Professor Adam Cygan
In the June 2016 referendum the County of Leicestershire overwhelmingly voted ‘leave’ while the City of Leicester narrowly backed ‘remain’. The overall picture in Leicester and Leicestershire was consistent with the broader pattern of voting in England with strong evidence that voters from professional and university backgrounds, who tend to reside in large cities, being more likely to have supported remain. Reflecting the wider national picture, this County was divided over the question of Brexit.
The referendum asked a very simple question: should the UK leave or remain in the EU? Crucially, voters were not asked what sort of relationship they would like with the EU in the event of voting to leave, nor were they provided with sufficient information on how Brexit may impact upon their lives. At the time of the referendum no plan or policy had been put in place by Government to deliver a leave vote, and, 18 months on, the Government has still not been able to fully explain what Brexit will mean whether internationally, nationally or locally. Notwithstanding the joint report from the negotiators of the EU and UK of 8 December 2017, that indicated sufficient progress has been made in the ‘divorce talks’ to move on to the subject of the UK’s future relations with the EU, there still remain many unanswered questions concerning what will UK’s future relationship with the EU will look like and how this will affect our lives. Meanwhile, in the words of Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, the ‘clock is ticking quickly’ towards Brexit day.
At this stage of the negotiations all that can be said with any certainty is that Brexit will change the way we live and work with many of the consequences, intended or otherwise, impacting for years to come. Since the referendum the Government has slowly laid out its negotiating position with, and this may appear contradictory, leaving both the Single Market and Customs Union being cornerstones of what the Prime Minister has described as the UK creating a ‘new deep and special partnership with the EU’.
It would be misleading to suggest that leaving the EU, the Single Market and Customs Union, should only be considered in negative terms. For Leicester and Leicestershire with its diverse economy, strong international connections and a long standing history of multi-culturalism, Brexit may offer opportunities to build upon and develop existing and new relationships both with the EU 27 and the wider world. For this reason the County should embrace the rhetoric of ‘going global’ and engage proactively with the wider world which, with the advance of technology, is becoming more accessible. However, like every other part of the UK, Leicester and Leicestershire cannot exploit these new opportunities and deliver prosperity and renewal without the UK first securing a deal with the EU that protects existing trading, scientific and research, and cultural relationships that have been forged with our EU partners since 1973. Only once this foundation has been laid can the UK begin to consider the regulatory framework for creating new partnerships beyond the EU 27.
Therefore a ‘good’ Brexit for Leicester and Leicestershire, is one which secures an agreement for a comprehensive trade deal with the EU 27 that addresses concerns and priorities on both sides. The burden for delivering this lies with Government and our elected representatives in Parliament, both of which will be judged in years to come on how successful they were in delivering a Brexit that works for all citizens. In the meantime, it will be incumbent upon our elected representatives to engage with local communities and businesses in order that they may better understand what these stakeholders want and expect from Brexit. Moreover, a ‘good’ Brexit will also be one which the people of Leicester and Leicestershire themselves recognise is ‘good’ for them, irrespective of how they voted in the referendum. By contrast, a ‘bad’ Brexit for the County would be one that ends in the uncertainty of a ‘no deal’ where local business is unclear about trading rules and citizens, whether from the UK or the EU 27, are unclear about their rights.
The changes that will be brought by Brexit will dominate the political agenda for much of the next decade, and, probably beyond. New trade arrangements, changes to UK immigration policy and, more generally, adjusting to life outside of the EU will all take time. However, ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and on 29 March 2019 it will become a reality. In the lead up to this date, and for Brexit to be as ‘good’ as possible for Leicester and Leicestershire, it will be imperative that those individuals and institutions that assume the responsibility for delivering the referendum result listen to the people they represent.