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For the kids: A divorce from Brussels

For the kids: A divorce from Brussels


Julian Hawkhead explains how to make Brexit an amicable divorce

A year on from that fateful referendum, formal Brexit negotiations have finally begun with the EU. Whether you voted ‘remain’ or ‘leave’, there is no getting away from the fact that untangling British law from the complexities of EU regulation will be a huge and complex task, one that will take up much of the government’s time and attention over the next few years.

If you’re a journalist writing for a perennially distracted audience, Brexit is not an easy subject to report on. How do you encapsulate all the complexity in a snappy soundbite? By far the most popular media metaphor has been the ‘divorce’. Google the word and you are as likely to find as many articles on Brexit as you are on actual divorce. But is there any truth in this idea? Is Brexit like a divorce?

It has been my experience that when divorce looms, one spouse is usually keener than the other. The decision is often made unilaterally, and the other partner is then left with little choice but to go along with the split.

We find this with Brexit too. A little over half of those who voted put their mark in the ‘leave’ box, while the rest opted for ‘remain’. Why that happened is open to debate. Was it an anti-establishment protest vote or a principled objection to some perceived aspect of EU membership? The answers vary from person to person. But the decision has been made, and just like that reluctant divorcee in the consultation room we have little choice but to live with the (probable) fact of Brexit.

I am not alone in the advice I give to those reluctant divorcees: it is essentially impossible to stay in a marriage once the other party has decided it’s over – the occasional defended divorce oddity aside. I tell them that their focus must be on important practicalities that will affect their future – sorting out the assets and arrangements for the children.

The parallels with Brexit are clear, especially for those who voted to remain. Barring a dramatic change of mind on a second referendum, the government and remain voters must make the best of the situation we all now face.

Let’s extend the metaphor a little further. As any parent who has gone through a divorce will confirm, remaining on friendly terms with your ex can be a challenge. You may feel guilty around them or believe they wronged you. But for the sake of your children you should at least go through the motions – because children deserve both parents.

Replace children with citizens and you will appreciate the point I am making. It was a relief to read that our prime minister has at last acknowledged the right of EU citizens to remain in the UK.

We must maintain an amicable and constructive relationship with the EU post-divorce. The lists of issues that must be discussed and agreed upon is lengthy and one of the parties to this divorce has 27 argumentative heads all with their own points of view.

One question that vexes me, however, is the criticism often levied that there appears to be no plan. I have no doubt our government has a clear picture of what it would like the outcome to be, but as I know from many a divorce negotiation, the outcome often falls short of the ideal scenario. There must be give and take. Similarly, while any good lawyer manages their client’s expectations, a government cannot be expected on a matter as complex as these Brexit negotiations to inform the public what their negotiating strategy is.

So, yes, we have no choice but to try our best to forge different relationships with our neighbours. Our children will live with the consequences of Brexit longer than any of us older folk – and they deserve the best future we can give them.

Julian Hawkhead is senior partner at Stowe Family Law