A couple of weeks ago, I asked a middle-England cabbie what he thought about Brexit. He responded instantly: “Well, we were only asked one question on a bit of paper, weren’t we?”
The cabbie’s pithy answer impressed on me how one simple question has plunged us into labyrinthine depths of complexity and uncertainty. The tumult in the House of Commons right now is indicative of political leaders who still seem entrenched in that binary mindset from two and a half years ago: deal or no deal; remain/leave; hard Brexit/soft Brexit. It goes with the confrontational politics that the physical layout at Westminster embodies and encourages. But the present circumstances now require the UK to move beyond a simple binary choice towards a decision involving multiple choices.
The first choice was made by the UK in June 2016 and it was to leave the EU. 52% nationwide voted ‘leave’. (I’m keenly aware that not every UK citizen in our diocese got a vote, and of those that did most voted ‘remain’).
But then there’s the second key choice. And on this there’s an impasse in Westminster, and between the UK Government and the rest of the EU:
What future relationship to the EU do you want to see? What kind of Brexit do you want? A first and negative choice has been declared, but that leaves a range of positive choices still to be decided.
There’s a huge amount at stake between ‘a deal’ and ‘no deal’, covering everything from economic prosperity to future security. It seems that very few – whether in Parliament or the country as a whole – really want the UK to leave the EU without a deal. But in his Brexit speech on 5th December, the Archbishop of Canterbury rightly emphasised the risk that the UK could drift towards an accidental ‘no deal’ simply because Parliament cannot settle on the right kind of deal. And I am acutely conscious of the uncertainties faced by UK citizens living and working in the EU for as long as we don’t know whether there will be a deal, or not.
Where does the UK go from here? It seems to me that Parliament now needs to look closely at the range of options that could work for the UK and the EU, at least for an initial transition period. When I look across the Diocese in Europe, I see various kind of relationships between European countries and the EU. Perhaps UK politicians need to look more closely and collectively at something like a variant on the Norway or Switzerland relationship. Taking especial account of the Irish border, is there possibly some way in which the UK might still be able to preserve economic access to its largest group of trading partners via the EU single market and remain in a customs union?
At the moment, standing as it does in the European Economic Area, the UK has access to both. Meanwhile, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which the UK helped to set up in 1960, has trade agreements with nearly 30 non-EU countries. The point is that there are several degrees of separation from the EU, and there are several countries in the EU’s ‘outer orbit’. At exactly this time last year, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, illustrated what the UK’s future options could look like in relation to the EU, based on the UK’s declared ‘red lines’.
It is surely time for the UK Parliament to revisit and consider openly all the options that have been on the table for at least the last 12 months.
The clock is ticking down very fast now to 29th March 2019. Pausing or suspending Article 50 is another among our multiple choices. The Danish Prime Minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, urged the UK on Saturday to find a national consensus on Brexit. In the same way, a meeting of the House of Bishops last week wondered whether some innovative national forum driven by citizens and civil society could, alongside Parliament, help us chart a path through the immediate challenges. The UK needs to find a way forward together. The British citizens and business leaders I speak to are increasingly desperate for an end to uncertainty.
Among the multiple choices is another UK referendum, although that would certainly risk renewed divisions among the UK’s nations, people and families. The economist JK Galbraith once said that politics is about choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable. The challenge for the UK’s political classes is to guide the country in choosing the least unpalatable among the multiple available options in the UK’s future relationship with its European neighbours.
In a spirit of national reconciliation, the House of Bishops of the Church of England issued a Statement on Brexit last week. It is very unusual for the Bishops to do something like this, and the Statement has been quite widely reported in the European press.
As the Statement says, in this Advent season ‘we pray for national unity – and for courage, integrity and clarity for our politicians.’ I used a range of BBC interviews over the weekend to get across several points. One of interviews I gave was for BBC Radio Norfolk (interview at 2hr 10 mins). The church itself now has opportunity to play a role locally and nationally in helping heal, repair and renew the body politic of a country that has been deeply scarred by the divisiveness of Brexit. Churches foster community. Churches are one of the few places that bring together all ages and backgrounds, Brexiteers and Remainers. And diocesan bishops have considerable opportunity to convene civic leaders across the divides.
The Christian faith has at its core the command to love our neighbour. As we approach Christmas, I hope our Christian communities can take a lead in living out Jesus’s teaching on behalf of our wider societies.
Meanwhile, I encourage us all to pray the prayer written in the context of the UK’s deepening political crisis by the Archbishop of York:
God of eternal love and power,
Save our Parliamentary Democracy;
Protect our High Court of Parliament and all its members
From partiality and prejudice;
That they may walk the path of kindness, justice and mercy.
Give them wisdom, insight and a concern for the common good.
The weight of their calling is too much to bear in their own strength,
Therefore we pray earnestly, Father,
send them help from your Holy Place, and be their tower of strength.
Lord, graciously hear us.