Editorial: The five stages of grief.
There had been warnings, but they seemed so far from reality or even common sense that we easily rationalised them out of existence. That made the shock all the worse when it happened.
Therapists talk of the Five Stages of Grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Denial lasted through the rest of June and well into July: It’ll never happen, they won’t go ahead, the referendum is only advisory, Parliament will throw it out. When it became clear Parliament would do no such thing we got angry and there was a lot of name-calling in August and September as we invited Brussels to take action.
Bargaining began in September when Tony Blair called for a second referendum. If that was too big for the British people to bite, we could reassure ourselves reading articles about the Norwegian option and the Swiss option and even the Turkish option, any of which might have kept our lives more or less as they had been.
Depression set in before Christmas as we realised why Theresa May was so reluctant to show her bargaining hand: she hadn’t got one. Brussels had had all its cards on the table from the late summer, but if the Tories insisted on staying on the hook of an imaginary immigration problem, there was nothing much anyone else could do.
We have not achieved acceptance – not yet. We are still arguing the rights and wrongs of our bereavement, still rambling back and forth through the first four stages. There is still a reluctance to face up fully to the awful consequences of what has happened, or even to admit that it has. Much of the debate on special status – for the north or for all of Ireland – was really slippage back into the bargaining stage. We need to dissect that whole idea, reduce it to its individual elements and carefully build them up again in agreement with our friends. Acceptance means that we do not frame the elements as demands. The North has a reasonable case for so doing in its dialogue with London. None of us has such a case when we speak to our 26 friends across Europe and their institutions in Brussels.
We must realistically assess where we have leverage and where we don’t. Across Europe there is understanding, often based on very limited knowledge, of our need to protect the peace process. However, there is no easy read-across from there to a demand that we should be excused from operating an external border on this island on behalf of the whole EU.
We know that maintenance of the Good Friday project requires free movement of people, for example through the Common Travel Area, and we are reasonably well placed to convince others of that – but it cannot be taken for granted.
We know the peace process is powerfully underpinned by the amount of cross-border trade we do, that the cross-border institutions which encourage all sorts of business relationships are absolutely crucial. The rest of Europe sees peace in one box and trade in another. We know pretty much exactly what will happen if we get a British customs presence on the border, but no one else sees that linkage clearly.
Beyond these aspects, there is a case to be made that given our dependence on agri-food, a tariff border would simply devastate our economies north and south. That will be difficult.
We must always remember that in the first instance we have to make our case to 26 other countries, every one of which could make a case for some sort of special status of its own. We need their understanding that the sheer scale of Brexit on our economy and on our politics is such that we need to have a whole series of interlocking special circumstances taken into account.
It is perhaps too much to expect that we might all speak with one voice. However, with an election campaign under way in the north and signs of another one on the horizon in the south, we are in great danger from party-politicking with special status.