Wednesday, 28 March 2018

A year into Article 50, unreality permeates Brexit

A year ago I wrote about the bleak and bitter day for our country when the Article 50 process was initiated. A year on, most of what I wrote in that post still holds true but of course there have also been some momentous developments including the bizarre Brexit election that didn’t discuss Brexit and its outcome, the phase 1 agreement and, most recently, the draft transition agreement. Now, half-way through the Article 50 period, we might expect the story to be one of Brexit becoming ever more real. Instead, a strange air of unreality predominates.

Brexiters themselves seem to have all but given up on claiming that there is any great value in or reason for doing it. On the odd occasions that they attempt it, as with Boris Johnson’s ‘road to Brexit’ speech, it quickly descends into bathos. More often, the message now is just that it won’t be the awful disaster that critics claim. That in itself seems to be overly optimistic but, even so, hardly inspiring. Of course, they continue to claim that this is because Brexit has been ‘watered down’ by conniving remainers but that is nonsense. The government are enacting precisely the hard Brexit that the Ultras called for, and are finding out just how impractical it is. As I wrote when it was sent, the Article 50 letter marked “the moment from which Brexiters are responsible for what happens to this country. There can be no equivocation about this. Brexiters campaigned for years to leave the EU, they won the referendum and they now control the process of leaving”.

As for Theresa May, she, like most politicians of both main parties, appears to be of the view that Brexit is an outright mistake and yet, somehow, must be done anyway. The semi-respectable reason for that was respecting the result of the Referendum – but only semi-respectable since it was an advisory referendum, explicitly not requiring a super-majority because of that status, and since it certainly didn’t mandate Brexit in the form it is taking. In any case, that semi-respectability is now entirely threadbare. It may never be possible to prove exactly what difference it made, or exactly what happened, but the revelations about the conduct of the Leave campaign now mean that a miasma of illegitimacy hangs over the very marginal victory they secured.

All of that might not have much traction if the Brexit government had developed an even halfway workable approach to their central policy. They have not, and, again, it is false to attribute this to remainer opposition (£). On the contrary, that opposition continues to flourish in part because it is transparently obvious that no workable policy is in place. If there were, many would remain unreconciled to Brexit, of course, but the edge of the opposition would have been blunted, if not discredited.

That no such policy exists is because the government are seeking to operationalise the pretence, or fantasy, or lie, of the Leave campaign that something approximating to EU membership can be obtained but without being a member of the EU or even of the EEA. From that fantasy flow all of the well-rehearsed problems of the Irish border and the perhaps less well-rehearsed problems of participating in EU programmes and agencies (see, for example, this analysis of the European Space Agency by Sophia Besch of CER). It is a fantasy which, as the ever-acute Jonathan Lis of Open Britain explains, will inevitably be exposed in the phase 2 talks.

Until then, the domestic debates about Brexit continue to go round and round in circles, with the only progress occurring when the government accepts the precepts laid down by the EU, as has happened with the phase 1 agreement and, hence, the draft withdrawal agreement and ‘transition’ arrangements. That isn’t, at least not primarily, because of the EU’s stronger bargaining position, it is because if the UK doesn’t itself put forward a workable policy then, by default, what happens is that the EU’s policy becomes the only game in town.

Whilst this is most obviously a failure of the government – since they are, indeed, the government – it is equally true of the Labour opposition. They had the possibility of taking a perfectly respectable and coherent position of arguing for soft Brexit. That would have made intellectual and political sense, and would have enabled any half-way competent opposition to eviscerate a government so adrift from practicalities, so internally riven, and in such a precarious parliamentary position. Instead, Labour moved slowly and belatedly to a position on a customs union that, in itself, does not resolve the Irish border issue nor anything much else; and are hamstrung not simply by having a leader who is probably by conviction in favour of Brexit but one who seems uninterested in and ignorant about it. How else to explain the fact that he rarely raises this defining issue of the day at PMQs and that he repeatedly takes the patently untrue line that single market membership is precluded by leaving the EU?

What hangs above all of this is the inexorable passage of time. It is increasingly obvious that the decision to trigger Article 50 at the time she did was perhaps the worst miscalculation of any British Prime Minister in modern times (far worse in its long-term effects than Suez; the only other contender for the title would be Cameron’s various missteps that led to the Referendum and its result). It was a purely symbolic gesture to the Brexit Ultras in her party and, in conjunction with the extraordinary follow-up of calling an election with the result it had and the thoughtless red lines she established, has created an effectively impossible policy. Every day that goes by makes it clearer – as, in relation to customs arrangements, May herself admitted the other day – that even with the transition period there is insufficient time to do all that needs to be done to avoid chaos.

The one rational solution to this, apart from abandoning Brexit altogether which would almost certainly require another referendum, would be to apply to the EU to extend the Article 50 period but this is precluded by, yet again, the Ultras in her own party, even assuming that the EU-27 would unanimously, as would be required, agree to it. The lesson that May still has not learned is that whatever she does the Ultras will accuse her of betrayal, so she might as well take that hit and at least commit to something workable – meaning not simply an A50 extension but, in the process a belated embrace of the EEA.

So we have a policy that at least half the country, and most parliamentarians, think is a mistake or worse being prosecuted with a level of ineptitude without parallel in modern British political history. It is regarded with incredulity by our friends and allies, and with glee by our enemies. Its main and most vociferous advocates scarcely bother to defend it anymore, and it is based upon a narrow majority that is increasingly looking to have been secured by a deeply flawed process. In the meantime, probably irreparable damage is being done to the economy, to our geo-political standing, to the civility of our political discourse and, the greatest human cost, to the lives of the millions of EU-27 nationals living in Britain and British nationals in the EU-27. Having predicated their lives, livelihoods and relationships, entirely reasonably, on freedom of movement and all that goes with it they remain in an agonizing limbo.

As to what will happen in the next year, who would care to predict? In a previous post I suggested that the agreement of a transition period makes it more likely that we drift to Brexit with no political or economic crisis until it becomes a fait accompli and we have left, albeit on unknown terms. I am not so sure of that since the new allegations about the Vote Leave campaign. There is probably not quite enough, yet, to decisively shift events but it won’t take many more revelations to do so. What happens then is difficult to anticipate, but the momentum to Brexit is egg-shell thin and the slightest crack could be enough to embolden our still cowed parliamentarians and to transform public opinion.

Ironically, the most encouraging event as this first year of Article 50 ends was a speech by Jacob Rees-Mogg (these are not words I ever expected to write), in which he expressed his outrage at the possibility that Brexit might not happen. That Rees-Mogg is outraged is not of any great note (the ‘man bites dog’ story would be if he were ever to be anything else). What is remarkable is that, half-way through the Brexit process, he recognizes that it may yet be abandoned. His fears are, for those of us who are opposed to Brexit, our hopes. But he is right to say that if they are realised there will be an almighty political car crash, and if it happens the outcome won’t be a return to the day before the Referendum or before the Article 50 letter. Whatever happens now none of us, whether leaver or remainer, is going to ‘get our country back’.

Friday, 23 March 2018

The passport and fishing rows expose the lies and contradictions of Brexit

It’s easy to dismiss the fuss over where British passports are going to be printed. But it is a microcosm of the way that leave voters were, and are still being, misled, as is the row over fisheries. It’s widely understood that one important segment of the leave vote was those ‘left behind’ by and hostile to globalization (the Lord Ashcroft Poll immediately after the referendum showed that 69% of those who thought globalization a force for ill voted leave). For such voters, the question of whether things are produced in the UK or not matters, especially when it is linked to such a clear symbol of national identity as a passport. Yet almost as soon as the Referendum votes were counted, leading Brexiters were lining up to say that the result in no way mandated an unwinding of globalization. On the contrary, according to Liam Fox in his September 2016 ‘Manchester’ speech:

“I believe the UK is in a prime position to become a world leader in free trade because of the brave and historic decision of the British people to leave the European Union.”

Wherever it is produced, leave voters may well get the symbolic victory of a blue passport (an empty victory, of course, since nothing in EU membership precluded having this anyway). They are not going to see, as during the campaign I heard some of them say they expected, a return of those industries which existed in Britain prior to EU membership (although even the most ‘patriotic’ leavers don’t show any great propensity to buy British goods). The reason for that is simple: they were not lost because of EU membership. On the other hand, what is being lined up for them by the ‘Global Britain’ Brexiters – such as the ever-ludicrous Daniel Hannan’s Initiative for Free Trade - is a more intensified globalization without the regional framework and protections afforded by the EU. As regards passports in particular, the competitive international tendering of such contracts would almost certainly be a feature of any trade deal Britain ends up making with the EU.

That feeds into a wider issue. Whereas during the referendum campaign the leave side majored on immigration and only sporadically mentioned an independent trade policy, ever since the result these priorities have been reversed. It is solely because of this that exiting any customs union and, hence, the common commercial policy, has become an impregnable red line (whereas within hours of the referendum Brexiters like, again, Hannan disowned the immigration promises). As the government’s own forecasts show, the economic rewards of an independent trade policy will be nugatory, and far outweighed by the economic damage of leaving the single market, but for Brexiters it is an iconic prize. But with it will come much that ‘nativist’ leave voters will find repugnant. India will not be the only country wanting visas in exchange for trade, and any deal with the US will very likely entail opening up the NHS to private companies. This was precisely what the Leave campaign, wrongly, claimed would happen under TTIP if Britain voted to stay in the EU.

As for fishing, it has been clear for over a year that the promises made by leave campaigners would not be met, and it is increasingly likely that the industry will be bartered for favourable treatment for other, larger and more economically important, sectors in the negotiations with the EU. Ironically, had Brexiters been willing to accept soft Brexit this would not have been so. In those circumstances, Britain would leave the Common Fisheries Policy but there would not be the wider re-negotiation of trade that makes the sacrifice of fishing likely. Moreover, soft Brexit would have been much quicker to organize, and very likely there would be no need for a transition period. Fishing would have been ‘free’ of the EU long before January 2021. That aside, given that there is to be a transition period, there was never any prospect whatsoever of fishing, uniquely, being exempt from the standstill for everything else even though Michael Gove was saying otherwise only a few weeks ago. In every conceivable respect fishing communities have been used and misled.

This most certainly does not mean that Farage and others, with their cries of ‘betrayal’, have got it right. His formula for Brexit is that of someone who knows he will never actually have to take responsibility for it. So he can continue to con fishermen and everyone else that there is a quick, simple ‘clean Brexit’ in which all of the fantasies of the Brexiters come true by simply walking away from the EU. This is contemptible dishonesty, and in relation to fishing especially so since Farage virtually never turned up to meeting of the EU Fisheries Committee when he was a member.

The great achievement, and the great lie, of the Leave campaign was to make voting leave mean all things to all people. It could mean soft or hard Brexit; liberal or illiberal Brexit; Nativist or Globalist Brexit; a vote against the neo-Communist ‘EUSSR’ or against neo-liberal Capitalism. As a vote-winning strategy, that got Leave over the line – just. Since then, the chickens of ambiguity have come home to roost. That’s most obvious in the still ongoing conflict over soft versus hard Brexit. But the passports and fisheries rows expose the nativist-globalist dimension of the dishonesty. What is politically important now, in the very few months left, is whether leave voters come to see that all the contradictory things they were promised cannot and never will come true. And, if they do, who they will decide to blame.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Draft transition agreement: initial thoughts

The agreement of much of the text for the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU and the ‘transition period’ thereafter marks the first substantive development since the conclusion of the Phase 1 negotiations in December. There is much in the detailed provisions to be picked over, and the fine print may throw up some significant problems, including the possibility that the body to oversee citizens’ rights might come to an end eight years after the end of the transition period. And the most intractable issue, that of the Northern Ireland border, has been deferred. Overall, though, it is now far less likely (although still not impossible) that there will be a ‘cliff edge’ in March 2019 and to that extent has been welcomed by business groups since it makes for a greater degree of certainty.

However, it can also be seen as no more than an extension of the period of uncertainty. It is not, at this point, a transition to anything nor is it an implementation of anything. Future trade terms will not be agreed until after the end of the Article 50 period, although there will likely be an outline political agreement on what is aimed for. It seems unlikely that the detailed legal terms will be fully agreed in time for the end of the transition period, so a cliff edge is still a possibility. And if the outcome is, as the British government insists it must be, that Britain leaves the single market and has no Customs Treaty equivalent to the Customs Union then there is not enough time for either the government or many businesses to make the necessary adjustments without a further transition period. For some of the major projects involved, especially customs facilities, December 2020 is really not very far off.

But the agreement makes no provision for any such extension of the transition period. Thus if all goes ahead as agreed Britain will be a third country with respect to the EU at the end of March 2019 and out of the single market and customs union at the end of December 2020. What form its relationship with the EU will then take is unknown. For large, long-term business investments that is a major problem. There is also one particular uncertainty about the transition period itself that the text of the agreement is very coy about: Britain’s access to EU trade agreements with other third countries, via which about 16% of UK trade is conducted. A footnote in the text says that the EU will inform those countries that Britain is to be treated as a member state for the purpose of those agreements. But it is not clear that they are under any obligation to do so.

Will this agreement, assuming its terms get finalised, go ahead? On the EU side, the answer seems almost certainly to be yes. After all, in almost all key respects, including the length of the transition period, the agreement follows the terms originally set by the EU. In particular, the UK will continue to be subject to but have no control over all EU rules and laws. This will be the ‘vassal state status’ that Brexit Ultras have said would be unacceptable (a tacit admission that their erstwhile claims that Britain had no say in the EU was inaccurate), and pretty much the opposite of ‘taking back control’.

Even so, and despite what will no doubt be a lot of huffing and puffing, it seems very likely that Brexiters will accept the agreement. It makes it all but certain that they will get over the line in March 2019 and Brexit will be a legal reality, even if at first with little tangible effect on everyday life. Some of them will make much of the fact that the transition terms allow Britain to both negotiate and ratify (but not implement) trade deals with other countries. That is actually a hollow concession by the EU since it’s unlikely that other countries will want to sign up to trade deals with Britain before knowing the nature of Britain’s post-transition trade terms with the EU. And in any case Britain’s limited capacity for trade negotiations will be fully used up in talks with the EU. Apart from that crumb, there is nothing in the agreement that will commend itself to Brexiters. But they – or at least those of them in parliament - have little option but to go along with it since if they do not the political crisis it would provoke could end up de-railing Brexit altogether.

Conversely, that means that for remainers the prospects of avoiding Brexit look more remote. If there is no political crisis and a further deferment of most of the really serious economic damage of leaving the single market, it becomes much harder to mobilise public opposition to Brexit in the time available. For many people, who are perhaps not very interested in the details, it will seem as if things are drifting along with nothing much to worry about for now, if at all. Such drift, of course, is fatal to remainers because just as Brexiters will swallow anything to get over the March 2019 line so too is it the case that once that line is crossed there is no going back (except in the very long-run). On the other hand, it’s still possible that Britain could change policy on single market membership and seek to remain in that after the transition period ends. But that it is a possibility is likely to erode the willingness of Tory remain-inclined MPs to see any urgency in rebelling now. Why go through the pain if, after all, the eleventh hour on single market membership has been postponed?

That the possibility of single market membership being retained exists is principally because of the unresolved issue of the Ireland/ Northern Ireland border. The government believe that this will be solved either by Option A (a very close trade agreement) or Option B (special arrangements, especially technological solutions). Since the trade terms will still be under negotiation during the transition period, this means that the Irish border issue will continue to be deferred until after Brexit day. However, no known trade agreement can avoid the need for a border and no known technologies will enable it to be a completely invisible border of a sort compatible with the Good Friday Agreement. Which would then bring into play Option C, meaning regulatory alignment across the border. If that were to mean a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain then, according to Theresa May, no British PM could agree to it. Which would then have to mean regulatory alignment with the whole of the UK: de facto single market membership and customs union. Whether by then – some four and a half years after the Referendum – Brexit in this or any other form could be called the Will of the People is another matter entirely.

Friday, 16 March 2018

A preview of the geo-political costs of Brexit

Much has been written about the economic damage that Brexit is already beginning to do to the British economy and the longer-term damage that can be expected. In the last week, we have also begun to glimpse the geo-political price that it will exact.

EU nations were quick to show solidarity with a fellow member state over the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, but the unspoken words were that this was an attack on a country who is a member state – for now. And whilst the Prime Minister and other politicians talked of seeking support from the EU and its members the inevitable reality is that British influence on, for example, the already divisive issue within the EU of sanctions against Russia is far more limited now and post-Brexit will disappear. That disappearance will also have implications for other foreign policy disputes, such as those over Gibraltar or the Falklands. The EU position on these and other issues will in future not be influenced by Britain and will not necessarily be supportive of Britain.

By contrast, the US reaction to the attack was slow, initially confused and, from Trump, equivocal. The sacking of Rex Tillerson may not have been, as some suggested, a reaction to his robust statement in support of the UK just hours before; but at the very least it showed that Trump cared nothing whatsoever for the damage done to Britain by this timing. And although the US position has becoming considerably harder in the last few days the reality is that Trump doesn’t offer reliable support partly, in relation to the present crisis, because of ongoing questions about his relationship with Russia; but in any case, because of his capricious and unpredictable nature. The idea that he was going to be a great friend to Brexit Britain because of his brief chumminess with Nigel Farage was always a fantasy.

At the same time, both in relation to Trump’s new policy on steel and aluminium tariffs and, for that matter, the Iranian nuclear deal, the divisions between the EU and the US are becoming greater and in the process exposing the incoherence of Brexit. On both of those (and other) issues it is clear that British interests align with the EU, and require EU heft to be pursued. Britain is stuck between the two, with waning influence on each of them. Crucially, even if and when a more conventional administration emerges in the US it will not help matters. Prior to Trump and presumably afterwards the standard US view is that UK membership of the EU is vital, and it gave the UK a particular transatlantic bridging role which will be lost forever after Brexit. This was clearly spelled out by numerous senior American politicians prior to the Referendum.

Brexiters’ standard response to these kinds of issues is to say that security is nothing to do with EU membership and everything to do with NATO. That response is deeply flawed, even leaving aside the current issues of Trump’s ambivalent attitude to NATO. Firstly, the EU and NATO are now inter-related in ever more deep and complex ways. Britain, as a NATO member, will continue to be part of that relationship but will no longer be pivotal to it. Secondly, security is about far more than military issues, but rather a spectrum of diplomatic and economic capacities. Again, the Iranian nuclear deal and the sanctions against Russia are examples of the EU’s role in such security. And beyond this, of course, are issues about security in the sense of policing and intelligence co-operation. The reality is that it is not possible to separate out as discrete elements military, diplomatic, economic, intelligence, policing etc. They are all connected together as aspects of geo-political relationships.

In so far as Britain has a strategy to address any of this it goes under the slogan ‘Global Britain’. But that was effectively dismissed as meaningless in a Foreign Affairs Select Committee report this week except to the extent that British foreign policy has always had a global focus, and the report pointed out that the failure to secure a British seat on the International Court of Justice for the first time since 1946 was hardly a ringing endorsement of the strategy. For that matter, the relentless hostility to immigration shown by the government scarcely speaks of a global vision. And Brexit itself has already led to reductions in Britain’s diplomatic presence outside the EU in order to bolster the staffing in EU countries (this, in turn, reflecting the misguided idea that Brexit can be negotiated bi-laterally with member states rather than with the EU-27 en bloc).

Meanwhile this week saw what should, but probably won’t, put an end to Brexiters’ fantasy about the Commonwealth as the basis for future trade. This was always, indeed, a fantasy (the Commonwealth explicitly has never been a trade project; many of its members already have deals with the EU or are developing them; many of them are members of their own regional trade groupings; and none of them has an appetite for the neo-colonial implications of the Brexiters’ dreams) but was made so unequivocally explicit this week that even the rabidly pro-Brexit Express had to report it although the readers’ comments beneath suggest that the message still has not sunk in with Brexiters. The still occasionally heard CANZUK fantasy is even more absurd.

That Britain doesn’t have a workable strategy for foreign policy post-Brexit is in any case not surprising considering who holds the post of Foreign Secretary. No one seriously thinks that Boris Johnson is the best person for the job. He has it solely and simply as an artefact of the domestic politics of Brexit, another small price we are already paying. There can surely never have been a less statesmanlike holder of this office and he is held in contempt in many foreign capitals, especially in European countries given his long record of mendacity about the EU going back to his time as a journalist. That can hardly be an asset when, as at present, the message he is carrying is a request to trust him in saying that there is strong evidence that Russia was responsible for the nerve agent attack.

I’m not suggesting (as some of the angry responses to my recent tweets on this subject imagine me to be) that the Salisbury attack happened as a result of Brexit. That’s not my point, although some, including the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, have made it. I’m arguing that responding to the attack gives an early, partial taste of what post-Brexit geo-politics are going to be like. Brexit won’t make such politics impossible, nor will it make Britain completely friendless: support has indeed been garnered for the British response. It will just make everything more difficult by jettisoning the carefully crafted role that Britain had carved out for itself in recent decades as a node between the major global institutions and a key shaper of its own continent. Yesterday the Prime Minister spoke of having sought support for Britain by taking its grievance to the UN, NATO and the EU, piling layer after layer of pressure. After Brexit, the third of these layers won’t be available.

The effect won’t be immediate or dramatic, just a gradual leaching away status and influence in the world. Against that loss, there is precisely zero geo-political benefit of Brexit: it is all downside. Nor, unlike the economic consequences, is this something that can be mitigated by soft rather than hard Brexit. Both are equally damaging. On the other hand, a no deal Brexit in which Britain walked out of its international obligations, perhaps even reneging on the phase 1 agreement, as some Ultras repeatedly urge would make the geo-political damage catastrophically worse by completely shredding Britain’s reputation as a reliable international partner.

Yet it is a huge irony that Brexit does give Britain one very strong card in dealing with Russian aggression. If we really wanted to do something in response to Salisbury that would pain Russia rather more than the slightly peculiar call to “go away and shut up” we could abandon Brexit altogether, since in isolating Britain and weakening the EU it is, as Rafael Behr argued last year, Putin’s dream policy.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Brexit gets silly

At the end of a recent blog post, following Theresa May’s Mansion House speech, I remarked that even though Britain refuses to get real about Brexit that does not mean the EU can or will do the same. We saw that plainly with Donald Tusk’s speech this week. Although you would not think it from most of the coverage in the British media it was highly conciliatory in tone, welcoming cooperation on security and UK involvement in various agencies, and emphasising the urgent need to prevent any disruption to air travel. But it also made clear that the only trade option consistent with the UK’s own red lines is an extensive free trade agreement (FTA) which would necessarily create barriers to trade which do not currently exist. In that sense, it would be a worse deal than single market membership.

This is only a statement of definitional fact which has been stated many times by EU officials and which should be well-known to everyone in the UK who follows Brexit, and certainly to anyone in the government. In fact, Tusk gestured towards an FTA somewhat more extensive than that modelled by the UK government in its reluctantly publicly disclosed impact analysis (for example, by suggesting completely tariff free trade in goods, and even that “like other FTAs it should address services”). But – yet again – he reiterated that there could be no ‘pick and mix’ approach which undermined the function of the single market, because “it’s simply not in our [meaning the EU-27’s] interests”.

I’ll come back to that, but it’s important to clarify that “addressing services” does not mean or imply anything approaching the existing arrangement for services as a single market member. No FTA does this, or could do this (for example, CETA, the EU-Canada deal, mentions financial services but its provisions have almost no depth, barely going beyond what little would exist under WTO terms) and there is a reason for it, which is nothing to do with EU ‘intransigence’. The barriers to services trade are entirely non-tariff barriers (NTBs) relating to standards and regulation. To remove them requires a common regulatory and legal space (and, no, not just ‘mutual recognition’), which the EU single market creates, principally via the ECJ. That is why the single market is the only example in the world of extensive cross-border services trade liberalization. But since membership of the single market is excluded by the UK there is no prospect of an EU-UK FTA covering services in any extensive way. In this sense, the outcome of Brexit, if pursued as the UK government wishes, must be economically worse than remaining in the EU or at least the EEA. Indeed this is clear in the government’s impact analysis which stresses the significance of NTBs for post-Brexit trade.

So far, so obvious. The problem lies in the reaction of Brexiters, for example Liam Fox’scrass response to Tusk: “The idea of punishing Britain is not the language of a club, it’s the language of a gang. We need to begin this argument by putting politics aside and doing what is in the economic interests of the people we represent”. Of course, Tusk had not used the word ‘punishment’ or even ‘argument’: this is a standard misrepresentation by Brexiters, albeit especially reprehensible in a senior cabinet minister. Moreover, a Canada-style FTA was presented during the Referendum by some Brexiters, including Boris Johnson, as delivering exactly the market ‘access’ Britain needed, so there was no need for voters to worry about ‘Project Fear’. Perhaps they were lying, or perhaps they just did not understand how inferior such access would be to single market membership. Otherwise, how could such a deal be positioned as ‘punishment’?

But even leaving all that aside, the quote revealed several persistent and bizarre misunderstandings. Since we are leaving ‘the club’ why would Fox expect its remaining members to treat Britain in a ‘clubbable’ manner? It’s a line which is often heard from Brexiters, as if there is some sentimental reason why Britain should be treated preferentially as a kind of alumni member of the EU. Yet it is Britain that has chosen to leave and thus to forego such chumminess. More than that, it shows an extraordinary naivety about how international relations operates: niceness and nastiness are not the register in which such relations are played. They are, indeed, about interests.

Here we come to the other part of Fox’s statement. He appears to think that by insisting on ‘no pick and mix’ the EU is putting politics above economic interests (May said something similar in her Munich speech; the irony of saying this whilst enacting Brexit is, to say the least, striking). But, as Tusk said in terms, that is not so. Although an FTA Brexit will be damaging to the EU economy in the short-term, the long-term effects of allowing a third country to have equivalent trading terms to member states would be far more economically damaging. The EU-27 have judged, correctly, that their interests do not lie in allowing that. It is naïve of Brexiters to imagine it could be otherwise, and to think that the EU-27 have either a moral responsibility for or a strategic interest in ‘making Brexit work’.

In fact, this is just another version of the longstanding naivety of Brexiters about how ‘they need us more than we need them’ and all the associated nonsense about how the German car industry (or variants thereof) will secure what Fox once said should be ‘the easiest deal in history’. Imagining that others will conceive of their interests in the way that you think they should, especially if it is in the way that you need and want them to, is perhaps the most naïve assumption that can be made in international relations. At all events, it is by now abundantly clear that the EU-27 (and the industries within those countries) do not and will not see it as being in their interests to act as the Brexiters think they should.

Which in turn gives rise to a further naivety, which is to imagine that, whatever stance the EU-27 may take collectively, Britain can lobby individual member states in order to fragment that collective position. Right from the start, the British government have tried to do this, and their efforts are intensifying now. Sometimes the idea is that it’s just a matter of ‘getting Germany on board’; other times it's trying to woo the smaller countries. But it is a grave miscalculation. Although it is true that Brexit has very different impacts on the different member states, trying to chip away at individual countries would only make sense if the Article 50 deal required unanimity, which it doesn’t; and the idea that Germany has an interest in undermining the single market to accommodate Britain has been shown to be completely wrong, even if Germany ran the EU in the way that Brexiters wrongly believe it to do.

Beyond all of this, though, is a perhaps even more dangerous naivety, and it can be seen not just amongst hardline Brexiters but also amongst more pragmatic politicians – such as Philip Hammond – and in some journalistic commentary. This is the idea that the EU-27’s stance is ‘just a negotiating position’ and that, as in all negotiations, each side has to compromise. What underlies this is the assumption that Britain’s Brexit negotiations are rather like those she has conducted as an EU member, with last-minute deals, compromises on all sides, and a recognition of the particular domestic pressures of British politics from the Eurosceptic press and politicians. But the situation with Brexit is fundamentally different, partly because Britain is, indeed, leaving, so there is no particular desire to accommodate us; partly because the time clock of Article 50 and the catastrophic effect on Britain of ‘no deal’ completely changes the balance of power. To put it another way, whereas in those previous deals when we were a continuing member the EU was trying to achieve something and needed Britain to do that, now Britain is trying to achieve something and needs the EU to do it.

So there is a fundamental realpolitik in all this which Brexiters and – since they have colonised it – the British government have to face up to. Many adjectives have been applied to Brexit and to Brexiters. Looking at the way they are conducting themselves now the adjective which seems most applicable is one which may seem rather anaemic but which captures this serial naivety and lack of realism. Brexiters and the Brexit government have become … silly.

Post-script: Indirectly related to the theme of this post, consider the tweet this week from former UKIP MEP Roger Helmer, bemoaning the possibility that a post-Brexit US-UK trade deal might mean that Scotch whisky and Cornish pasties were not protected descriptions anymore (currently, they have EU protected name status). Admittedly Helmer is, against fairly stiff competition, at the lower end of the Brexiter intellectual spectrum. Still, it’s revealing of so many things: a failure to understand the benefits of EU membership, a naivety about how the US would treat the UK in trade negotiations, and the incoherence of a nationalist rejection of the EU whilst favouring a globalist trade policy.