Friday, 15 September 2017

What the OECD aid rules row tells us about Brexit

The OECD aid rules which prevent Britain using its aid budget for the overseas territories hit by Hurricane Irma do not have anything to do with the EU or Brexit. But their existence and the reaction to their application reveals something about one of the central myths of Brexit. That myth is that it is both possible and desirable for Britain to regain ‘sovereignty’ by exerting full control over what it does, including how it spends public money.

It is mythical, because that is not how the world is or how the world has been for a very long time, if ever. Instead, for all sorts of reasons, Britain like other countries participates in a wide variety of international collaborations. These inevitably require some framework of rules, and inevitably those rules cannot be decided by individual countries. If they were, then they would cease to be rules and so, in turn, collaborations would cease. Individual countries can and do seek to shape and negotiate the rules of international bodies, of course, but they do not invariably get their own way.

The EU is just one of many examples, albeit particularly far-reaching in scope. Within it, member states agree and then enforce common frameworks of rules, whilst also seeking to shape those rules. Britain, in fact, has been especially successful in framing EU rules to its liking – most obviously in the many opt outs, including those from the Euro, the Schengen Agreement and refugee sharing, and in its budget rebate deal which has ensured that every single year it makes the lowest contribution as a percentage of GDP of any member state. Equally, individual members have a degree if latitude in the application of EU rules – amazingly, in view of what has happened, an example of this is the way that Britain never made use of the restrictions on immigration available under EU freedom of movement rules.

One irony of Brexit is that it will not much diminish the need for Britain to conform to many EU regulations. The inevitable regulatory pull of a much larger nearby market makes that inevitable, and not just in relation to trade but also, for example, air travel and nuclear safety. Thus, as I have remarked on before, Brexit is largely about recreating in new form all kinds of agreements and rules – such as those on data protection – to conform with EU standards and systems. The main difference is that, post-Brexit, ‘sovereign’ Britain will have less, not more, control over these than it had as an EU member.

It’s unsurprising to read that ardent Brexiters like the Tory MP Philip Davies have reacted with fury to the OECD rules on aid, calling to “stop this madness and take control of taxpayers’ money and spend it on our own priorities”. This comes straight from the Brexit playbook and shows exactly the same naivety. If we are to exist in the modern world then we will be part of international agreements that circumscribe complete national self-determination. The OECD aid example is a rather trivial one – certainly compared with NATO membership which can entail British people fighting and being killed under the command of foreign generals and in defence of foreign countries. Do we pull out of all such alliances and co-operations in pursuit of a mythical sovereignty, or recognize that through co-operation we have much to gain and can actually magnify rather than diminish sovereignty, whilst also, inevitably, having to conform to collectively constructed rules? In defence and foreign policy, in particular, that question should have been put to bed in 1956, if not 1941.

The adolescent ‘take back control’ foot stamping of the Brexiters has its most ludicrous irony in the fact that, as regards trade, they invariably resort to the idea of ‘reverting to WTO terms’. Apart from the fact that they have no idea what that actually entails, what is extraordinary is the idea that this is a bestowal of sovereignty. For what are WTO terms other than a collection of rules, internationally agreed upon? The proud boast that ‘we will regain our seat’ just means that we will be one of 160 or so nations who in negotiation try to set those rules. And trade is often only ostensibly the issue, as Britain may find when it comes to, say, the Argentina’s response to setting beef quotas. Similarly, the idea that there is sovereignty to be found in ‘negotiating our own trade agreements’ will not survive contact with the reality of, for example, the acceptance of increased immigration or of food standards that typically comes with them. Brexiters rarely understand this, since they imagine a nineteenth century world in which trade negotiations are principally to do with tariffs.

To all of this the only counter-argument I have heard from Brexiters is that, at least, it is possible to vote out a government that makes some agreement or engages in some collaboration that the majority do not like. But that of course is true as a member of the EU. The British people could have voted out governments which were committed to staying in the EU, or which signed the successive treaties which shaped it. They did not, perhaps because they were not that bothered about it; perhaps because people vote on a whole basket of issues most of which (contrary to Brexiter propaganda) are entirely unaffected by being in the EU. Conversely, it’s highly unlikely that any post-Brexit election will be determines by, say, a particular negotiation within the WTO or a particular free trade deal with another country.

So the OECD aid rules story tells us something, in microcosm, both about how the world works and about how the Brexiter view of the world doesn’t begin to address those realities. Typically, Theresa May has played to the Brexiters’ gallery by announcing her ‘frustration’ with the OECD. But when a Prime Minister does that it makes it a matter of international moment rather than just a domestic tabloid story about some maverick backbenchers. Britain helped to draft these rules that she objects to only a year ago, so what is she saying about Britain? Convulsed in a nationalist frenzy which now makes central what were once just fringe voices, Britain, long considered the most reliable of international partners and the most stable and pragmatic of countries, is becoming absurd and flaky. Or – if ultra-Brexiters who urge Britain walking away from her pre-existing commitments to the EU budget get their way – something even worse. Since we hear so much about patriotism from Brexiters, perhaps they should reflect on that.

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