For the free-market Tory right, Brexit is a means towards a beggar-my-neighbour buccaneering adventure—not ‘future relations’ to which the EU27 can agree.
It was to be predicted and yet alas, from the standpoint of the European Union, it was also to be hoped. In the general election on December 12th, the outgoing British prime minister, Boris Johnson, secured the absolute majority he needed to have a withdrawal deal approved by the House of Commons. His victory is a tragedy for many of our British friends—not least those who feel more European than British. But it saves us from several more years of unceasing wrangling within the UK and between the UK and the EU.
His defeat would have meant, at best, a tiny probability of a second referendum won by a small majority of Remainers. In that case, the EU would have been uncomfortably stranded with a member state whose government, whatever its colour, would have been under the constant pressure of a resentful half of the British electorate.
Will Brexit, therefore, make the EU’s job easier? It may not. It all depends on the content of the long-term arrangement between the EU and the UK, the negotiation of which can finally start. The binding part of the withdrawal deal amounted to little more than interpreting the principle pacta sunt servanda and securing a smooth transition period. The ‘future relations’ remain to be settled. Whether Brexit will make the EU’s job more difficult, perhaps even impossible, depends on how these future relations are going to be shaped.
The European project is an unprecedented, ambitious, civilising enterprise. Partly thanks to the single market at its core, it has managed to tame nationalist passions and stabilise democracies. But the discipline of the single market has also been eroding member states’ capacities to protect their citizens and curb inequalities.
If a fatal backlash against the European project is to be avoided, the civilising enterprise must now resolutely develop its caring dimension, address economic insecurity and halt the growth of inequality. A badly negotiated soft Brexit could wreck the EU’s capacity to engage efficiently in this crucial and urgent task. How so?
Twenty years ago, William Hague, then leader of the Conservative opposition, delivered the following message to the Confederation of British Industry: ‘In the next millennium, nations will compete with each other for the lightest regulations, the lowest taxes and the most business. Their weapons will not be guns but tax rates.’ About regional blocs like the EU he added: ‘These great stumbling animals will be outmanoeuvred and outcompeted by the lean, low-tax nation state.’ (Guardian, November 2nd 1999).
Today, people holding this sort of view are in power and hoping that Brexit will give them free rein. Britannia Unchained is the title of a fiery plea for global, ‘free-market’ capitalism published in 2012 by Johnson’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, and his home secretary, Priti Patel. At the 2018 Conservative conference, Raab, then the Brexit secretary, declared: ‘History will judge Brexit, not on the tortuous haggle with Brussels … But as a springboard to a buccaneering global embrace of free trade.’ (Spectator, October 1st 2018). When Johnson made him foreign secretary in July 2019, he let the press know that the prime minister wanted ‘the Foreign Office to be absolutely central, not just to the Brexit process but to the vision of global Britain’ (Times, July 26th 2019).
The unchained Britain of Johnson and Raab is not only meant to outcompete great stumbling animals thanks to low taxes, light regulations and competitive devaluations. It is also meant to do so by plundering the most valuable of all resources—human capital.
According to World Bank estimates for 2010, 292,000 UK-born higher-education graduates aged 25 to 64 live in the EU27, while 910,000 EU27-born graduates live in the UK. Johnson made clear that he wanted to expand further this formidable net brain gain, of well over half a million.
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In an opinion piece he published as foreign secretary, he wrote that he wanted to ‘make clear to UK business that this country will remain open to ambition from the EU and around the world. You can take back control of borders without slamming the drawbridge on talent’ (Sunday Times, June 18th 2017).
In August 2019, barely two weeks after becoming prime minister, he asked the UK’s embassies to disseminate a message in which he expressed his determination to ‘ensure our immigration system attracts the very best minds from around the world’. For this purpose, his government will abolish the cap on the number of Exceptional Talent Visas, design a fast-track immigration route for specialists in science, engineering and technology, and remove, for this category of people, the need to hold an offer of employment before arriving in the UK.
No doubt the British government expects this cherry-picking immigration policy to work wonders. And it can do so because it can rely on three major assets.
First, the reputation of British higher education: by the standards of the latest QS ranking, Brexit will deprive the EU of its three universities in the world’s top ten, and of seven out of 12 in the top 50. Secondly, the size of London: in a world in which economies of agglomeration keep gaining in importance, the EU’s biggest metropolis will not lose its power of attraction any time soon.
Thirdly, and most decisively, English: the education systems of most European countries, assisted by the motivation of pupils and their parents, make their citizens linguistically fit to integrate smoothly into the UK’s labour market and society. The spreading of English as a lingua franca has turned English-speaking territory into a powerful magnet, with a large pool of potential entrants from which it can pick.
With control ‘taken back’ over its borders, the UK can leave to the EU27 the thankless job of hosting and socialising the innumerable refugees and migrants—including ‘transmigrants’ desperate to reach the UK—arriving en masse from the middle east and Africa. At the same time, it can open its doors wide to the brains it needs. Indeed, as Johnson’s message of last August illustrates, it can proactively suck them away from wherever they were bred at great expense.
As soon as the withdrawal deal is finalised, the really serious business will start. This deal had to ensure the fairness of the UK’s exit in the narrow sense that it had to honour the explicit and implicit commitments made. The agreement on ‘future relations’ must ensure that the outcome of the Brexit process is fair in a far more demanding sense. In particular, it must prevent a buccaneering Britain from wrecking Europe’s civilising project through tax competition, cherry-picking immigration and free-riding on the global public goods produced by the EU and funded by the net contribution of its more prosperous member states.
Because of the UK’s three structural assets listed above, this will not be easy. On the other hand, and especially given the increasing relevance of ecological constraints on the trade of material goods, a ‘buccaneering embrace of free trade’ will remain wishful thinking if the UK is barred from trading with its main foreign market, the European continent. ‘What I certainly think we can do’, Johnson said in a BBC interview in June 2017, ‘is get the best of both worlds’: frictionless, tariff-free trade with the EU and full freedom to makes deals with third parties (Times, June 22nd 2017).
Getting the best of these two worlds is incompatible with fair future relations. As prime minister Johnson will need to accept that and to have it accepted in due course by his government—possibly at the cost of a reshuffle—and by his electorate, which was told otherwise. As a condition of access to the single market, whatever constraints the EU imposes on its member states, now or in the future, must apply just as much to the UK.
Will this turn the would-be proud buccaneer into a peripheral vassal? Rather into an external partner which needs to understand what fair partnership means and to behave accordingly. Imagining, negotiating and implementing this fair partnership is our immediate joint task in the years to come.
One day, no doubt, the UK will realise how vacuous ‘national sovereignty’ has become in today’s world. If it so wishes, it should then be welcome to reintegrate into our ‘great stumbling animal’—the great, yet laborious, civilising enterprise to which it can contribute in the future even more than in the past.
Philippe van Parijs, a fellow of the British Academy, is a professor at the Universities of Louvain and Leuven and a Robert Schuman fellow at the European University Institute in Florence.