clarity may by now have emerged have been confounded. The Prime Minister may declare that “Brexit means Brexit”. In truth, the “meaning” of Brexit is draining away.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon continues to insist that Scotland’s emphatic vote to remain in the EU is recognised. On political websites, all manner of options are now being touted for Scotland: a Norway-style semi-disengagement; a “reverse Greenland”; a Cyprus style partition; a new federal constitution for the UK, and, of course, a second referendum on independence.

Whatever option is alighted on – a tangled mix of these or none – there is a growing suspicion that “Brexit means Brexit” may prove one of the most misleading utterances ever made by a UK Prime Minister.

This week brought a declaration from Mrs May on a visit to Northern Ireland that “nobody wants to return to the borders of the past”. Yet on Brexit there will have to be a border between the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU, and Northern Ireland which, as part of the UK, will be out.

Central to the SNP’s concerns is a wish to maintain open borders and the free movement of peoples. Yet all the constitutional contortions now being aired proceed on the basis that the EU itself will remain unchanged and that its commitment to the free movement of peoples is sacrosanct.

Did not European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker make this emphatically clear to the UK: there cannot be Single Market access without the free movement of people? It is an unrealistic UK government ambition.

Yet that may prove one of the most misleading utterances ever made by an EU leader. For it reckons without the fast changing political mood within the EU over border controls. Indeed, there is now talk of a seven-year freeze on the EU’s free movement of peoples, giving governments some temporary controls to deal with security threats. That’s an option that the UK government could well seize upon. But it is also one that would be welcomed across the continent if the EU is now to preserve any political cohesion at all.

After a succession of appalling terrorist atrocities, almost all of them linked to Islamic extremism, public support for the “open door” policy on immigration is growing thinner by the week. In the Netherlands the anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders, currently leading in opinion polls, has already called for a UK-style referendum on EU membership. In Austria, where the Eurosceptic right-wing Freedom Party was narrowly defeated in the recent presidential election, the constitutional court has ordered a re-run after the emergence of irregularities over the counting of postal votes.

In Germany, after four savage attacks by Muslims in one week, a fearful public is increasingly critical of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open door policy on migrants. Bavaria has borne the brunt of this wave of violence, because it was the main entry-point for the million or more migrants who arrived last year. And in France, already reeling from a series of atrocities of which the slaughter of 84 people in Nice, including ten children, was the most outrageous, the murder of a priest in Rouen this week by gunmen claiming to be from Islamic State, has further rocked the government. It is adding to pressure on President Francois Hollande to quit ahead of next year’s presidential election battle with the Front National’s Marine Le Pen.

Those in Scotland who have dismissed the demand for control of borders in the referendum as little more than the bigoted rantings of Little Englanders have turned a blind eye to this greater crisis.

Islam is growing rapidly in Western Europe. According to the Washington-based Pew Research Centre, France has a Muslim population of 7.5 per cent, the Netherlands six per cent, Germany 5.8 per cent, Austria 5.4 per cent, and the UK 4.8 per cent. The real totals are believed to be even higher as these figures predate the 2015 refugee tsunami, when one million immigrants flocked to Europe, most of them Muslims.

Annual net immigration into Europe is projected to increase steadily from current levels for another 20 years. The liberal Washington Post forecasts that by 2069, the 28 current EU members, together with Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, will see a net immigration of 77 million people.

This cannot but have severe consequences for Europe’s culture. The paper remarks euphemistically that Europe will become “substantially more diverse than it is today”. That blithely skates over the problem – that if there is one group openly disposed to diversity, it is Islam.

Given these changing dynamics within the EU, it is perhaps as well that Mrs May has not hurried to activate Article 50 and that she has faced down demands from leading ‘Leave’ campaigners for immediate action. Rather, she has indicated that no move is likely before the end of the year, by which time the hope is that some compromise will have been made that allows some recognition of the wishes of the majority of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

That delay may prove fortuitous for another reason. The official rationale for delay is that the UK needs time to prepare its negotiating strategy and put together lawyers, business gurus and public finance accountants to prepare a pathway that would lead to continued membership of the EU Single Market while allowing the UK to police her borders and control immigration numbers. Despite official insistence that this is impossible, opinion within the EU is moving rapidly in this direction. This opens the prospect of a deal being struck on Single Market access.

That might well suit a large number of Scots who value such access but who would recoil at the prospect that, in order to achieve it, there would need to be a second raucous independence campaign, only this time with no gushing revenues from North Sea oil and with a separate currency proposal at its heart. The prospect of having to juggle two different currencies between England and Scotland would be anathema for households with families down south and especially for the tens of thousands of Scottish business trading goods and services south of the Border. Trade volumes with the rest of the UK are far greater than with the EU.

“Brexit means Brexit”? How clear is that, really? In these fast changing times, both here and in the EU, the phrase could prove the most meaningless utterance of modern politics, conveying as it does, everything and nothing simultaneously.