Britain's Experts Are Invested in Disaster

Brexit deserves an even-handed analysis.

Worth debating.

Photographer: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

David Davis, the U.K.'s new Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, made a statement to the House of Commons this week on the meaning of "Brexit means Brexit." Commentators were roundly unimpressed. If I may be allowed to say, their apparent determination to be unimpressed is beginning to grate.

To be sure, the complaints were partly justified: Davis could have said more about basic objectives. But Britain is at the start of a long negotiation. Neither he nor anybody else can know, much less dictate, the outcome. At this point it's ridiculous to demand a detailed description of Britain's future relationship with the EU.

The press continues to focus on the government's declared aim of restoring national control of immigration policy -- contrary to the EU's core principle of free movement of workers -- while maintaining maximum access to the union's single market. The EU's standard position has been that you cannot have both. To be a member of the single market you have to accept free movement.

Davis doubtless had this in mind when he told a questioner: "This government is looking at every option but the simple truth is that if a requirement of membership is giving up control of our borders, I think that makes it very improbable." Commentators took note: Davis wants to pull Britain out of the single market.

Next, one of Prime Minister Theresa May's officials was asked to clarify. Britain wants the best deal it can get, the official explained, and leaving the single market is not yet government policy. "He [Davis] is setting out his opinion… [S]aying something is probable or improbable is not policy." Consternation ensued: May just slapped Davis down.

Let's recap. According to this popular line of commentary, Davis managed both to waffle meaninglessly and make a crucial policy commitment -- one on which May promptly stomped. Government in disarray. Brexit fiasco. Rending of garments.

What nonsense. If -- repeat, if -- the EU keeps insisting that membership of the single market is inseparable from free movement of workers, then resuming control of immigration will indeed mean no longer being a member. (That's, you know, a tautology.) If May then decided that retaining membership of the single market mattered more than restoring national control of immigration, that would indeed be news. So far, like Davis, she's consistently said the opposite.

The real question is whether any deal can be achieved that restores national control of immigration, while maintaining preferential access to, as opposed to formal membership of, the single market. Much of the U.K. press has assumed the EU's position to be that any such deal is impossible, and accepts that policy without questioning it.

This is plainly wrong. The U.K. could propose a very liberal agreement on immigration, one that nonetheless asserted its right of control, and the EU could decide this was liberal enough to be squared with unimpeded access to the single market.

Granted, this best and mutually advantageous outcome is pretty unlikely, partly because of British anti-immigrant sentiment, and partly because the EU is rarely quick to act in its own best interests. Even so, a second-best compromise ought to be achievable. And if the EU simply refuses to budge -- insisting on free movement in return for preferential access -- let's at least be clear that it will be making a (bad) choice, not surrendering to logical necessity.

It's a shame, but not that much of a mystery, that Britain's Brexit commentators can't be bothered to point this out. British analysts and commentators have been closely aligned in the view that Brexit was not just an error but an act of contemptible stupidity. They're still wedded to their role as cheerleaders for the Remain campaign, and heavily invested in the idea that disaster must now follow. This militates against constructive criticism of U.K. policy and any kind of criticism of the EU. Expect good news about the British economy to be played down and, so far as possible, every new development to be rendered as proof of Tory disarray and impending doom.

Well, the Tories are somewhat in disarray, Britain may very well have made the wrong choice, and things could go badly from here. All that is true. At the same time, Davis is right: The situation affords opportunities. Post-Brexit, the country has big choices to make and so does the European Union -- and how well or badly things turn out for both sides depends on those choices. My feeling is that the country would be better served by an even-handed weighing of these possibilities than by affirming the stupidity of Brexit supporters and contemplating, with such steady satisfaction, the horror that lies ahead.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net

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