It is worth reflecting for a moment on just how extraordinary this is. Here we have a group of politicians who in some cases have been dreaming and scheming for Brexit for 25 years or longer. Yet now, over two years after the referendum and just weeks before finalisation of the Withdrawal Agreement, they still cannot agree on what they think Brexit should mean or on something which they dare articulate in public. Even more absurd, despite this they persist with the claim that the 17.4 million who voted leave in 2016 knew exactly what they were voting for.
In place of producing the document, two others were launched. First, on Tuesday, Economists for Free Trade (EFT, formerly known as Economists for Brexit), the eccentric but media-savvy group led by Patrick Minford, published its latest document. It was a rehash of their familiar refrain about ‘trading on WTO terms’, rather meaninglessly – and misleadingly - rebranded as the ‘World Trade Deal’ (this is part of a wider recent attempt by Brexiters to avoid the term ‘no deal’, having noticed how badly it plays with the public).
It was almost immediately trashed by those long-acquainted with the EFT approach - a “shoddy piece of analysis” according to trade expert Sam Lowe of CER – whilst Tom Peck in The Independent described it as “deranged” and “bizarre gibberish”. Wholesale critiques of the EFT’s approach have been undertaken again and again, for example by several leading economists from the LSE and Sussex University - and Ian Dunt did so for the present iteration – but the group never retracts and rarely responds. Truly, these are the Brexit Bourbons who keep returning, having learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
Curiously, although their launch event was hosted by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the EFT are not propounding the ‘Canada-style’ deal which he and other ERG Ultras claim to want, but rather the ‘no deal’ Kamikaze Brexit (which, many suspect, is also the secret dream of many of the Ultras). But both approaches share the well-rehearsed problem of the Irish border.
The EFT report is about the post-Brexit trade arrangements rather than the Withdrawal Agreement (which, under the ‘World Trade Deal’ – i.e. no deal – would not be signed) and simply wishes the border problem away in a few sentences (p.11-12).
By contrast, the ERG document, launched by the group itself on Wednesday, with the ubiquitous Rees-Mogg again in the chair, is solely concerned with the Irish border conundrum. As with the EFT report it was a restatement of already discredited ideas, in this case about technologies which do not currently exist in the permutation proposed, and which would take years to develop, if at all (the brief mention in the EFT plan refers to the same fantasy). It was effectively a reheat of the MaxFac proposal of earlier this year, introduced at the launch by David Davis - who having been Brexit Secretary at the time must surely be aware of all the reasons why it doesn’t work and wasn’t pursued. But he still proposes it.
One of the strangest features of this is that if the Brexiters genuinely believe that they have a solution to the Irish border of the sort they outlined then they have no reason to oppose the Northern Ireland backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement. As agreed in December, this would only come into force if other options, including the kinds of things the ERG are proposing, failed to avoid a hard border. So if they are right, the backstop would never be invoked and there is no need for them to fight against its inclusion. Or is it that, in fact, they know they are proposing unworkable solutions?
Of course one issue is that the ERG are not just gunning for the NI backstop but also for the common rule book for goods, which is a central part of the Chequers Proposal’s attempt to develop an alternative of the Irish (and other border) issues. On this both the ERG and the EFT documents have as their central intellectual and practical flaw the fact that they rely on notions of regulatory equivalence and mutual recognition* to avoid border checks and non-tariff barriers to trade, which is depicted as achievable because, of course, the UK is currently in full regulatory convergence with the EU (this has long been a Brexiter fantasy, and underpins Liam Fox’s discredited ‘easiest deal in history’ claim). But at the same time they demand, and claim as a key benefit of Brexit, the right to regulatory divergence.
Beneath all the relatively complex detail of the two proposals, this fundamental contradiction (which is, I suppose, a rarefied form of ‘cakeism’) makes their ideas completely unworkable, and to the extent that either report acknowledges the problem, it is in vague terms with no realistic solution proposed or in terms which are simply factually incorrect.
Much of this – especially the use of semi-digested factoids about WTO rules – seems to derive from the familiar Brexiter pathology whereby what they believe ‘must be true’ and so every piece of evidence to the contrary is either ignored or distorted, sometimes in the most grotesque way.
A good example came when Bernard Jenkin appeared on Radio 4’s The World Tonight to defend the ERG document. In response, Irish Senator Neale Richmond pointed out very forcefully that the proposal was based on a fantasy that had already been discredited. But the particularly revealing moment came in relation to the question of UK access to EU VAT databases post-Brexit, which would be needed as part of the frictionless border. Jenkin opined that there should be no problem as Britain and the EU already had a “shared system” for this (another aspect of ‘convergence’). Richmond pointed out the obvious: that this was a “ridiculous statement” because it was not a ‘shared system’ between the EU and the UK but something the UK was part of because of being a member of the EU, and so would not continue after Brexit. All Jenkin could say in reply was that if the EU insisted on being “hardline” then the outcome would just have to be WTO Rules!
Here in microcosm was not just the convergence-divergence paradox but the wider way in which Brexiters continually expect many of the features of EU membership to persist because it would be ‘common sense’ and refuse to recognize that losing such features is an inevitable consequence of ending that membership (and, hence, one reason why ‘common sense’ would dictate not leaving). When this blatantly obvious point is put to them directly and plainly – as it far too rarely is – they can only respond with bluster about punishment or bullish talk of walking away with no deal.