With the Brexit negotiations going so badly, is it time for the UK negotiators to start playing their strongest cards?
First, recognise that the UK does not have a strong hand with regard to trade. The asymmetry arises because EU is the larger market than the UK, and the EU market is subdivided into blocks. So whereas the EU accounts for 44% of UK exports, the UK only account for 7% of German exports. This makes it much easier for Germany to do without the UK than for the UK to do without the EU. On trade, the UK will lose.
The second step is to realise that the UK does have two strong cards. The first is that it is now known that the UK population are not happy with the current relationship and voted to leave. The second is that the EU would like the UK to remain, because losing 66 million members of your club is not a triviality. How far the EU will bend to keep the UK in the tent is unknown, but now is the time that this can be tested. The way the UK can play their strongest card is to say to the EU, the ball is in your court, make the UK people an offer, and we shall offer them a vote on it. If the UK demos reject the offer the UK crashes out so those that support no deal can make their case when the time comes.
Now no-one wants a second referendum – “the instrument of Nazism and fascism” in Atlee’s words – but once you have gone down that route you have to accept that you may need another one to clear up the mess. To ignore this option is to give up on the strongest card. The most powerful force in any democracy is the people – the EU cannot easily ignore the collective opinion of 66 million EU citizens. You could argue we have been here before. The EU did not take the UK seriously enough when Cameron went to renegotiate the terms of UK membership back in early 2016, but we have come a long way since then, and now the UK has a stronger card following the referendum vote.
Like the UK, the EU often makes mistakes. It made the mistake of not offering Cameron a better deal. It is making the mistake of not being more diplomatic in the Catalonian crisis (which also needs another referendum to sort out). But still it is worth giving the EU more chances to improve because what is good for the UK is good for Europe and we should always hope that there has enough smart people to understand that.