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Brexit Conundrum

Just as there is the vaguest hint that a Brexit deal might be possible polls suggest that a majority of the voters might not want to leave the European Union at all.

The week started with EU leaders responding negatively to the Prime Minister’s proposals for scrapping the ‘backstop’ and enabling the UK to leave the EU without a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. On Thursday Mr Johnson met his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar in a country house on the Wirral usually used for wedding receptions and the Taoiseach was hinting that there might be “a pathway to a deal” after all.

That is a ‘might be’ not a ‘will be’ and Varadkar is only one of the 27 EU leaders but because Ireland is the only EU state with a border with the UK his attitude matters. The reasons for this change of attitude were not made public. It is also still possible, even probable that the more powerful EU members, especially France and Germany, could veto the proposed deal and insist that the EU’s normal border policy is maintained in the island of Ireland. Even so, talks continue in Brussels and both sides will have to compromise if there is to be a deal.  The Council of Ministers meets on 17th and 18th October and any basis for a compromise will have to be on their agenda then.

Ever since the 2016 referendum both Theresa May and Boris Johnson have pitched their Brexit proposals on the basis that the people voted (51.9% to 48.1%) to leave the EU. Since Johnson became Prime Minister he has caricatured the Brexit debate as one between Parliament and the people. New evidence published this week refutes that.

An analysis of 226 polls on public attitudes to leaving the EU recorded since 2017 reveals that 204 of them showed a majority in favour of remaining in the EU, with only 7 showing a majority for leaving. The other 15 polls showed a tie between the two options. In 2019 74 polls have shown a majority for Remaining and only one for Leaving.  Currently the polls are showing 47% for Remain and 41% for Leaving and if the ‘don’t knows’ are excluded they indicate 53% for Remain and 47% for Leave. In other words, the people and Parliament are not at loggerheads. Those calling for a people’s vote or a new referendum will be encouraged by this evidence.

It would be unwise though to overlook how the UK’s membership has deeply divided the nation. Even if a popular vote now reversed the 2016 referendum result a significant proportion of the British public would still be vehemently opposed to membership of the EU. A way forward that unites the nation has to be found. Time might heal the divisions. Support for Brexit is strongest amongst older voters whereas younger voters tend to support remaining in the EU.

Nevertheless, the divisions about Brexit need to be resolved so that we can refocus on the more serious issues of global warming and climate change, the mass migration of peoples from lands rendered uninhabitable by global warming, and from the threat of Russian expansionism and terrorism. None of these issues can be resolved by individual nations acting alone. The nationalists who want Brexit to free us from being governed from Brussels must be respected but they must recognise our need to work with our neighbours in coping with these global issues. Had we sought to lead a reform movement within the EU instead of voting to leave, we might now be better placed to cope with these bigger challenges.

If that is like crying over spilt milk, we can at least encourage our MPs to find a way to leave the EU without wrecking our relationships with our neighbours so that we can work well and trade with them in the future.