Watermark’s business is clearly one which makes interaction with trading partners throughout the EU a daily routine. There has therefore been no shortage of opportunities to chat about the result of the UK’s referendum on EU membership and these conversations have been fascinating. First however, there are a few points concerning the referendum upon which it is simply impossible to resist the urge to comment.
It would be greatly to the benefit of us all if we could dispense with the flawed notion that the motivations of voters on either side can be inferred from the content of the respective campaigns
. The question on the voting card was “Should the United Kingdom Remain in the EU or Leave the EU?” Voters were not asked to express an opinion on immigration or the refugee crisis or NHS funding. The result of the referendum illuminated the view held by the population on membership of the EU, and that is all. I think this is important for two reasons: firstly, if we are to unify behind this national project then we will need to view each other without pre-conceptions concerning our beliefs on any particular issue (or indeed on our general level of intelligence); secondly, when our government comes to respecting the democratic will of the people, any detail which is finer than “Leave the EU” is open to negotiation.
Now, while every detail of any ultimate agreement with the rest of the EU should be on the table the one thing that must be off the table is the possibility that we might not leave. There are some who argue that we did not know exactly what we were voting for and that when we have negotiated a more detailed exit we should have another referendum: negotiate the best deal possible and then vote. Sounds familiar but at least when David Cameron was negotiating the EU had an incentive (albeit one they seemed able to resist) to offer the UK concessions on continuing EU membership in an effort to entice us to vote Remain. Now that we are negotiating terms of leaving, the idea of a second referendum merely provides an incentive to make any exit deal as unattractive as possible. The most important thing we can state on the first day of negotiations is that there are precisely two end results: we leave with a deal if one can be agreed or we leave with no deal at all.
We have heard some argue that because the campaign included half-truths, wild speculation, breath-taking bad taste and blatant lies (so in that respect was typical), the electorate has been deceived and must vote again. That is to accuse voters of an inability to sift the truth from the lies. This I would strongly dispute. Moreover, voters are perfectly aware when certainty is just not possible and can be trusted to treat with deep scepticism those who would claim to predict the future with accuracy.
None of the above is intended as an argument for or against Brexit, but it certainly is a criticism of those who would seek to disregard the result of the referendum, or re-run it. Whether it is some legal technicality, or some criticism of the campaign or some idea that the motion was too vague, it all amounts to saying that the electorate got it wrong. You either believe in democracy or you do not. If, as the referendum has been characterised, this was a moment where ordinary people with all manner of social backgrounds and political allegiances finally got their voice heard above that of the elite then there is something distinctly distasteful about the lengths to which some seem willing to go to ignore what was so clearly proclaimed.
Coming back to conversations with our trading counterparties it has been interesting to observe a hopeful anticipation about how the result of our referendum may influence reforms within the EU institutions. It is hardly news that disillusionment with the EU extends beyond the UK; but there is also a real appreciation of why we, as a country not needing to disentangle from the Euro, might feel it viable to deal with these ever increasing concerns by simply leaving. And although the result was clearly a surprise to many of our partners, there is certainly no sense of insult. Why should there be? It was the EU and Brussels we could not stomach, not Europe or Europeans. One of the more absurd ideas put forward since the referendum is the one that states we have caused such offense that we will now find it difficult to have relationships, be they business or social, with other Europeans. I would suggest that a friendship which is dependent on our membership of the EU is a fairly peculiar one.
The highest priority from everyone we have spoken to is to continue to do business. There is a clear determination to ensure our trade together continues to flourish despite this change. And that is what matters. The same determination will exist in businesses big and small throughout Europe and they will all take a dim view of any politician or negotiator who is seen to be raising barriers out of some fit of establishment pique.
I referred earlier to Brexit as a national project. I hope that the understandable disappointment felt by those who wished to remain in the EU will fade. It may not be the result they wanted but we can all feel fortunate to have had the chance to express our wish. The path has been chosen and there are expanses of new territory to explore ahead. Surely, regardless of how we voted, we can all get a bit excited about that even if we are also a little apprehensive. No-one can deny that Brexit creates challenges but it is equally undeniable that new opportunities will now present themselves. For all the time spent fretting about the outcome of the forthcoming negotiations with the EU (and indeed the rest of the world) the surest route to success is for individuals, families and businesses to embrace the future with optimism and vigour.