How To Talk About Brexit

There had to be a way it made sense. Someone was going to explain the sense in leaving the largest trading bloc in the world based on a few hollow slogans, weren’t they? Seemingly reasonable people said it was a good idea, but no reasonable explanation ever came. Still, I thought, they must know what they’re doing – there must be something I’ve missed.

Then came the unveiling of the Withdrawal Agreement, the culmination of months of hard negotiation – surely this would reveal the secret. No – in fact, all hell broke loose when it was revealed what Brexit would actually look like in practice. Ministers who had taken part in or followed the negotiations were falling over themselves to disown their own handiwork and resign, while leave-supporting politicians queued up to denounce the agreement as nothing like the Brexit that had always existed, so shiny and perfect, in their heads.

So it finally became clear – there was no way for it to make sense. Brexit might sound fantastic as a bunch of slogans or a brief newspaper column, but once you get into the complex realities of international trade, all the proposed benefits rapidly disintegrate. I felt an overwhelming need to take some action, no matter how small, to do something to resist my country making this historic mistake.

So I joined handfuls of other hardy souls breaking out of online echo chambers, standing on high streets up and down the country, trying to engage leave-supporting passers-by, trying to understand what motivates them, trying to convince them that Brexit will be none of the things that they think it will.

This is far from my natural milieu – I’m shy, quiet-spoken, conflict-averse. I prefer to gather my thoughts in my own time than take part in real-time discussion. But I needed to feel that I was doing something.

I’m still not very good at it, so I’m compiling a list of simple answers to common questions/complaints/accusations, many of which I wished I’d thought of in the heat of the moment. If you’re thinking of joining the fight, maybe this will be helpful to you. This is by no means exhaustive, and I’m hoping to add to it as time goes on – feel free to suggest others as well.

You’re anti-democratic / You lost, get over it

This is of course very common. I like Caroline Lucas’ phrase that democracy is a process, not a one-off event, but this can sound a little glib. I now prefer to say that democracy doesn’t mean that the losing side no longer has a voice – a vote should never be used to shut down debate. If none of the options available now look anything like what was promised during the referendum, what can be undemocratic about going back to the people to ask if they really want to go ahead with this?

The EU is undemocratic

It’s surprising how often you still hear this, especially when we’ve just taken part in elections. The EU is fundamentally democratic – the electorate of each member votes for MEPs to represent them in the European Parliament – furthermore, MEPs are appointed by proportional representation, so you could argue this is more democratic than our first-past-the-post system. (While you’re on the subject, you could point out that we have a monarchy and unelected chamber in the House of Lords, so are perhaps not in the best position to lecture others on democracy).

It’s true that the head of the European Commission is not directly elected, but they are voted in by the democratically-elected heads of state of all member countries. This position is more equivalent to a head of Civil Service anyway, which we don’t get to vote for in our system.

We can’t make our own laws / We don’t have sovereignty

The classic response to this is ‘What law don’t you like?’ but that can come across as a bit confrontational. I prefer to ask, ‘What is it that you want to do that we can’t currently?’ – it’s quite likely that the answer given will have nothing to do with the EU, in which case point out that it will be much harder to address if we’re dealing with all the issues that Brexit will create. If it is to do with the EU, a good follow-up question is ‘What are you prepared to pay for that?’ – almost all leavers now accept that we can’t leave without some negative impact.

We just need to leave, just get out

The fundamental reason that we’re in the mess we are in is that Brexit is extremely complicated and was sold as something simple – reduced to a three-word slogan, ‘Take Back Control’. The appeal of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is that it seems to offer the same simplicity – it suggests that we can leave while avoiding all the complexity of a deal, take back control of the situation, be masters of our own destiny once more. Sure, there may be some short-term disruption, but how bad can it be? I point out that this would mean tearing up all of our international agreements overnight, leaving us the only nation in the world with no trading arrangements with its near-neighbours. It would mean border checks and all the chaos that would entail, because checks are what happen at borders when you don’t have any other arrangements in place.

Furthermore, it has to be stressed that leaving without a deal resolves nothing – No-Dealers like to make out that it will bypass the issues covered by the Withdrawal Agreement and let us move straight to negotiating a trade deal. The EU have made it clear that there is no deal without resolving the issues of the financial settlement, rights of EU citizens and the Irish Border.

I voted for No Deal

So committed are some to the Brexit cause, they have convinced themselves that they were not actually voting for a deal when they put a cross next to ‘Leave’ on Jun 23 2016. You’re unlikely to sway anyone like this in any way, just calmly point out that they may have voted that way, but there’s no way they can say that 17.4 million people did. After all, if they’d put ‘We’ll stockpile medicine, hopefully no-one will die and we should get through it with a bit of Dunkirk spirit’ on the side of the bus, do they really think Leave would have won?

The Irish Border isn’t a problem

Most leavers accept that they don’t want to be responsible for a return to hostilities in Northern Ireland, which is probably why there’s still a strong desire to wish the Irish Border issue away. The most common objection here is that we don’t need to build a border if we don’t want to, and if the EU do, any repercussions will be their fault. I would point out that the EU have said that there will have to be checks if we diverge from their Single Market regulations – say we start importing chlorinated chicken from the US, they need to make sure that it doesn’t get into their territory – and currently no technology exists that allows for checking without infrastructure of some sort. Plus, we’re the ones who’ve chosen to leave, and the EU have done everything they can to protect their member state, so to blame the situation on them is quite unfair.

The EU have bullied us

During the referendum campaign, how often were we told ‘The EU need us more than we need them’, or ‘we hold all the cards’? Now we’ve had to compromise in negotiations and come out with a deal that isn’t cake-and-eat-it, some think the EU have treated us unfairly, or sought to punish us, in negotiations. You can point out that the EU have been very consistent in their stance throughout this period and have only sought to represent the best interests of their member states, especially Ireland. It’s also worth noting that they have compromised – the much-hated backstop, for example, was conceived by the UK rather than the EU, and was initially designed to apply to Northern Ireland only; the EU compromised in allowing it to cover the whole of the UK.

But a more persuasive line here might well be: if you think that the EU is bullying us now, just wait until we start trade talks with the likes of the US and China…

The EU is a failed project / it’s all about to fall apart

After the UK voted to leave, commentators were queuing up to predict the downfall of the bloc, speculating over who would leave next. In fact, partly as a response to the mess it has left us in, support for the EU is strong across Europe. Nervertheless, the bloc is not without its issues – the most commonly quoted statistic is that of youth unemployment in countries like Spain and Italy (probably because by most other metrics, they are doing better than us). Like all countries, EU members have struggled since the financial crash – particularly in the Eurozone, where it’s harder to take measures that help all member states.

Does that make it a failed project? The UK is hardly without its problems at the moment – in fact, things have got so bad that the UN sent a special rapporteur to investigate rising levels of poverty, food bank use etc. Does that mean that the UK is a failed project? It’s also worth pointing out here that austerity was in no way imposed on us by the EU, it was entirely a policy of the UK government.

The EU costs us so much money

The famous £350m figure on the bus has been done to death and it’s not worth quibbling about exact figures – simply point out that it’s a very small proportion of total state expenditure (roughly 1%) and membership of the Single Market alone is worth far more than that.

It’s all for big business / it’s a neoliberal conspiracy

You’ll occasionally find someone who wants to argue against the EU from the left – that it’s just about business and free trade. There’s some truth in this, of course – it’s a trading bloc made up of countries whose economic positioning has been largely centre-right, much like other developed nations over the past 30 years. Nevertheless, many member states are far more left-leaning than the UK (traditionally one of the most free-market of the members) and it seems fanciful to think that we would lurch further to the left than the likes of Sweden or Belgium. Even if we did, EU law experts have said that there was nothing in Labour’s last manifesto that would have been forbidden by EU law. Furthermore, EU regulations on workers’ rights, the environment, safety etc are the strongest in the world, and Brexit is primarily a project of the right by those who want to remove them from the UK.

Finally, what not to say…

Don’t talk about the lies of the referendum campaign – rather, say ‘no-one knew what they were voting for’ – actual information was very thin on the ground during the campaign. If you want to focus on the campaign, emphasise how they all said it would be so easy – the same people now saying no-deal would be no problem.

Don’t suggest that all Leave voters were racist – as well as being offensive, it’s not true.

Don’t say that only 37% of the electorate voted to leave (including non-voters) – arguments like this just sound petty.

Don’t say that we need another vote because so many older Leave voters have now died – it’s distasteful and unlikely to sway anyone.

Do stay calm, listen, and don’t interrupt. Don’t patronise or be sarcastic. The only way to move on from this godawful shambles is to persuade Leavers that leaving the EU is not going to solve any of the country’s problems, rather it will make them worse – and the only way to do that is to start by talking to them.

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