Three thoughts on the Brexit referendum

Welcome to fantasyland. Are the toughest Brexit negotiations likely to be within the UK itself? Anyone for a ‘Swiss option’? Drug prices, bent bananas, TTIP — have the media missed a trick?

By Peter Ungphakorn
POSTED JUNE 29, 2016 | UPDATED JUNE 29, 2016


The UK has entered fantasyland after the June 23, 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

We can all fantasise.

1. The toughest negotiations will be within the UK itself

This one is more reality than fantasy. Much has been said about the options facing the UK, including what economic relationship the EU might offer London — versions modelled on Norway/EEA, Switzerland, Canada, the US and so on.

1. Toughest negotiations are within UK
2. Any one for a Swiss option?
3. Have the media missed a trick?

Crucially, this will also depend on what relationship the UK would seek. That would have to be thrashed out inside the UK before it starts to talk to Brussels. But yet after a long and bitter referendum campaign, no one has a clue what the UK’s post-Brexit economic and trade policy is going to be, least of all those who campaigned to leave.

No one has a clue what the UK’s post-Brexit economic and trade policy is going to be, least of all those who campaigned to leave

The Brexit government will face a dilemma. If it wants any meaningful access to the EU’s single market the bargain would have to include some form of free movement of labour. Obviously that would contradict what many “leave” voters sought.

Those voters were promised tighter immigration control. That means EU citizens would need work permits and visas to stay in the UK (as with the much-cited Australian points system), and in return the UK would get nothing like full access to the single market.

British goods and services would face new trade barriers across the Channel. British citizens would face the barriers of EU visas and work permits. “Leave” campaigners hailed Britain’s tradition of openness; but their first acts on the way out could be to close the doors.

This could maximise the disruption to the UK economy. (It would be mitigated only if the UK decided to liberalise unilaterally by lowering trade barriers and scrapping the worst farm subsidies, as some economists advocate. But that was never seriously debated in the campaign and would no doubt face strong opposition, including from farmers who had been promised continued support.)

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, seems to believe the UK can have its cake and eat it. It will control immigration from the EU, but UK citizens will continue to be free to live and work in the EU and British companies will continue to enjoy the EU’s single market, he says.Now that is fantasy.

Still, debating all of that, even internally, may have to wait while the main political parties and much of UK politics struggle to deal with the referendum’s fallout.

Johnson, Gove or May? Corbyn or any number of rivals? What will Scotland seek to bargain with Brussels? Can it veto Brexit? Will Scotland and Northern Ireland hold independence referendums?

An early general election to try to give the next government a mandate seems likely (but not certain). It could be as messy as the referendum campaign itself, and by that time politicians could find themselves trusted even less than they are now.

By comparison, negotiating one or other model of relationship with the EU and the rest of the world would seem to be pretty simple.

See also:
Argentinisation of British citizenship
Britain’s bargaining stance post-Brexit
Brexit: the disaster decades in the making

Swisss Fed Council_2016 1200px cropped
The Swiss Cabinet (“Federal Council”) 2016.
From left: Alain Berset (Social Democrat), Didier Burkhalter (Liberal), Doris Leuthard (Christian Democrat, Confederation Vice President for 2016), Johann Schneider-Ammann (Liberal, Confederation President for 2016), Ueli Maurer (People’s Party), Simonetta Sommaruga (Social Democrat), Guy Parmelin (People’s Party)
(and Federal Chancellor Walter Thurnherr, the council’s chief of staff)

2. Any one for a Swiss option?

Indendence or betrayal? Can the splits be healed? The referendum has divided the UK into four or more regions with apparently irreconcilable differences and perhaps more reasons to separate than to stay together.

So how about a “Swiss option”? Not Switzerland’s bilateral relationship with the EU, but how it deals with the kind of divisions that we are seeing in the UK.

With four national languages, each in a culturally different area, Switzerland emerged from political and religious conflict over a century ago with a unique political model based on consensus, direct democracy and decentralisation — through local, cantonal and federal government.

By and large, Switzerland has managed to avoid the kind of political about-turn that the UK referendum has produced from a difference of less than 4 percentage points

Its Cabinet has seven members, shared among the main political parties according to their seats in Parliament. Currently that’s two each for the Social Democrats, Liberals and right-wing People’s Party and one for the Christian Democrats. The presidency is also rotated annually.

The result is compromise and a degree of maturity in political decision-making even though the parties’ views are very different. By and large, Switzerland has managed to avoid the kind of political about-turn that the UK referendum has produced from a difference between the two sides of less than 4 percentage points.

So imagine a UK Cabinet of two each for the Conservatives and Labour, and one each for UKIP, the Lib-Dems and SNP, forced to make decisions by consensus. (The numbers are based on shares of votes since the Swiss model uses proportional representation.)

What’s more, the Swiss are the world’s experts on referendums. To be sure, the Swiss see flaws in their system, but a decentralised direct democracy does encourage politicians to be closer to the electorate. Commentators who are flying dangerously close to rejecting democracy, in their criticism of the UK holding this or any other referendum, might take note.

It’s just a thought. A fantasy. Of course it won’t happen. It wouldn’t be British.

See also:
Direct Democracy on Trial
Swiss weigh up consequences of Brexit vote
Why elections are bad for democracy


3. Have the media missed a trick?

Well, yes some media did stoke up hysteria and contempt for the facts. Many others tried hard to explain the issues properly, present reality checks and so on. But there is another, longer term question-mark over the media’s role.

One of the complaints about the EU is that decisions are taken by unelected, unaccountable, anonymous officials, and that the UK has no say. Brussels is a den of conspiracy and secrecy.

Sure, the European Commission’s gigantic bureaucracy is inevitably distant from the public, but a lot more information is available about what happens in Brussels and Strasbourg than the public believe. Much of it is tedious, but then so is the work of Whitehall and Westminster.

The EU is more transparent about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks than the US is. The media have missed a trick

Could the media have done more to inform the public about EU affairs? Yes, within the limits of what is relevant to readers, listeners and viewers. That still leaves a lot of potentially interesting stories, even for an easily-bored public.

The mainstream UK media have reported almost nothing on debates and decisions in the EU. The only times it covered elected UK representatives in the European Parliament was when Nigel Farage was obnoxious to a senior EU official and when he insulted the entire Parliament.

No wonder most British voters had no idea what their elected representatives were doing on their behalf, or what their elected ministers were debating in the European Council.

And yet the work of the British public’s elected representatives could be shown to be interesting and relevant, if only the media did their job properly: from medicine prices and tobacco control (the basis of the UK’s plain packaging legislation), to financial protection for holidaymakers. But definitely not banning bendy bananas.

The opportunity may be lost. If English ceases to be an official EU language the British public will be even less informed. They could, of course, seek help from their Polish immigrant neighbours.

One frequently-heard complaint is that the EU-US trade deal known as TTIP is being negotiated in secrecy. And yet the EU Commission has put all its negotiating texts online, while the US has refused to do so.

That’s right, the EU is more transparent about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership talks than the US is. The media have missed a trick.

Picture credits
Federal Palace of Switzerland at night (Museumsnacht, night of museums), 2006. By Rolf + Tom Weiss, Public Domain
Swiss Federal Council group photo: Swiss government, Wikimedia commons
Bananas: by Susan Slater, licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution — Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Back to top

Author: Peter Ungphakorn

I used to work at the WTO Secretariat (1996–2015), and am now an occasional freelance journalist, focusing mainly on international trade rules, agreements and institutions. (Previously, analysis for AgraEurope.) Trade β Blog is for trialling ideas on trade and any other subject, hence “β”. You can respond by using the contact form on the blog or tweeting @CoppetainPU

%d bloggers like this: