Ir has been obvious for at least a month now that soft Brexit has won out in the UK, though the Prime Minister Theresa May would never admit such a thing directly. Government discussion of access to the EU internal market at its existing level, or very close, and keeping the border open between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (a fundamental of the peace settlement in the north) would at the very least require continuing regulatory alignment in goods (that is, following the rules made by the European Union).
It seems very likely that negotiations of the terms of exit with the EU itself would make even this partial alignment with the internal market inadequate in order to get the desired level of access. At the very least EU negotiators would demand some inclusion of services (financial services are the big issue here) and something at least resembling free movement of labour.
That inclusion would be full UK access to the internal market after exiting and would require at least a Swiss style relationship with the EU, in which there is full market access in exchange for accepting EU rules and something close to free movement of labour. Such a relationship would mean accepting judgments of the European Court of Justice even if they are not incorporated into UK law. The UK might not follow Switzerland into EFTA (European Free Trade Association, see paragraph below).
It has even been suggested that the UK might find it necessary to adopt a ‘Norway’ solution, in which the UK is directly a member of the European Economic Area. Norway has free movement but opts out of common agricultural and fisheries agreements. It is not part of the EU customs agreement. Like Iceland, Lichtenstein, and Switzerland, it is a member of the European Free Trade Area, which essentially harmonises regulations between these countries and the EU; that is, EU regulations are enforced by EFTA institutions.
It is clear that most Conservative MPs and businesses (though more large business than small business) regard something like the arrangements above, soft Brexit, as preferable to hard Brexit (trade agreement with the EU as a completely external country, possibility of no deal). These MPs and business people, along with most Treasury economists and economists in general, believe that keeping complete access to EU markets is more valuable than vague claims of a trade boom through deals with non-EU states across the world.
Hard Brexiteers believe that economic growth of other parts of the world requires breaking free of EU shackles on global free trade. The soft Brexit, as well as Remain, argument is that membership of the EU does not prevent trade with the rest of the world and that some EU countries are already doing that very well compared with the UK. On this argument, geographical proximity will always make EU trade disproportionately important so that limiting access to EU markets in the hope that non-EU countries will want free trade agreements is unnecessary and probably very damaging.
May’s drift towards soft Brexit after presenting herself as the guardian of hard Brexit has the support of most of the Cabinet, and Conservative MPs, but has been disappointing hard Brexiteers for some time. An agreement of the full cabinet at the Prime Minister’s country residence for soft Brexit has led to the resignation of the two most hard Brexit-oriented ministers.
It seems unlikely this this will deter May from a soft Brexit policy, which everyone agrees can only become more soft in negotiations with the EU to achieve an agreed exit. It also seems unlikely that most Conservative MPs will resist this policy. The biggest problem for May could be that the opposition parties want to vote against the government in call circumstances, so could vote with hard Brexit Conservative MPs to bring down any Brexit agreement.
At this point Brexit might completely break down, with the UK becoming a full member of EFTA, so in practice a member of the EU which exchanges some opt-outs for absence from the decision making processes and institutions. It might even lead to a suspension of Brexit, or a second referendum in which the electorate chooses between the exit package and staying in the EU.
At present, the most likely options in descending order are: 1. soft Brexit, outside formal association with the EU, but like that in practice, 2. formal association with the EU, maybe meaning membership of EFTA, 3. the complete breakdown of Brexit. This could change and so far change has been to move further and further away from hard Brexit.
Personally I support continuing membership of the EU. It is inevitable that large parts of the UK economy will ‘align’ with EU regulations, so it is best to be part of the institutions and processes which decide on these regulations. That is the most pragmatic version of my argument.
I am also a strong European integrationist, even a federalist romantic. The qualification of this idealism is that integration should not go further than public opinion or institutional capacity can accept at any one moment and that economic realities should guide the relationship with Europe for and against the kind of integration I favour at heart.
My own ideal is a kind of revival of the medieval dreams of ‘universal’ (i.e. European) Empire. The poet Dante was a great exponent of such a vision in his classic of political thought On Monarchy, which does not exclude city republics, even favours them under a high European sovereign. We can join it with Marsiglio of Padua’s slightly later call for an empire with elections to have something like democratic federation for Europe.
Leaving my European romanticism aside for the moment, the current realities are that the UK’s exit from the EU has become more and more complicated by the disadvantages of disentangling complex and far reaching institutional and economic links, particularly when most people involved want to keep an open border with the Republic of Ireland and keep 100% of the current level of access to the internal market.