Professor Tony Travers: ‘There’s probably a majority for soft Brexit’

The LSE Professor Tony Travers sees a 'priviliged' future for Northern Ireland, and a majority for a soft Brexit. [LSE]

Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics is one of the UK’s leading constitutional and political experts. He was in Brussels to address the LSE’s Towards Brexit? event.

Tony Travers is Director of LSE London, a research centre at the London School of Economics. He is also a Visiting Professor in the LSE’s Government Department. His key research interests include local and regional government and public service reform.

Travers spoke with’s Matthew Tempest.

There’s a lot of talk about a ‘second referendum’. Isn’t it actually a third? We had one in 1975, one in 2016, and the result so far is a one-all draw, with – overall – a large majority in favour of remaining?

You could see it like that. And it’s true, the 1975 referendum might have been thought to have permanent. And, clearly, it turned out not to be. Now, the 2016 referendum is seen by people who voted Leave as permanent. But nothing is permanent in these kind of democracies.

So you can never be sure that at some future point, the British might not think they want to rejoin the EU. Now, whether the rest of the EU would risk it again is another matter entirely. Remember, General de Gaulle was always pretty unenthusiastic about the British joining, so I think the EU would think long and hard about having this level of disruption ever again.

Famously, General de Gaulle saw the British as ‘not quite the right kind of country’ to join the EEC, as it then was. “Non”, he said. It was only his passing, and the arrival of Pompidou, that changed attitudes in France, and therefore made it possible for Britain to join.

And I have to say, looking back at what de Gaulle said now, you have to wonder now whether he wasn’t on the money.

Which is not to say there aren’t half of British people who want to be in the EU, so it is complicated. Even at this referendum, it’s 48% to 52%. This is NOT a resounding result, either way.

No. People talk about the ‘will of the people’, but that’s pretty razor-edge.

It is. And certainly a good deal closer than, say, Mr Renzi’s referendum result rather recently.

Nothing is forever. My guess is – if you think about the 48% of UK voters who voted to ‘Remain – of the 52%, a substantial number – I’m making it up, but lets say 10% or 15% – probably want something quite close to the EU, but without being in the EU.

So there’s probably a majority for what has been called a ‘soft Brexit’.

Now, of course, those who are in favour of ‘real Brexit’ – as I’m sure they see it – the Leavers’ leading lights, and the newspapers like the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, they may be *very* unenthusiastic about anything that looked like ‘Brexit-lite’.

So there is a culture war brewing between the powerful Remainers and the powerful Leavers, which is going to take some years to sort out.

But isn’t the problem for the UK that we are sellers in a buyers’ market? We have to get a deal, and the other 27 members know that, and from March 2017 the clock is ticking…

It’s clear that the UK’s position doesn’t look brilliantly strong. The UK has decided to leave a large trading bloc in which it’s been embedded for 41 years. However, we must assume that rationality of a kind will play on both sides.

The EU-27, particularly the leadership of it, don’t want accidentally to signal that other countries can pick and choose their terms and conditions. That’s inevitable.

Having said that, it’s not in any of these countries interests – the EU-27 or the UK – to come up with a deal that undermines international trade or damages their long-term relationships with each other, given that they’re neighbours.

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So, somewhere in between those two needs, particularly on the part of the EU-27, I’m guessing will be struck a deal, and the UK will play other cards on the way through.

So speaking now – in December 2016 – what are your best case and worst case scenarios for a Brexit deal?

The worst case scenario would be an acrimonious, unfinished, set of negotiations with the EU, that ended up with – in the short term – in our dealings with the EU and other countries, falling back on WTO-type tarrifs. Or much less favourable terms for dealing with the EU, based perhaps on the EU’s relationship with other countries outside the EU. That would mean probably a diminuation of trade with the EU and other downsides.

On the more positive sides, then relatively harmonious relations with the EU, the UK and other trading partners to a series of rational deals that do not lead to any radical change in trading conditions which, separately, allow the relatively free movement of people. And that’s what business wants.

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Final question. You mentioned in your talk that Northern Ireland [which voted to remain in the EU] might end up with a ‘privileged’ position. What did you mean by that?

If, given the importance of sustaining an open border between Northern Ireland, which is a member of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the EU,  if that border is open, and there is free movement across it, because it’s a common travel area, and – effectively – a common residential area, you can see that Northern Ireland might benefit, if not from being “in” the EU, then having many of the benefits of being in the EU.

Now that puts questions on the Irish border, which Ireland might have to grit its teeth and do some of the controls that are effectively the UK’s bidding as they can’t restrain movement within the EU. So you can just about see how a ‘good’ deal could leave Northern Ireland with less change than other parts of the UK.


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