Friday, 30 June 2017

Labour and Brexit: politics bent out of shape

As I have pointed out several time on this blog, Labour’s position on Brexit has been a mess for months now, and this has now come glaringly into focus with yesterday’s Queen’s Speech vote. Corbyn ordered his MPs to abstain on a backbench amendment to stay in the single market and although some rebelled (thus, in the case of frontbenchers, losing their jobs) most followed the whip and the amendment was easily defeated. Of course, it would have been defeated anyway in the absence of a Tory rebellion but that was never in prospect given that Labour’s stance would have made such a rebellion pointless.

During the election campaign Brexit was not discussed in detail by either party. Labour produced a manifesto position which made no sense (to retain the benefits of the single market and customs union without, implicitly at least, being members of either). But there was just enough ambiguity to keep remainers on board and, in any case, they could see a Labour vote as the best way of denying the Tories the majority for their unambiguously hard Brexit plans. This, indeed, was what happened and it opened up just the tiniest possibility for a soft Brexit even if not the abandonment of Brexit altogether.

That possibility still exists, but it has become even tinier as a result of yesterday’s vote. At the core of the problem is the stance of Corbyn (and his allies) towards the EU. His lukewarm support for remain during the 2016 referendum campaign scarcely concealed the well-known truth that he has, since the 1975 referendum, shared the Bennite analysis of the EU as a ‘capitalist club’ and – as we would now say – a vehicle for neo-liberal globalization (the background and consequences of this are well-explained on the interesting Nog’s Musings blog). The problem with this view is that it is one-dimensional, failing to recognize that the EU is, at the same time, a vehicle for the regional regulation and restraint of neo-liberal globalization. Which is what much of the Left in the UK (especially, given the strength of neo-liberalism here) recognized from the 1980s onwards and this, in turn, is reflected in the pro-EU position of most Labour MPs, members and voters.

Emboldened by his better than expected election result, Corbyn now presumably sees the possibility of a future victory which could also enable building ‘socialism in one country’ if unconstrained by EU rules on, in particular, state aid. It is these rules, rather than those on freedom of movement, which are the main basis of Corbyn’s hostility to EU membership or even to soft Brexit. The consequence, then, is that there is now a de facto alliance between Corbyn and the Eurosceptic Tories – amongst whom, of course, we must now include one-time remainer Theresa May – and UKIP. Indeed, during the Maastricht wars of the early 1990s, Corbyn voted with “the bastards” (as John Major called them). Hence it is not the irony it may seem that Nigel Farage tweeted approvingly about Corbyn’s approach to yesterday’s parliamentary vote.

So what now? The next big parliamentary test, as Jolyon Maugham explains in some detail in the New Statesman, will come with the Repeal Bill. With Corbyn and the Tory Eurosceptics allied, all depends on the extent to which pro-Europeans in both the Tory and Labour parties are willing to work together in defiance of their leaderships (along with those from avowedly anti-Brexit parties), as explained in Ian Dunt’s excellent analysis of the current situation. As Dunt says (as have many others, including myself on this blog) there is a parliamentary majority for soft Brexit, and the same is true in the country at large.

Soft Brexit remains the most politically consensual and least economically painful way of enacting Brexit (which is not to deny the fact that simply staying in the EU would be preferable, were it politically possible). In the circumstances we find ourselves it is, as Simon Jenkins argues today, the only sane option, and this has been so since the referendum result. Yet just at the moment when the election outcome means that this sanity is within grasp it remains tantalisingly elusive. The combination of Tory leadership in thrall to its backbench ultra-Brexiters and a Labour leadership that is at odds with its backbench soft Brexiters means that the shape of party politics does not match the shape of public opinion or political pragmatism. With the Article 50 clock ticking, there is very little time left for the two to come into alignment.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

From free movers to settled immigrants

The publication of the Brexit government’s plans for EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in rEU has already attracted much derision for its most obvious deficiencies. These include the uncertainty about the cut-off date, the issue of who will enforce rights and the question of whether whatever arrangement is finally agreed would survive the breakdown of the rest of the Brexit talks. Equally, although the proposals suggest a more streamlined process than the existing one for residency (including dropping the ludicrous demand for proof of health insurance that no one had ever been told they needed), the fee to be charged hasn’t been specified and it is highly unclear that the government has the administrative capacity to quickly process applications. And, whatever happens, none of this is going to lead to the reduction of red tape that Brexiters claimed as one of the benefits of leaving the EU!

It seems unlikely that these proposals will be agreed in their present form by the EU, but almost whatever arrangements do emerge there is a much more fundamental problem with them, and a much more fundamental loss which arises from them. The creation of a “settled status” category of persons is precisely to indicate the loss of the benefits and joys of freedom of movement. No doubt for some people who have, indeed, settled in the UK on a long-term basis and want to continue to do so, some version of these proposals will be more or less viable at a practical level. Even for them, any new system will be bothersome and intrusive and it can be expected that many more than those already leaving will feel disinclined to stay in a country which has so strongly signalled an antipathy to their presence. But, in any case, for many people freedom of movement was not about the chance to “settle” in another country but gave the opportunity to come in and out at different times for long or short periods.

This might be particularly the case for couples and families containing citizens from different member states. It will not necessarily be the case that they have settled in the UK for the five continuous years required. An Anglo-German couple, say, may have lived for shorter periods in one or other country (or in a third country). They may split their residency between countries at different times of the year. For that matter, they may have predicated their career and family plans on being in one country now but at some later stage being able to move for some period to the other country. Yet under the current proposals “settled status” will be lost after a two year absence, except for those who have undefined “strong ties” with the UK (paragraph 22 of the proposals).

What informs the UK approach is a naïve view of immigration – as being a kind of mechanistic one-time move from living in one country to another – and in particular a naïve conflation of free movement of people with immigration (which, indeed, is precisely how it has invariably figured in the Brexit debates). This was alluded to by Sir Ivan Rogers (p.10) in his February 2017 evidence to the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee:

They [the rest of the EU] genuinely do not understand a UK debate in which the two are conflated at all. They do not understand why a Government would have a migration target covering migration from within the European Union, which for other people is not migration. They do not call it migration; they do not call it immigration. They call it free movement… [t]hey said, “But one is migration, which is external to the European Union, and the other is free movement of people, which is not at all the same thing”.

This reflects the longstanding British failure to understand what a single market is and how it differs from a free trade area, which I have written about in another post. Because, indeed, within a single market it makes no more sense to talk about immigration between member countries than it does to do so between counties in Britain. And free movement as opposed to immigration connotes something much more than the transactional economic cost-benefit analysis on both sides of the Brexit debate, for all that ending it will, indeed, entail massive economic problems for Britain. Rather, it connotes a much broader set of cultural and social possibilities.

It is this European meaning of free movement as a way of life which will be lost by Brexit, whatever deal ends up being struck about residency and rights, and those most immediately affected did not even have a vote on the decision. So people who have built their lives and plans in the perfectly legitimate expectation of an established political system guaranteeing their freedom of movement will lose it to become – if they qualify and if they wish it – not free movers but settled immigrants. Moreover, to the extent that the government intends these arrangements to be reciprocal for UK citizens in rEU those citizens, too, will have lost the free movement status they hitherto had and relied upon.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that although the direct impact will be greatest upon those who were exercising their freedom of movement rights at the cut off point, we have all lost out. Freedom of movement is, indeed, just that: a freedom. Every single UK citizen who may in the past and might in the future wish to move freely within the EU for short or long periods with minimal administrative and practical barriers is about to lose something rare, valuable and precious. All those opportunities to live, work, study and retire that we used all to be able to exercise if and when we chose have been sacrificed on the altar of the Brexit cult.

Friday, 23 June 2017

One year on: lied to, lost, and leaderless

It is now a year since Britain, in a catastrophic and historically unprecedented act of national self-harm, voted to leave the EU. Everything about that vote was flawed, from having it at all to the numerous concessions made to the Brexiters about the form of the question, the lack of a super-majority requirement (rather than 50%) to leave, and the exclusion of under 18s and those who had lived abroad for more than 15 years and EU nationals here. All this reflected Cameron’s blithe certainty of victory in a referendum he need never have called.

The campaign itself was a travesty. Leave was (at least unofficially) fronted by a man, Boris Johnson - let’s not use the matey ‘Boris’ of the media – who didn’t really believe in it and was transparently motivated solely by his own sense of entitled ambition; whilst Remain was officially headed – well by who? Almost no one knew, but in fact it was businessman Lord Rose who remained almost invisible throughout leaving Cameron as the de facto leader and, with that, the motivation for some to vote leave purely to ‘give him a kicking’.

It’s become fashionable to say that both campaigns were equally dishonest, but that simply is not true. Leave mainlined on what even they admitted was a lie about the EU budget contribution and NHS funding, and another about impending Turkish membership of the EU. And these were just the headline lies. Beneath them were a myriad of others, such as that future terms could be sorted out informally before Article 50 was even triggered so there was no danger of a cliff-edge fallout; or that a good, quick exit deal was assured because ‘German car makers’ would insist on it as endlessly claimed by Brexiters, including businessman Peter Hargreaves who paid for a leaflet to be sent to every UK household at the start of the campaign urging a leave vote. No one has ever been held to account for these and all the other lies.  By contrast, Remain was certainly pedestrian and passionless, but its projections (based on assumptions and models, of course, but not lies) of the consequences were not ‘Project Fear’, as alleged, but attempts to counter the vague and unsubstantiated claims of Leave that all would be well, or even rosy, if we left.

One reason why that did not work was the way that the BBC – still the country’s most trusted and widely accessed news source – adopted a policy of supposed neutrality derived from its approach to elections. This meant that each side received equal airtime and equal respect for its claims, giving the electorate the impression that there was as much – especially economically – on one side as on the other and voters might as well toss a coin. This was combined with a virulently aggressive and dishonest anti-EU press (quite different to that of the 1975 Referendum), a growing hysteria about immigration, and a populist disdain for ‘experts’, despite this being a highly technical and complex issue, along with a situation in which any and every dissatisfaction was projected on to EU membership.

There are reams that could, have been, and will be written about all this. The outcome we know: a narrow victory for leave. The narrowness is important as it means there has never been the unequivocal result subsequently claimed. The most accurate way of describing the result would be that the country replied ‘don’t know’. Moreover, the combination of Leave’s lies and their failure to specify what leaving meant in terms of the future means that there is not (as many Leavers seem to sense) any real mandate for Brexit, and certainly not in any particular form: many leading leavers campaigned on the basis of staying in the single market, for all that they deny it now. From this, crucially, much has flowed: Britain voted against being in the EU but not for anything else.

In the year that has followed, we have seen economic and political chaos. Economically, what was dismissed as project Fear has largely come true – that it has not been more severe is only because Article 50 was not triggered immediately in the way that forecasters had assumed because Cameron had said it would be the case. So we have had a massive currency collapse (which, in itself, would in any other circumstances have been a major political crisis) and consequent inflation and real wage erosion, collapsing investment, a recruitment crisis in the NHS and elsewhere, and the beginnings of a catastrophic brain drain, corporate pull-out and tax base collapse.

Whole sectors – from strategically crucial science to socially crucial care homes - are in turmoil as, relatedly but perhaps even more importantly, are the lives of millions of rEU people here and UK people in rEU who have based their entire life plans on Britain being in the EU. There has been not a single economic positive attributable to Brexit – for example, not one company has made a decision to invest in the UK because of (rather than despite) Brexit. Even the fall of sterling that, after it happened, Brexiters claimed a positive (strangely, they had not written on the side of their campaign bus ‘Vote Leave and we can crash the £’) has not put much of a dent in the UK trade deficit.

Politically, the vote saw an immediate crisis that was resolved by anointing a Prime Minister who failed to do the obvious act of leadership which was to find a form of Brexit which would be bearable for most people on both sides of the divide. Instead, she has insisted that Brexit must mean the hard Brexit of the Tory Eurosceptics and of UKIP. With that, she has not only ruled out an EFTA/EEA soft Brexit for trade but by insisting on there being no role whatsoever for the ECJ she has created massive problems across a host of other areas. The implications for Northern Ireland have begun to be widely recognized, but there are many others. For example, it is the hard line stance on the ECJ which means that we must also leave Euratom, with numerous consequences including for the availability of cancer treatment. Such a prospect was not even remotely discussed during the referendum and is highly unlikely to be what anyone thought they were voting about. Something similar could be said of EASA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, also thrown into doubt by hard Brexit with potential effects on flying rights within Europe. There is not even the shadow of the pretence that this approach to Brexit in ‘the national interest’. It is about, as the whole situation has always been about, an implacable, dogmatic minority of Tory MPs and the ungovernable party and country they have created.

Nowhere is this lack of concern with the national interest clearer than on the international stage, rendered all the more complex by the election of Donald Trump. Britain now no longer has any coherent or workable geo-political strategy, something which is good news only to ISIS and Vladimir Putin. Worse, we have become an international laughing stock both for the crazy Brexit decision and for the woeful ignorance and ill-preparedness of the way we are attempting to implement it. But the Christmas cracker patriots don’t care about that. No harm that they do to our country can ever be too much in exchange for their intellectually moribund and practically flawed notion of sovereignty, and no lie is too great to be told in pursuit of it. For that matter, these great patriots have been more than happy to ramp up the internal divisions they have created. More sinister than their adolescent sneering at ‘remoaners’ is their McCarthyite rhetoric of ‘saboteurs’ subverting ‘the will of the people’, matched at street level by the upsurge of violence against EU – and indeed non-EU - immigrants. Their ambition to pauperize and isolate our country is not sufficient: they also want to grind us into cultural dust.

Yet alongside that is a huge irony. From the moment of the referendum result, and ever more clearly as the year has gone on, it was plain that despite years of having dreamt of Brexit the Brexiters had not the tiniest clue as to how to put it into practice. Not even a rough plan. All they had were vapid slogans which could not begin to address the cataclysm they had unleashed. Even now they continue to talk in meaningless or nonsensical terms of ‘securing access’ to, and having ‘frictionless trade’ with, the single market, or of ‘trading on WTO terms’, refusing to engage with the enormous practical complexities that Brexit entails. Perhaps that lack of substance explains the viciousness of their rhetoric. At all events it has meant that they are wholly dependent on ‘the establishment’ – the civil service, business and civil society leaders, most of whom know that Brexit is a crazy idea - to try to implement their nonsense. But, even with that dependence, they still lash out at any expert who dares to inject any realism into the debate meaning that government policy has been constructed within a bunker of yay-saying groupthink.

Indeed victory has neither assuaged the anger of the Brexiters nor given them much joy. They have almost completely given up on making any positive claims for its possibilities and, at best, offer a dour, Dunkirk spirit, backs-to-the-wall grind and at worst a ludicrous, lachrymose self-pitying victimhood that the EU is ‘punishing’ us for leaving rather than taking responsibility for the consequences of the choice that they urged, so mendaciously, upon us. I say ‘us’ because it is not just remainers who have something to complain about, so too do those who were duped into voting leave by the breath taking lies of the Brexiters. Many, as the voting statistics show, were from the poorest and most vulnerable in society who will be most badly affected by Brexit and least able to insulate themselves from its effects.

In particular, apart from the NHS funding lie and the pretence that leaving would have no adverse economic consequences, they have been tricked into voting for something which was presented to them as protectionist and nationalist by leaders like Liam Fox who now proclaim the result to be a mandate for even more intensified globalization. I think it’s a near certainty that if it were possible to sit down with each voter individually and talk them through what Brexit is going to involve there would not be very many takers for it. That is not to patronize leave voters, but to say that the issues involved are far more complex than the referendum campaign acknowledged. For example, the practical meaning of the customs union, let alone things like Euratom or EASA, are only now receiving media attention. Meanwhile the lies still pour incontinently out of the Brexiters, the latest and most egregious being that the General Election ‘proves’ that there is a huge majority who support hard Brexit.

We have now belatedly begun Brexit talks with the EU. That belatedness is itself a consequence of the reckless irresponsibility of the Brexiters in triggering Article 50 before holding an election, thus wasting three of the twenty-four months available. We do so with a declining economy, an unstable government, an inadequate negotiating team, a lack of clear and agreed negotiating objectives or detailed plans, a backdrop of having alienated those with whom we are negotiating, and a country still bitterly divided. Moreover there is neither in parliament nor – if recent opinion polls are correct – any longer a majority in the country for Brexit and certainly not a majority for hard Brexit. Yet still the Brexiters march us on, like First World War generals - high on gimcrack patriotism, plethorically flushed with self-righteous certainty, prideful of their own willed and wilful ignorance - urging the troops to one more big push, regardless of – no, glorying in - the resultant slaughter.

The causes of the First World War can be debated, but Brexit is without question an entirely self-inflicted disaster. All of it was avoidable, going right back to the entire way that the UK has related to the EU over many decades. More recently every step of the way – from the decision to hold a referendum right through to the way that May has, since her General Election humiliation, refused to soften her stance – we have been the victim of bad, stupid, and unnecessary decisions. It is still, even at this late hour, just possible that we can avoid catastrophe – there is much that is unpredictable about the coming years – and I fervently hope that we do. Precisely because of the botched election, in which Brexit was scarcely discussed, a space for some softening of the government’s White Paper position has opened. It seems increasingly likely that the form this takes will be years of transitional agreements and ongoing talks which will be unsatisfactory to leavers and remainers alike. That may be the best we can hope for. But even supposing that by some miracle a way emerges to simply continue as EU members and to drop this Brexit nonsense entirely, our country will never be the same again.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Can a hard Brexit be averted?

The unfolding events are very difficult to read, and any reading is likely to be out of date even before it is written. This post is about where I think we are currently. [Before starting, it may be useful to clarify key terms, since their meaning is shifting. By soft Brexit I mean remaining in the single market and customs union. By hard Brexit I mean leaving both of these and seeking a free trade agreement with the EU. By ultra Brexit I mean leaving the EU with no trade agreement and possibly no agreements on anything].

The failure of the Tory party to win the election clearly places their hard Brexit plan in jeopardy in that it was not endorsed by the electorate. The consequence has been to open the debate that Theresa May refused to have after the Referendum about what sort of Brexit that vote meant, itself a consequence of the abject failure of the Leave campaign to specify what form of Brexit those who voted to leave were voting for. That latter point is crucial, because it means that the ‘will of the people’ argument (flawed as it is in general) is irrelevant to the question of how Brexit should be enacted.

What this now means is that the Tory civil war on the EU which has ripped it apart since the Maastricht rebellions of the early 1990s, and which the referendum was supposed to solve, is now raging again. In fact, it never stopped: but in the months after May’s anointment it was stifled by her embrace of hard Brexit. It is worth constantly reminding ourselves what a massive price the UK’s economy, cultural cohesion and geo-political standing is being forced to pay for this internal party factionalism, driven by perhaps no more than 70 Tory MPs.

As to how the current battle in that war is going, it’s difficult to say. There are many signs of an emerging soft Brexit ascendancy: the appointments of Gavin Barwell as May’s Chief of Staff and Damian Green as de facto deputy Prime Minister being prime examples of this, since both are (or at least were) strongly for remain. The newly elected group of Scottish Tory MPs and the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson would also seem to be pushing the government in a soft Brexit direction.

The need for DUP support, likely to be predicated upon a ‘soft border’, is being reported to imply staying in the customs union (and, if so, that means no independent trade deals, a major plank of the hard and ultra Brexit positions). But I think that in reality a soft border is only possible if the UK is also in the single market. Consider: if there is free movement of people into the Republic of Ireland from the rest of the EU, but no free movement into Northern Ireland as part of the UK, then how can passport controls at the border be avoided? What else would stop a Bulgarian, say, entering the Republic with no restriction and then entering the UK? It is no good talking about the Common Travel Area as a model here: it derives from a situation which pre-dates the existence of the single market.

All this, plus renewed and intense business lobbying to stay in the single market and customs union, pushes the Tories to soft Brexit. But other signs point in the opposite direction. Michael Gove’s appointment to DEFRA is one; and it will be interesting to see how he squares his new role with promises to farmers during the leave campaign that Brexit would not affect their subsidies. More specifically, Brexit Secretary David Davis has indicated in a series of interviews today that hard Brexit is non-negotiable. That may well shift, but if it does then nothing will be resolved as it would almost certainly lead to a leadership challenge from the monomaniac, dogmatic Tory hard Brexiters and, if that challenge was successful, almost certainly a second election.

So the Tories are in a horrible mess. Labour are in an equally confused state, although being out of government it presents less pressing problems. Their absurd manifesto position of wanting the benefits of the single market and customs union but without membership of either and excluding freedom of movement may have helped them to secure the votes of both remainers and ex-UKIPpers, but as a serious policy position it is meaningless. The official position of seeking ‘tariff free access’ to the single market shows a pitiful ignorance of the (inter-related) issues of single market membership (cf. ‘access’) and non-tariffs (cf. ‘tariffs’). It doesn’t even make sense in terms of their other stated position of wanting any Brexit deal to deliver exactly the same benefits as EU membership. Meanwhile other influential voices within the Labour Party are speaking of single market membership as their preferred option. They need to agree on that, and very quickly, if hard Brexit is to be avoided.

A curious and very unfortunate consequences of the splits within each party is that they produced manifestos which were similar with respect to Brexit. This allows the ludicrous claim currently being made by Brexiters that, although neither party won, there is a consensus view amongst the electorate in favour of hard Brexit. The reality is almost certainly the exact opposite: if there is still a majority in the country for Brexit at all, it is for soft Brexit and the same is true amongst MPs.

Underneath all the complexities and uncertainties it’s that last thing we should hold on to. If we must use the dire phrase ‘the will of the people’ then it is not – either in terms of direct or representative democracy – a will for hard Brexit, and may not even any more be for any Brexit. It is now vital that our political institutions align with that.

The window to do so is very small indeed. Because of May’s grotesque irresponsibility in triggering Article 50 before embarking on the election, Britain has now used up almost 3 months of the 24 month A50 period – that’s one day out of eight -and in that time has not just done nothing to progress negotiations but has plunged itself into a new debate about what those negotiations are even about. In the meantime, businesses are relocating, investments are on hold or going elsewhere, staffing of public services is falling apart, the economy is on a knife edge, and the lives of millions (both in the UK and the EU) are in a turmoil of uncertainty.

Some of that damage will never be undone, including that to the UK’s reputation, but it could at least be staunched by a rapid commitment to soft Brexit. It’s extraordinary that an obvious solution to most of the Brexit problems facing the UK is still, even after this election, no more than a possibility. That election has given the UK a final chance but it is time-limited. Unless some way can be conjured up to pause the A50 process then we have perhaps a couple of weeks left to avoid disaster.


Update (14 June 2017): The situation described above persists and has, if anything, intensified. Thus on the one hand we have reports that Philip Hammond is seeking to soften the previous Brexit plans at least to the extent of seeking to remain in the customs union; whilst on the other hand one of the hardest of Brexiters, Steve Baker, who leads the ERG Group, has been appointed as minister in the DExEU (amidst reports of chaos within that department). May has also appointed several ‘soft Brexiters’ to various positions, and yet maintains that the White Paper hard Brexit remains the plan. It may be that there is Machiavellian intent in all this, but if so it is hard to decipher and it seems more likely she is simply so weakened that she has to try to keep everyone ‘on board’ for now. It is hard to see how that can survive contact with the reality of the opening of negotiations, which she insists will go ahead as planned. Meanwhile, different people within Labour Party continue to indicate different positions on the single market and customs union. There is now a palpable sense of political crisis, ironically pointed up by the pomp and ceremony of yesterday’s opening of parliament which seem a brittle and hollow shell around chaos rather than a signifier of traditional certainties and continuities.

Many people are calling for a cross-party group to take Brexit forward but it is hard to see how this can make a difference, since the parties themselves do not have agreed positions. There is a strong argument to say that other parties should stay well clear: this is the (predominantly) Tory Brexiters’ mess and they should own it. Conversely, a cross-party group would inevitably led Brexiters to complain, as the disaster unfolds, that this disaster was due to the other parties rather than to the wholly unworkable policy of Brexit. The way out might end up being some kind of cross-party arrangement but, if so, it should be one which reflects the majority view amongst – it can reasonably be assumed – both MPs and the public that Brexit should be completely abandoned. That would of course entail massive political fallout, but there is no scenario anymore which does not entail that.

So we remain in an unholy mess: a statement which I suspect will not need updating for some years to come.


Update (16 June 2017): The basic situation on ‘soft versus hard’ remains unchanged, so I am not writing a new post. Philip Hammond did not give his Mansion House speech on a softer Brexit, citing the dreadful London tower fire as the reason for cancellation. However, it seem hard to resist connecting the cancellation to the report, shortly before the cancellation, that the DUP support May’s rather than Hammond’s versions (I cannot bring myself to call them visions) of Brexit. At the same time, it seems difficult to reconcile the DUP’s reported position with their apparent desire to avoid a hard border, and there continues to be a strong head of steam within the Tory Party against hard Brexit Labour’s position remains opaque, despite an article suggesting a possible (but unspecified) change of course in an article by Keir Starmer today.

Nevertheless, the government intends to proceed with opening negotiations with the EU on Monday on the basis of the White Paper hard Brexit position. It is difficult to overstate the absurdity, and indeed gross irresponsibility of this: there is currently no government in place, and no agreement as to what the government’s position will turn out to be. For a fantastic analysis of this situation, which I will not try to better, see Ian Dunt’s piece Brexit talks start on Monday and we have no idea what we are doing.

 
[For ongoing links to a wide variety of news items and analyses of Brexit, please follow me on twitter. I tweet exclusively on Brexit with the focus on reputable sources and well-informed commentators, but avoid (with occasional lapses) extensive debate as the issues involved are usually too complex for tweets. Nor do I seek to persuade the unpersuadable – the aim is imply to provide high quality information for those who may be interested in it. Twitter ID: @chrisgreybrexit].

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Friday, 9 June 2017

How Brexit broke Theresa May: election analysis #2

In the coming days, months and even years the shock outcome of the General Election will be picked over by journalists, analysts and historians. They will identify many factors, but the role of Brexit will surely be central, and the roots of the result lie firmly with the referendum and its aftermath.

The vote to leave the EU was, in itself, a shock and one which left the UK polarised, politically unstable, and facing immediate economic consequences in the form of a currency collapse which would at any other time have been seen as a crisis. That led to a truncated Tory leadership campaign in which there was no real debate about what Brexit meant and the near coronation of Theresa May whose USP appeared to be pragmatism and experience. Few knew anything about her, but many thought she would be ‘a safe pair of hands’.

But she faced an immediate problem. She had been an (admittedly lukewarm) remainer and inherited a party which had for years been riven by Eurosceptic factionalism that was now triumphant and triumphalist. If she had delivered on her USP what would have happened would have been a consensual, practical recognition that the country was deeply divided and that the referendum, whilst narrowly voting against EU membership, had not voted for anything in particular.

Whilst the referendum was legally only advisory, it was politically undeniable that it could not just be discounted. The obvious, leaderly, conclusion would have been to seek a consensus around a ‘soft Brexit’ of single market and (perhaps) customs union membership. This would have been in line with what some leave campaigners, and many leave voters, understood Brexit to mean. It would have given them exit from the EU, the CAP, the CFP, formally from the ECJ, and might even have been consistent with some kind of enhanced ‘emergency brake’ on free movement of people. It would have given all voters some of what they wanted and some voters all that they wanted. Moreover, it would have been consistent with what the traditional business and finance backers of the Tory Party most wanted.

For months, May used the much-derided ‘Brexit means Brexit’ formula to avoid any public conversation about the different forms that Brexit could take, and so failed to build any consensus about what form it should take. In the same period, she engaged in an absurd and ultimately doomed legal battle to prevent a parliamentary vote on the triggering of Article 50 that made no contribution to consensus-building – on the contrary, it further polarised debate through the language of ‘enemies of the people’ – and flew in the face of the most basic theme of the referendum campaign, namely the sovereignty of parliament.

As this battle continued, May hinted at different possible positions, sometimes harder and sometimes softer, before announcing in her January 2017 Lancaster House speech that – by decree – Brexit meant the hard Brexit of leaving both single market and customs union, and any and every form of CJEU jurisdiction. That gave some voters all of what they wanted but most voters none of what they wanted. She had – perhaps through fear of the Tory hard Brexiters, perhaps because of her Home Office preoccupation with immigration as the ultimate issue – ceased to be the pragmatist many believed her to be and had become a dogmatist others feared her to be.

However, at the same time, two other things were happening. First, May was discovering, as Cameron had before her, and as Major had warned both of them was the case, that the Tory Eurosceptics could not be appeased. Give them Brexit, and they wanted hard Brexit. Give them hard Brexit – as she had done – and they wanted the ultra-Brexit of ‘no deal’. Out of that was born the ill-fated phrase ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. But, second, she was beginning to realise that Brexit was much more complicated than she had thought.

May’s model for Brexit appeared to be the opt-out of all, then opt back into some, approach that had worked for her over security and policing issues whilst at the Home Office. That was never going to work for full-on Brexit, and it seems to have begun to dawn on her that at the very least there were going to have to be transitional arrangements on trade that might last for years, and certainly well beyond the next scheduled election in 2020. And even though she seems to have excluded business leaders and civil servants who raised concerns about the practicalities of Brexit it’s difficult to believe that the mounting briefing papers about the kinds of compromises and complexities that Brexit entailed were lost on her, especially given her reputation for detailed immersion in her red boxes.

No doubt there were many reasons for deciding to call the 2017 election – the apparent weakness of the Labour Party being the most obvious – but I suspect that a big part of the thinking was to create the political space to face down the ultras in her party, and the electoral space to avoid going to the polls when Britain was still to all intents and purposes in the EU during a transitional deal. Equally, as I have said, there were many reasons why that gamble failed. Amongst them is the fact that this chain of events meant that she had completely failed to build any kind of consensus around Brexit and that was a problem for ‘hard remainers’, who had been treated with complete contempt, even though many of them were the professionals and business people who had to actually deliver a version of Brexit that seemed more and more detached from reality.

No less was it a problem for ‘soft remainers’ and ‘soft leavers’ – together probably the majority of the electorate since only a minority felt passionate on either side. They could see the beginnings of some really serious economic effects of a hard Brexit on their lives and were alarmed by the ever wilder sound of the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ rhetoric. Remember, they had been told during the referendum campaign that a deal with the EU would be quick and easy. Now, suddenly, they were being told by Theresa May that “dire consequences” were in prospect if Brexit did not go well and, moreover, that she was willing to entertain these consequences. Sure, this played well with the ‘hard leavers’ in the Tory base and with the UKIP vote, but it was a long way from that pragmatic, safe, USP that she had come to power and built her personal ratings on.

This isn’t the whole story of the election, by any means, but it is one important strand and it now begs a crucial question. What has Theresa May learned from it? The wise lesson would be, even at this late stage, to seek the pragmatic, soft Brexit consensus. It’s even possible that the need for DUP support will force this on her (to the extent that, whilst being pro-Brexit, they want to avoid a hard Northern Ireland border which in principle implies a soft Brexit). But there has as yet been no clear statement from May – just as there has not been throughout the last year – of what in achievable, realistic and, crucially, desirable terms she is seeking from Brexit.

The reason for that remains that which has dogged her premiership all along, and which is underscored today by the support she is receiving from the ultra Brexiters in her party: those ultras will simply never accept anything that is achievable, realistic or desirable from Brexit. So whether she secretly agrees with them or secretly opposes them makes no difference. Either way, her capacity to govern in – as she put it today – the “national interest” is doomed to failure. The reason is nothing to do with personalities, strategies or electoral arithmetic. It’s something much simpler, but something that neither she nor for that matter the Labour Party can yet say: Brexit, on any meaning of the term, is not, on any meaning of the term, in the national interest.

What does the election result mean for Brexit? Some initial thoughts

From my first post on this ‘Brexit election’ I have observed that the outcome was not necessarily going to be that which was initially expected, and so it has proved. Today, we face a complex and highly unpredictable situation and in this post I will give what inevitably are just initial thoughts.

Overall, although the result most certainly does not spell the end of Brexit, it does represent a slim window of possibility for that to come about and a rather wider window of possibility for Brexit to be shaped in a softer (i.e. single market) form than that which May had proposed. At the very least, there has been no ringing endorsement of her Brexit approach, and the chaotic situation now unfolding opens up a space for different possibilities which a clear Tory majority would not have done. This has the additional and important implication that it is going to much harder for Brexit politicians and newspapers to sustain charges of sabotage and disloyalty against remainers.

The outcome shows the gross irresponsibility and arrogance of the government having chosen to trigger Article 50 and then have an election. This in any event was going to mean time wasted from the already short two year negotiating period. Now, it may be many months before the UK has a fully functioning government with an agreed position on what form of Brexit it is seeking. Whatever happens now, a second general election later this year seems very probable.

Logically, the UK should seek to pause the two-year clock, but there is no mechanism to do so, although the EU could by unanimous (including British) agreement extend the two- year period. The more time that is wasted the closer we get to a situation where membership lapses with no agreement in place, causing massive dislocation to every aspect of daily life. Astonishingly, the initial noises from the Tories are of the need to prevent the EU delaying the process. Perhaps a greater degree of realism will emerge, but the record of Brexiters is hardly one to encourage this hope. The only other mechanism for a pause would be for Britain to rescind its notification, but at the moment there is no sign either party would do that and, in any case, it is not clear to me that the EU would accept it if it were understood as only temporary (all of the legal meanings around A50 processes are rather untested and unclear, but that it my understanding).

The most likely current scenario is some form of deal, or even coalition, between the Tories and the DUP. Whether such a deal is sustainable, or even possible, remains to be seen. But if it happens the DUP attitude to Brexit will be crucial. Whilst they are strongly pro-Brexit, the months since the referendum have made it very clear what hard Brexit would mean for the Northern Ireland border, peace process, and economy. It may therefore be possible that DUP involvement leads to a soft Brexit position (on both single market and customs union) as this is the only realistic way of avoiding a hard border.

Against this, such a deal or coalition would only yield a very slender majority which will inevitably strengthen the hand of the ultra-brexiters within the Tory party. The one hope for remainers when a large Tory majority looked likely was that it would sideline the ultras. The result will empower them. Yet the same also goes for Tory remainers, and whilst these have been spineless to date the new landscape of a much weakened Theresa May could change that. Similarly, the pro-remain House of Lords might be more willing to assert itself against a weak government with little mandate for hard Brexit. In a sense, although the election does not in any way over turn the referendum result it does mean that the referendum ceases to be the all-defining, overhanging fact of political debate. It is that more than anything that creates new spaces of hope for avoiding or softening Brexit.

The idea that Labour will form a minority administration seems highly unlikely to me, but if it happens then the crucial issue will be for the party to get much clearer about its Brexit policy. At the moment, the manifesto is quite vague and although it suggests a hard Brexit there are different views within the party, its membership and its voters, and there is perhaps room for something softer than the Tories were planning to pursue. A more likely scenario is that of a second election and for that Labour need to move explicitly to a soft Brexit if they are to have a mandate for such an approach. But since in any variant Brexit is going to be a disaster, it might be argued that it is better for Labour to be out of power and for the Tories to be forced to tidy up their own mess.

For a mess is what it is, and this goes back way before this election to the whole series of events that led to the referendum being held at all, to the failure of remain to win it, to Cameron’s immediate resignation and the hurried, panicky anointment of Theresa May as leader. It is a deep irony that in the 2015 election the Tories warned of the chaos that would happen if they lost, and yet since then have unleashed a chaos unparalleled in modern British political history. It very much remains to be seen how this will play out and, today especially, only the most provisional of thoughts are possible.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Brexit's historical amnesia and bogus patriotism

Brexiters are often accused of living in the past. That is manifest in the now recurring Brexiter response to concerns about Brexit: ‘but we did perfectly well before’.

It is made to farmers worrying about who will pick their crops and the NHS worrying about who will staff the wards, if not EU workers. To which there is an obvious answer: before Britain joined the EU forty years ago, the age demographic of Britain was completely different.

It is made to those querying how Britain will make trade deals. To which there is an obvious answer; before Britain joined the EU forty years ago the world was not divided into regional trade blocs, membership of one of which is now vital and of which only the EU is available to Britain.

It is made to those pointing out that leaving the customs union will wreak havoc on international supply chains. To which there is an obvious answer; before Britain joined the EU forty years ago such international supply chains scarcely existed.

It is made to those warning of the dangers of a Northern Ireland hard border (when Brexiters retort that the Common Travel Area (CTA) long precedes the EU). To which there is an obvious answer; the Republic of Ireland is in the single market with freedom of movement, so the CTA cannot exist without freedom of movement into the UK.

In all these, and other, ways Brexiters are indeed living in the past. But the more salient criticism is that they have forgotten the past, and exhibit a curious – and now dangerous – historical amnesia. The first aspect of this is that they have forgotten that far from being forced to join the EU Britain had to virtually beg to do so, having tried to do so since the late 1950s and having been rebuffed – primarily by France – in 1963. If we must go back in time to the early 1970s then we should remember that we were the supplicants. Brexiters have also forgotten that when membership was confirmed in the 1975 Referendum it was explicitly framed as both a political and economic union; it has been a pervasive Brexiter myth that no political union was envisaged.

In the forty years since then, the EU has changed significantly, but in ways which have been shaped overwhelmingly by Britain. The development of a wider and deeper single market, increasingly taking in services, did not just enhance European integration but did so in a particular, market-focussed, way in line with Thatcherism – Thatcher being a prime architect of the single market – and later Blairism. That deepening single market always implied a deepening of political integration, so it is nonsense to suggest that this happened against British wishes, because a transnational single market entails transnational regulation and law. It’s no coincidence that in 1995 the French rejected the European constitution in a Referendum: it reflected hostility to the British model of a European market. Still, single market deepening went ahead and that was indicative of British influence over what the EU has become.

British influence over the EU was not just economic. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of the former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe presented the strategic possibility of integrating them into the west and the strategic danger that if that did not happen they would become unstable or even hostile. One of the great achievements of the EU has been to integrate them, and to avoid those dangers, and Britain more than any other EU member state was the prime mover of this. Entailed within that integration was the accession states joining the single market and their citizens enjoying free movement rights, as duly happened. But it was the choice of the British government to allow those free movement rights to apply immediately to Britain (unlike most EU states) just as it was the choice of the British government never to utilise the various restrictions on free movement of people within the EU that EU law has always allowed.

Thus by the time that EU membership became a defining issue in British politics in 2015-2016 the situation was that Britain, having had to beg to join in the early 1970s, had, rather remarkably, managed to shape the EU in accordance with its economic and political priorities. Moreover, Britain had managed to gain exemption from a host of EU developments – most obviously the single currency and the Schengen area, but also things like refugee sharing – that either did not suit its strategic interests or which would be unpopular with the British electorate. In addition, the budget rebate deal meant that Britain’s contribution was each and every year the lowest as a percentage of GDP of any member state.

By these means Britain had managed to shape for itself a global role by virtue of its unique, interlocking combination of membership of the EU, UN Permanent Security Council, NATO, Commonwealth, Five Eyes intelligence sharing and the nuclear club, not inconsiderably underpinned by the City of London’s place as one of the top two centres of international finance. In every discussion – from climate change to human rights – Britain’s voice mattered. It would be quite wrong to say that we had no problems but, still, Britain had substantially re-invented itself compared with its early 1970s malaise.

Now, all that has been squandered by the Brexiters who have forgotten all that has been achieved by EU membership and are replacing it with fantasies. No longer will Britain shape the continent it is part of. No longer will Britain be the pivot between every international body. No longer will it be the centre of global science and innovation that it has been. Many disagree with our nuclear weapons policy, but it will most likely be ended for reasons of cost, not principle, and with it is likely to go our place on the UN Permanent Security Council. And as we hawk ourselves around for trade deals, there will be no question of human rights or environmental standards: any deal will do. The City of London will decline – and if you don’t care about bankers, you’ll miss their taxes – and is already doing so.

Maybe the key point to make in the present situation is that there is literally no deal with the EU that will be a good deal compared with what we had before. The options now range from ‘not too bad’ (meaning, let’s be clear, an economic recession) to ‘catastrophic’ (meaning an economic depression). That’s the range of possible economic outcomes, and just how bad they are will be determined by negotiation. The geo-political outcome is much easier to predict because it doesn’t depend upon the negotiations with the EU, it will occur and already is occurring simply by virtue of leaving. There are no conceivable circumstances whatsoever in which Brexit can mean anything other than a diminution of Britain’s geo-political standing.

It is extraordinary, therefore, that so many Brexiters consider themselves to be patriots. Were they, indeed, patriots they would not be so recklessly squandering what has been achieved in the last four decades, having apparently forgotten it just as they have forgotten all that has changed. Which is why Theresa May's bogus assertions that those who are not behind Brexit are in some way betraying Britain. On the contrary, the betrayal is pursuing a course of action which will inevitably diminish us.