As Brexit negotiations enter the final stretch the shape a final deal takes may create further disillusionment with the British political class.
There is now less than a year to go until Britain officially leaves the European Union. Assuming that all goes to plan and there are no major delays or unresolved disputes, Britain will officially leave at 11pm on Friday 29 March, 2019.
It will then enter a ‘transition’ period that will last until December 31, 2020. But what will this mean for Britain’s domestic debate and will the transition deal mean that some Brexit voters feel betrayed?
In recent weeks, the detail on what this transition period will entail was released. The UK will officially leave the EU but remain within the single market and customs union for twenty-one months after Brexit, which basically means that the rights of businesses and citizens will not really change.
The free movement between the EU and Britain of goods, capital, services and, crucially, people, will continue under EU law.
While Britain will be able to sign (but not implement) trade deals with states outside of the EU, there will be no change whatsoever to its current immigration regime.
Those EU nationals who move to Britain during the transition will be given the same rights and guarantees as those who arrived before the Brexit vote.
And while the issue of Ireland is still to be resolved, Britain’s negotiators softened their position on fishing so that Britain does not regain control of its waters (which prompted the arch Leaver Nigel Farage to protest by dumping dead fish in the River Thames).
This is a particularly important point given that some of the highest levels of support for Brexit came from coastal communities that had long felt angry about the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.
Meanwhile, banks and other financial institutions in the City of London should be able to continue operating much as they do now.
To the average voter, therefore, life during transition will feel and look no different to life before the 2016 referendum, when Britain was a full EU member.
Unsurprisingly, this led some Leavers like Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg to claim that the deal ‘gives away almost everything and it is very hard to see what the government has got in return’.
While Leavers are reluctantly willing to tolerate a time-limited transition deal, they fear that over the longer-term this will degenerate into a ‘super-soft’ Brexit deal that will keep Britain closely tied to the single market and the EU while having even less influence than it had before. There are also good reasons to expect Leave voters to start to question the direction of Brexit.
Why leave the EU?
To understand why, let’s go back to why people decided to reject much of Britain’s financial and political establishment by voting for Brexit in the first place. Since the vote, there has been a curious attempt by some to suggest that Leavers either did not know what they were voting for, or they had been nudged into voting for Brexit by dubious social media outfits like Cambridge Analytica. This is deeply misleading.
Leavers knew exactly what they were voting for. The most important reason was to reform Britain’s unpopular immigration policy and lower the overall level of immigration into the country.
Since the late 1990s, overall net migration into Britain (i.e. the number of people coming in to the country minus the number leaving), had soared from around 40,000 to over 300,000 per year. Leavers, more than anything, wanted this changed.
In fact, almost every study of the Brexit vote since the referendum has shown that Leavers were driven by a combination of wanting to curb immigration into the country and reclaim greater control over national law.
Ahead of the referendum, a large majority of Leavers said they wanted immigration reduced and felt that Brexit would deliver this. They also felt that keeping migration at current levels would damage British society and culture.
Nor were these concerns completely divorced from experience. Support for Brexit was significantly higher in communities that had witnessed a rapid and significant increase in migration during the ten years before the referendum –places like the town of Boston in Lincolnshire which had seen a sharp increase of migrant workers and then 75 percent of the local people opt for Brexit.
It was this concern over immigration and EU influence that had already led a large number of them to abandon the political mainstream during 2012-2016, by voting for the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
While UKIP has since declined, there is no reason to think that another revolt will not spring up to pitch for disgruntled Leavers, or that an arch Leaver is able to take control of the Conservative Party, pushed on by very pro-Brexit Conservative grassroots associations.
For instance, almost every poll of Conservative Party members, who will have a say over their next leader, puts Leaver politicians in front.
Either of these outcomes seem likely if, as some Leavers fear, the government leaves a ‘soft’ transition deal to only then offer a very liberal immigration policy in exchange for a favourable trade deal with the EU.
It is at that point when we may see the Conservative tent really begin to split in two, between those who want to prioritise trade over immigration, versus those who favour a comprehensive reform of Britain’s immigration settlement.
As Prime Minister Theresa May and her fragile government continue to steer Britain through the Brexit negotiations, many risks lie ahead.
It seems unlikely, to me at least, that strong and stable mainstream politics is back for the longer-term. Too many Leavers will feel disappointed by the outcome of the transition deal and likely ‘end state’. This will open the door either to an even harder rightward turn for the Conservative Party or, instead, the emergence of a new populist movement that can articulate this sense of betrayal.
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