BOOK REVIEW

Brexit Unfolded – How no one got what they wanted

Brexit Unfolded – How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) by Chris Grey

Chris Grey has written a clear and compelling analysis of how Brexit unfolded, in the period June 2016 to February 2021, from the Referendum to our full exit from the EU. He is a consultant who works in the field of organisation studies and has worked for business schools and universities.

He maintained a popular and influential Brexit blog during this period. He stresses that he has not written a history of Brexit but an analysis of the issues. He says that before the Referendum he was not especially interested in the EU and our membership but became involved because of his interest in organisations.

Leavers’ Ignorance of How the EU Operates

The major theme in his analysis is the ignorance of many British politicians, particularly Leavers, about how the EU operated and how its history since the 1950s had influenced its development.

Because Britain had failed to join the EEC until 1973 we regarded it with the eyes of an outsider rather than an insider. Many Leavers considered the EU an unnatural political body with unjustified supranational powers, because for them the nation state was the normal, natural political body.

The Leavers’ lack of knowledge and understanding of the EU caused them to approach the Referendum and the negotiations in an over-confident, simplistic way. They were often confused in understanding the difference between the Single Market and a Free Trade Area. They seriously underestimated the difficulty of us leaving the EU after 47 years as a member. They claimed that if difficulties arose in the negotiations they were only attempts by Remainers (civil servants and judges) trying to thwart Brexit. 

Article 50: Withdrawal Agreement Must Precede Trade

Until late 2020 many Brexiters did not understand or accept that Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty required a leaving member to negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement first and then negotiate the Trading Agreement.

Brexiters thought that the former (involving the Irish border, European citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU and a withdrawal fee) would be conditional on agreeing the latter. During the Referendum the Leave campaign had promised that future terms would be agreed before the Article 50 process began.

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PM’s Deal Far From “Oven-Ready”

One of Johnson’s biggest lies was made in the December 2019 General Election, when he boasted he had “an oven-ready deal” with the EU, when he had not agreed a Trading Agreement. Furthermore, when the EU pointed to legal problems which had to be overcome (such as the Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement), Brexiters regarded this as the EU punishing the UK.

The Leave campaign never specified during the Referendum and later what form Brexit would take (hard or soft Brexit or “no-deal”). Leavers claimed that taking back control would be cost-free and we would enjoy frictionless trade with the EU in future.

Hostility Towards Remainers

Grey is worried that during the long process some Brexiters developed extreme hostility towards Remainers, which became a form of McCarthyism. They thought that the result of the Referendum should automatically be accepted and failure to do this involved a kind of treason. Such thinking is impervious to rational debate and creates a dangerous toxic political atmosphere. 

Government In Negotiation With Own Back Bench

The process was so long drawn out, partly because, when a deal was presented to Parliament, some Brexiters regarded the deal as “not the true Brexit”, without specifying what the true Brexit would be.

The British Government was often negotiating more with its own backbenchers, notably the European Research Group, than the EU.

The shadow of 2026!

Grey concludes that the implementation of Brexit in the form negotiated represents a serious national mistake, which has already done and will continue to do untold economic, geopolitical and cultural damage to the UK. He is particularly worried that, if the UK suffers economically during the next five years, Brexiters might argue that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which will be reviewed by both sides in 2026, might not be renewed.

This would carry the danger that the UK would become an even more isolated nation. He rightly emphasises the importance of the UK staying close to the EU, in a friendly trading and political relationship.

In Summary

Grey’s analysis is sharp and comprehensive. It explains clearly the complicated and painful process of leaving the EU and how many of the participants failed to gain what they wished, often due to their own fault.

Nigel Beevor is Secretary of East Kent European Movement