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Opinion

Hell, Heaven, Purgatory - and Brexit

Hugo Dixon / Jan 2019

Photo: Shutterstock

When you die, you end up in hell, heaven or purgatory. So it is with Brexit. Hell is crashing out of the EU with no deal at all. That’s what Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, wants. Heaven would involve Britons changing their minds and staying in the EU, the outcome favoured by pro-Europeans fighting for a new referendum. Purgatory is the half-in half-out option that the prime minister Theresa May has negotiated.

 Even pro-Europeans don’t, of course, believe that the EU is literally heavenly. As with any human invention, the EU is imperfect and needs reform. However, it is vastly superior as a mechanism for advancing peace, power and prosperity to the versions of Brexit that Johnson and May are pushing.

 To get to “heaven”, MPs first need to reject both “purgatory” and “hell”. They will then conclude that the only sensible option is to ask the people whether they wish to stick to the decision to leave the EU that they took in the 2016 referendum.

We crossed an important milestone on Tuesday when MPs massively rejected the prime minister’s deal. Neither pro-Europeans nor hardline Brexiters like it because it is bad for both our prosperity and our power. We won’t get full access to the EU’s market but we’ll still end up following many rules without a say on them.

MPs are then likely to make crystal clear that they don’t want Johnson’s Brexit either. This would build on an important vote in Parliament on January 8, which made it harder for the government to crash out with no deal.

Although MPs will cast around for alternatives, the EU has said that the only deal is the one already on the table. If we want to discuss different future trade arrangements, we can do that after we’ve left. But first we have to sign the divorce deal that the prime minister has agreed.

The next task for pro-Europeans will be to convince Jeremy Corbyn to back a new referendum. His Labour Party overwhelmingly wants to stay in the EU, so the chance that the leader of the opposition will eventually come on board is good. There will probably then be a majority in Parliament in favour of a new “People’s Vote” - given that several MPs in May’s own Conservative Party want one too.

The public are likely to be given a choice between heaven and purgatory, given that so few MPs think hell is sensible. It is possible, though, that the choice will be a simple one between heaven and hell - or a three-way choice between heaven, hell, and purgatory.

Parliament will need to pass a new law to authorise this referendum. It can do this either the easy way, with the prime minister’s support; or the hard way, by forcing it through against her wishes. MPs have the tools to get their way following a decision by the Speaker of the House of Commons on January 9 which effectively lets them take control of the Parliamentary timetable.

We can’t do all this by March 29, the date we are supposed to leave. So we’ll need to ask the other EU countries for extra time.

Pro-Europeans will then need to win the referendum. And to do that, a much more positive campaign will be needed than the one David Cameron ran when he was prime minister. That merely defended the status quo and focused on how bad it would be to leave the EU.

The problem is that many voters, particularly in towns which have been starved of investment for decades, find the status quo intolerable. A new campaign will have to show that the deep-seated problems are the fault of Westminster not Brussels - and convince voters that staying in the EU will give us the resources to tackle them. CommonGround, a pro-European campaign group, has already started outlining some ways to do this.

We will also need to explain how being in the EU actively advances our interests in so many ways.

Three years ago, even many politicians and journalists had only a hazy understanding about how the EU works. They have since been on a crash course - and have learnt a lot.

Many now realise that we would have struggled to bring peace to Northern Ireland without our EU membership. And they know that a single market needs common rules - and it is better to sit round the table helping make those rules rather than following them blindly.

Many also see the benefit of being in the world’s largest economic bloc when other big powers such as America and China are throwing their weight around - and, again, that it is better to help shape the EU’s trade policies than follow them passively.

Three years ago, Donald Trump wasn’t in the White House and Vladimir Putin wasn’t poisoning people in the UK. MPs are starting to see that the world is more dangerous and that, although the EU has its own problems, it is a relative oasis in a sea of trouble.

Even Johnson came to see that we have more in common with our EU allies than with Trump’s America when he was foreign secretary. Whether it is on climate change, the Iran nuclear pact or moving the embassy to Jerusalem, we are on the same side as Europe.

This is no accident. We share common values and common interests because we are in the same part of the world.

In 2016 the British people were offered a fantasy version of Brexit. If, after mature reflection on the reality of Brexit, they decide to stay in the EU, this will be a powerful antidote to populism across Europe.

We hope that the other European countries will then welcome us with open arms. We have a lot of work to do - and will be stronger together.

Hugo Dixon

Hugo Dixon

January 2019

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