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As discussion over what happens next following the UK’s vote to leave the EU intensifies, people have increasingly used the terms ‘hard Brexit’ or ‘soft Brexit’. However, these terms are rarely defined and can mean different things to different people. Open Europe’s Raoul Ruparel lays out his attempt at defining them and argues that, unless some definitions can be agreed, the terms should be dropped.
26 September 2016
The first point to make clear is that I don’t particularly care for the terms hard Brexit or soft Brexit. Partly because they don’t mean much – something I’ll attempt to address – but also because they oversimplify what is an incredibly complex process and imply that Brexit is quite a black or white choice. In fact it is made up of a huge number of shades of grey. This is partly because whether a Brexit is considered hard or soft is not simply down to the content – itself a vast array of possibilities – but also down to the timeline. This means it includes considerations over how long the negotiations will take in total, whether a transitional arrangement of some form might be needed and when Article 50 should be triggered. Furthermore, it also distorts the focus of discussions onto inputs when really it should be about outcomes.
These terms have also quickly become associated with positive or negative connotations depending which side of the Brexit debate you are on. Remainers tend to see a soft Brexit as a good thing as it seen as cushioning the blow and trying to stick close to the EU. For similar reasons, Brexiteers see a hard Brexit as positive as they see it implying ending any kind of EU oversight and supranational authority.
Even just over the past weekend we have seen the array of differences. On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show yesterday Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn warned against a ‘hard Brexit’ due to the impact it would have on manufacturing – implying the imposition of tariffs and that hard Brexit meant falling to WTO rules. However, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has been clear that a hard Brexit means anything other than full single market membership. Former Chancellor George Osborne warned against it but without defining what his preferred option is. All this highlights that they are inherently subjective not objective terms.
But, given they are being used, it serves to try and define them. Just saying hard or soft is not alone sufficient to describe Brexit and as such I’ve introduced greater variation. (These are not attempts to lay out detailed analysis of each, nor stating which are good or bad, but just the broad outlines).
You may well disagree with my definitions and I encourage people to post their own in the comments (see here for an alternative scale from Roland Smith for example). However, either we stop using the terms hard or soft Brexit or we start to actually try and define what they mean. My preference would be for the former since we’re better off talking about what we are trying to achieve rather than using vague and loaded terms.
Ultimately, the type of Brexit the UK goes for is related to a whole host of issues. As we have always said the real impact of Brexit will depend on a wide range of policy choices. As such the type of Brexit pursued has to be looked through the lens of what we want and are trying to achieve as a country – what immigration policy are we going to set? What will be our regulatory approach? How will we approach trade? The answers to these questions will also determine how close or how far we should seek to be from the EU. Some scenarios require greater distance, some less. They are not inherently good or bad but will result in different outcomes. This is what we should be discussing.