Thursday, 18 April 2019

A quiet week reminded us of some Brexit realities

It has been a mercifully quiet Brexit week, with a palpable sense of exhausted relief all round. True, there have been the opening salvos in the European Parliament election campaign. I’m not going to write much about those now, though, in anticipation that the election – if it goes ahead – will surely be the subject of future posts.

My only initial thoughts are that the remain parties really do need to develop some kind of pact or co-ordinating agreement (to the extent this is allowable under electoral rules), and that the initial Farage Brexit Party bounce may not prove very durable. After all, newly launched parties often achieve spectacular opinion poll results (witness the 18% recorded for TIG a week after launch in February). The Brexit Party faces a particular challenge in presenting itself as ‘new’ precisely because Farage, although their greatest electoral asset, is hardly a fresh face. He has an appeal to those who already find him appealing, and appals those who already find him appalling, but is unlikely to galvanise a whole new following.

The Pelosi delegation

Leaving all that aside for now, there’s been one (relatively) ignored event which served as a reminder of several Brexit realities. A delegation of senior US politicians led by Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, has been visiting the UK and Ireland, including the border between the two countries. The message they have brought is that any damage done to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the peace process would undermine the prospects of a future US-UK trade agreement.

There are various strands to this which are worth unpicking. One, which is important to remember, is just how heavily the US was involved in, and is invested in, the peace process. It was one of President Clinton’s major foreign policy initiatives, and his Special Envoy, Senator George Mitchell, played a key role in brokering the agreement. That commitment and active involvement continued under the Bush and Obama presidencies. And although it is true that Trump has been much less engaged, Pelosi’s comment this week that the GFA is a “beacon to the world” is a reminder that Northern Ireland still matters to the US.

By extension, this is also a reminder that leaving the EU is not just a matter of renegotiating that relationship. It has knock on effects in terms of re-calibrating all of the relationships, both economic and geo-political, that the UK has with the wider world. Brexit affects all of those – from Japan, to India, to Russia – in a variety of ways, adding multiple layers of complexity to what is already a complex process. Brexit is Brexit, to coin a phrase - but it is not just Brexit.

Brexit and a UK-US trade agreement

A second strand is the role that the idea of a US-UK trade agreement has played, and continues to play, in the Brexit debate. Obama’s warning during the referendum campaign that Britain would be at “the back of the queue” for such a deal was greeted with fury by Brexiters, whilst Trump’s subsequent enthusiasm for one has delighted them.

In fact, the economic reality is that a UK-US deal would be of negligible value – in the range of 0.1% and 0.3% of GDP, in the long-term according to government modelling (see p.14 of link). To put that figure into context, Brexit has already led to UK GDP being an estimated 2.5% smaller than it would have been had the vote gone the other way.

But, as with the more general Brexiter infatuation with an ‘independent trade policy’, economics is not really the issue. There’s never been any realistic suggestion that the UK will achieve better trade agreements on its own than as part of the EU. The issue is the political symbolism of it being an ‘independent’ policy, not that it is a better ‘trade’ policy.

That, actually, is not so unusual. Many aspects of the trade policy of many countries have little to do with trade and economics. Rather, they are also bound up with domestic political interests, geo-political strategy, and diplomatic and military relationships. Indeed, it is precisely Pelosi’s message that political factors would be relevant to whether or not there would be a UK-US agreement. For that matter, the EU stance on a future trade deal with the UK will in part be political rather than economic. That is why, for particular example, the Brexiter ‘Malthouse Plan B’, in which the Withdrawal Agreement is torn up, but a trade deal negotiated anyway, is a fantasy.

Just as a UK-US trade deal has a symbolic – even totemic – appeal to Brexiters, so too does it play an important role in critiques of Brexit. In particular, the spectre of ‘chlorinated chicken’ stands as an example of, and as a symbol of, the danger of an erosion of regulatory standards post-Brexit. The wider concern it references is a recognition that Britain would be too weak – and, no doubt, too eager for a deal – to maintain these standards. Moreover, for at least some Brexiters, the erosion of regulatory standards (including those for workers’ rights and environmental protection) would be not just something forced upon Britain but something to be actively welcomed.

In any case, whether standards were weaker or stronger, the key issue coming back to the Irish border is simply the possibility of their being different to those in the EU. It is this regulatory divergence from the single market – more than leaving the customs union – which goes to heart of why hard Brexit entails a hard border. This fact, more than any other, is what has given the lie to the pre-referendum Brexiter claim that there would be no implications for the Irish border.

Pelosi, the ERG, and the Irish border

This, then, is the third strand of the significance of Pelosi’s visit. During the London leg, her delegation had lunch with leading members of the ERG – Rees-Mogg, Francois, Jenkin and Baker. Reportedly, this led to Pelosi delivering a sharp rebuke to Mark Francois for being condescending (this would have been something to witness, since Pelosi is a talented, serious and heavyweight politician whereas Francois is, let’s say, less obviously impressive in his endowments). The hapless Francois apparently “turned from already red to even brighter red”. The point of contention was the now familiar Brexiter conspiracy theory that the Irish border issue has been ‘concocted’ by the EU and Dublin in order to derail Brexit.

That claim matters hugely, because it is central to the Brexiter belief that Theresa May unnecessarily agreed to the backstop and, therefore, has ‘betrayed’ Brexit. It seems certain to play a central role in the race to succeed her as Tory Party leader. The idea that the border issue is either non-existent or, at least, readily solved through ‘technological and administrative solutions’ – solutions which do not currently exist anywhere in the world, be it noted – has moved from the ERG fringe to become part of the Tory mainstream. The pivotal moments in this shift came with the government endorsement of the ‘Brady Amendment’ and with the development of the ‘Malthouse Compromise’.

The key to understanding why the latter was pivotal is the word ‘compromise’, because what it referred to was the endorsement of both ERG members and hitherto pragmatic Tory MPs like Damian Green and Nicky Morgan. In other words, like so much of what has characterised the Brexit debate, it is not about the realities of Brexit itself but about the internal dynamics of the Tory Party. Hence we now see potential contestants for the leadership endorsing it (£) in order to burnish their credentials. But as Peter Foster, the extremely well-informed Europe Editor of the Daily Telegraph, pithily put it “the point is, this stuff is – frankly – garbage” (the whole thread of which this tweet forms a part is well worth reading).

Pelosi is just the latest figure – albeit one of the most important – to try to explain to Brexiters why their attempt to pretend the Irish border is a non-issue is, indeed, garbage. It is unlikely to have an effect, though, and they will continue, no doubt, to refer to cherry-picked quotes from Varadkar, Barnier and others to pretend otherwise. I’m not sure that it is even a lie, anymore anyway, for most of them. It seems more to be a matter of group think in which what they want to be true must be true because they all agree it is true. Be that as it may, it is plainly false and if the next Prime Minister comes to office on the basis of a promise to implement it* then the prospects for the future Brexit negotiations are very poor. Indeed, if we get that far, it virtually guarantees that the ultimate outcome would be no future terms deal and the implementation of the backstop.

 

*Note: for the avoidance of confusion, the ‘it’ here is some version of Malthouse Plan A (i.e. the scenario I am envisaging is a Withdrawal Agreement being agreed by Parliament and ratified, May resigning, and her replacement then undertaking the future terms negotiations). It is of course a nonsensical scenario in that Malthouse Plan A entails revising the Withdrawal Agreement, which in this scenario would already have been passed. But anyone who thinks that nonsensical scenarios can be ruled out hasn’t been paying attention to the politics ofBrexit. In fact, it is doubly nonsensical because if the alternative arrangements envisaged by Malthouse A were ever proved to exist then their implementation is catered for in the Withdrawal Agreement. Thus, if Brexiters believe they are, or will be, developed then their objection to the backstop is redundant anyway. On reflection, perhaps this footnote only adds to rather than avoids confusion.

Thursday, 11 April 2019

The EU is protecting itself from Brexiter dishonesty and delusion - and throwing Britain a lifeline

We now know the conditions under which, for the second time in a fortnight, the EU-27 are willing to allow us to avoid, for now, the catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit. The British Prime Minister was sent out of the room whilst the other countries, each of whom had a veto, argued for hours over our fate and now they have decided.

Brexiters often talk of EU discussions ‘going to the wire’, imagining this to mean that at the last minute Britain will be given its unicorn cake. But these early morning talks were about whether to give the thin gruel of a short extension or the humble pie of a long extension with onerous conditions attached. In the event, the outcome was somewhere in the middle. Thus Britain has been granted an extension until the end of October, with a progress review in June. The offer comes with a pointed reminder that, as a departing member, the UK must not behave in an obstructive manner, and that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.

There is much talk of the humiliation of the UK having to ‘go cap in hand’ to the EU in search of an extension. This captures a certain truth – and one which I first wrote about on this blog in October 2017 – although it’s important to understand that it is a self-inflicted humiliation, visited on the UK by Brexiters rather than the EU.

But it also conceals a deeper and more shaming truth which is revealed by the conversations around the decision, and in particular concerns over how a lingering British membership might, intentionally or not, damage the EU. As Georgina Wright of the Institute for Government put it, the “EU gave up pressing UK for a ‘plan’ and focussed instead on making sure Brexit does not hamper EU work elsewhere”.

There are at least four dimensions to this, and as well as informing the EU’s decision making on the extension they also explain why an extension is needed at all.

Dishonesty

The most obvious is dishonesty. The entire Brexiter prospectus was a dishonest one, as becomes clearer each day, both about Britain’s membership of the EU and about what would await it afterwards. That dishonesty has spread from a small coterie of fanatics to infect the entire body politic of the UK. Thus even those who know it to be nonsense must ritualistically incant their ‘respect for the will of the people’. So in a general way there’s an understandable desire for the EU to place a kind of fire break between itself and this outbreak of pathological, incontinent lying.

This general sense of the danger of Brexiter dishonesty is personified in Boris Johnson. Perhaps more than anyone else he is rightly seen in the EU as the figure who, for years before the referendum, deliberately promulgated lies. Thus there is a specific sense in which the EU is concerned to protect itself from the possibility of a Johnson premiership (£) during the extension and (if it comes to that) transition periods. There is probably no politician in modern times who has done such comprehensive damage to British national reputation.

Untrustworthiness

But even if it were not Boris Johnson who became the next Prime Minister, many of the other likely candidates present a similarly distasteful prospect precisely because of the spread of the Brexit toxin within British politics. Even those ERG-ers who have belatedly come round to May’s deal are open in saying that they expect it to be ripped up once she is gone.

As regards the extension, comments from prominent Brexiter politicians – even those with few leadership credentials – compound the sense that the EU needs to protect itself. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s call for the extension to be used to wreck EU decision making might be seen as the worst example were it not for the onanistic Mark Francois making even more bellicose remarks. Apparently, we in the UK have to accept these ludicrous mediocrities playing a part in our public life. It’s not hard to understand why the EU are not enthusiastic about doing the same.

These people probably neither know nor care what terrible damage they are doing to the reputation of the UK as a trustworthy partner. And, in fairness, they only play a bit part in that. Far more damage was done, in a single sentence, when the then Brexit Secretary David Davis opined, after the conclusion of phase 1 of the Brexit talks, that what had been agreed was not binding. Perhaps more than anything else that poisoned trust in the negotiations.

It was compounded by Theresa May who, for all that she may appear more ‘reasonable’, followed Davis in disowning what had been agreed about the backstop at that time, saying that no British Prime Minister could agree to … what she had just agreed to. Indeed, the Article 50 talks never really progressed to phase 2 as a result, because the Conservative Party fell into a bitter internal battle about the backstop that ended up with the repeated rejection of May’s deal.

Incompetence

That was not the only reason why there was no substantive phase 2 (and, as a result, such an anaemic Political Declaration). It was also because the government couldn’t agree what it wanted from phase 2, and at the first attempt to do so, the Chequers’ Proposal, fell apart and has never recovered. This is the third strand which underlies how the EU have approached the extension. Britain is now seen, almost universally, as having descended into political chaos and incompetence.

At first, the EU thought that Britain had some ‘cunning plan’ about Brexit but this quickly evaporated. It was visually symbolised by the photo, at the beginning of the Article 50 negotiations, of the EU side having folders full of documents and the UK side nothing but David Davis’ inane grin. Symbolism aside, the substance told the same story. Throughout the process, the repeated EU call to the UK has been to ‘tell us what you want’ and to put forward a coherent plan. But, as the leaked conversation of her talks with Angela Merkel revealed, May’s approach has been to ‘ask for an offer’ which was revealing of a bigger truth: that the UK expected the EU to provide the answers to Brexit.

The incompetence inherent in Brexit was starkly illustrated this week by the comments of Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney-General and a committed Brexiter: “I feel we have under-estimated its complexity. We are unpicking 45 years of in-depth integration. This needed to be done with very great care, in a phased and graduated way. It needs a hard-headed understanding of realities”. True enough – but, to say the least, it’s a bit late in the day to be realising that.

Incompetence is not the same as dishonesty, but in this case it arises from it. For the biggest lie of the Leave campaign was precisely that it would be quick and easy, and that the UK held all the cards. That the EU now see a longer than requested extension as necessary is, in effect, saying that the UK needs to have time to deal with its internal political chaos, recognize the complexity of Brexit, and develop a competent approach to it. The diagnosis is right, but thinking that six months is enough to reach that state calls for a degree of optimism that not only cynics might think misplaced.

Delusionary thinking

Alongside dishonesty and incompetence, and closely related to them, is something slightly different: persistent delusionary thinking. The ‘quick, easy deal’ fantasy is a part of that (remember when Boris Johnson said that eighteen months were more than enough to get the entire deal, including future terms, agreed, and David Davis said that the UK was “not really interested” in a transition period but might agree one to “be kind” the EU), but it runs much deeper.

It would take far too much space to catalogue the delusions – many posts on this blog have done just that – but in recent times an obvious example is the repeated nonsense of the Malthouse Compromise and (relatedly) ‘managed no deal’. The minimal version is that the EU would agree to rip the backstop out of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and substitute it with acceptance of non-existent ‘alternative arrangements’. The maximal version is that the UK could ditch the WA altogether, but still have a transitional period and also proceed to negotiating a future terms deal without any WA.

None of this is realistic at the most basic level of understanding. It’s not just that the EU will not agree to it, but that they could not agree to it. But – reflecting the general point about how Brexiter poison has infected British politics – this idea is persistently floated not just by maverick figures but by leading politicians. In the last week or so ‘Malthouse’ was put forward yet again, whilst Andrea Leadsom combined the non-starter of taking the backstop out of the WA with the longstanding myth that Angela Merkel alone could and would set the terms of Brexit in Britain’s favour.

A slender lifeline for the UK

So the humiliation for Britain is not, primarily, in having had to ask the EU for an extension. It is that both the need for the extension and the way the EU approached the decision to grant it reflect the fact that Brexiters have made Britain dishonest, untrustworthy, chaotic, incompetent, and delusional.

But it’s actually even more humiliating than that. The ultimate truth of what the EU have decided is that – far from needing to ‘punish’ us – they are willing to be kind to us. We have been given the chance – carefully managed, in case we abuse it – to get our act together and to drop all the lies and fantasies.

It remains to be seen whether we are able to take that chance. Even today, the morning after the extension was agreed with the reaffirmation that the WA is closed, David Davis was on Radio 4 fantasising that with the right leader Britain could simply go back to the EU and renegotiate the WA and if not that no-deal is just fine. There will undoubtedly be plenty of other Tory MPs who will think that pursuing this fantasy will be the best use of the next six months.

Nevertheless, this new, longer delay presents remainers with a real opportunity and they should plan for the possibilities created. Assuming the European Parliament elections go ahead, there is a chance for anti-Brexit candidates to flourish on higher than usual turnout. The campaign for another referendum or for revocation will surely intensify, the more so precisely if the Tory Party decides to waste the time by intensifying its civil war. And, despite everything, there are still many in the EU who hope for and would welcome Britain deciding to reject (£) the course Brexiters have set for us and so conspicuously failed to deliver to deliver upon.