Friday, 22 May 2020

"It does not have to be like this". But it is

This week the UK government, belatedly, made public its draft legal texts for an agreement with the EU, for the first time authorising them to be communicated to EU Member States. They are, necessarily, lengthy and highly technical documents which have already begun to be picked over by numerous independent trade experts such as David Henig, Sam Lowe, Dr Anna Jerzewska, Dmitry Grozoubinski, and Iana Dreyer. No doubt more will appear as they and others digest the contents of these documents.

They were accompanied by a covering letter - described by Daniel Boffey of The Guardian as “extraordinary” - from David Frost to Michel Barnier which gives much insight into how the UK is approaching the negotiations. Much of it is not surprising. Repeatedly, it invokes arguments which are now familiar and which I have discussed in several previous posts.

First, it envisages a “suite of agreements” rather than the kind of over-arching Association Agreement sought by the EU. Secondly, it constantly invokes supposed “precedents” based upon a variety of other agreements that the EU has with third countries. As I discussed in my recent blog, this is profoundly unrealistic. However, what I didn’t say there and which has only become clear (to me, at least) with the publication of the draft texts, and the commentary of those listed and linked to earlier, is the cumulative effect of these two things.

For, despite being predicated on the idea that the UK is not asking for anything that other third countries don’t have, stitching them together creates what overall is an unprecedented ask (£), without apparently offering much, if anything, in return. There’s nothing wrong with trying that, of course, but it is disingenuous to suggest at the same time that it is a modest, minimal or straightforward demand, and absurd to complain if it gets rejected.

It’s not fair!

That brings us to the third feature of the letter, which was more surprising and, indeed, extraordinary. For it reads as, first, a letter of complaint, in which the EU is ‘told off’ for having taken an unsatisfactory stance and, second, as a submission to an academic seminar on political theory in which various “arguments” are discussed and (supposedly) refuted. However the overall tenor is, more than anything else, like the familiar refrain of childhood: ‘but it’s not fair’. In that last respect it is very much in line with what Bobby McDonagh, writing in the Irish Times but before the letter appeared, described as Britain’s “Brexit tantrum”.

Thought of in these terms, a useful question to ask is – what reaction from the EU is anticipated? If a letter of complaint – ‘we’re sorry, we got it wrong’? If an academic seminar – ‘good point, we hadn’t thought of that’? If a childish lament – ‘there, there, mummy’s here now’? What, precisely, is envisaged? In the event, the response from Barnier was to point out that such posturing “cannot be a substitute for serious engagement and detailed negotiations”. Well, quite.

For those who insist, as many Brexiters do, on the dignity and indeed the pride of the British nation it was a remarkably undignified and petulant statement. More to the point, it’s simply irrelevant as regards an international (trade) negotiation. For such negotiations are not about winning arguments or making complaints. They are about cold, hard power, interests, and trade-offs. Not only do argument and complaint cut no ice, but they show that you have already lost. It’s as simple and as brutal as a playground fight – the person who wants to reason with their opponent is the one who has already lost.

Does that make the EU a bully, administering ‘punishment beatings’? It’s a meaningless question. Power is just power. What is surprising is that Brexiters who have spent decades saying how awful the EU is are now pearl-clutching about its ‘viciousness’, as if what they expected was charity, or special treatment. And that is the more surprising since they have spent those decades insulting the EU, and yet now imagine that they will be the recipient of its kindness. What, for example, did Brexit Party MPs who last July were childishly turning their backs when the European anthem was played in the European Parliament think? That it would endear Britain to the EU? Did those repeatedly comparing the EU to Nazi Germany or the USSR think doing so would make securing a good deal easier?

So at one level the letter is an expression of the continuing naivety of Brexiters. At another, of course, it’s not about negotiations with the EU at all. Instead, it’s part of a concerted campaign to depict the EU, to the UK domestic audience, as unreasonable. And, indeed, the claim that Barnier is “losing the argument” is now being deployed routinely in support of this. It is as silly as Jeremy Corbyn’s widely-mocked claim that Labour ‘won the argument’ in the 2019 General Election in that, whether or not it’s true, it’s irrelevant to the only issue that matters.

Yet it has a serious implication to the extent that it will morph into blaming the EU if there is no deal, and all the attendant chaos of that, come next January. And if that happens then, no doubt, many will buy that line and forget all the promises made by Brexiters about how Britain ‘held all the cards’. What will matter, politically, is how many do so, if fresh chaos is heaped on a nation still reeling from coronavirus. If it’s, say, 50% or more then the gamble will have worked (in a political sense – of course the economic damage will be unaffected by where the blame goes). If it’s, say, 30% or less then the gamble will have failed. No doubt the question of where, within that kind of range, public opinion might land is what Boris Johnson will be calculating over the next month or so as the decision on transition period extension has to be reached.

The extension debate

With respect to that, fierce debate continues to rage. The Brexit Ultras associated with Patrick Minford et al - in yet another incarnation, this time the “Centre for Brexit Policy” – produced a predictable call against extension. Based, as usual, on the discredited ‘Cardiff model’, it recycled all the usual Ultra lines of which perhaps the most egregious is that whereas, if necessary, ‘WTO terms’ are perfectly viable for UK-EU trade, the key to post-Brexit prosperity is negotiating preferential trade terms with non-EU countries. (And if the predictable recycling of discredited arguments is your thing, look no further than David Davis’ suggestion on Radio 4 this week that – yes - ‘German car makers’ are about to ride to the UK’s rescue, as well as his prognostications about the trade negotiations. But always remember that Davis is the man who invariably  gets everything about Brexit wrong).

On the other side of the argument, warnings about the impossibility of completing a deal without an extension abound, both from (pro-Brexit) columnists (£) and health experts, whilst Nicole Sykes of the CBI tweeted eloquently about the problems for businesses of preparing for a December end to transition whilst dealing with the coronavirus crisis. However, in general terms, businesses have been remarkably quiet about this, perhaps because in the current situation they are so heavily dependent upon government support. But several business-savvy journalists are speaking up, including Martin Wolf in a powerfully argued FT column yesterday (£). I’ve made my own arguments for extending the transition before, and won’t repeat them here.

One interesting intervention in the extension debate came this week from Raoul Ruparel – formerly Theresa May’s Special Advisor on Europe – in an article in Politico. It is a serious piece from a serious author, and proposed a ‘conditional extension’ to be agreed by the end of June, effectively to implement any deal agreed by, say, October. One merit lies in its recognition, often absent from this debate, of the key problem of business preparedness. Another lies in the implication – correct, I think – that the most likely route to extension in terms of UK political realities would be some form, even if not this form, of re-badging and re-designing.

That said, Ruparel’s proposal has several problems, both of timing (a deal by October) and of its legal basis (which he questionably suggests that Article 50 provides) but the one which I think is particularly important, because it has a wider implication, is the suggestion that such a conditional extension could be preceded by a UK parliamentary vote “to indicate that initial political agreement has been reached between the two sides on what their future relationship will be”.

The obvious problem here is that there has already been a not dissimilar kind of vote, when parliament approved the Political Declaration on, precisely, the outlines of the future relationship. This included a commitment to Level Playing Field conditions, specifically linked in the text to geographical and economic closeness, that the UK now openly disavows. It is therefore difficult to see what confidence could be placed in a parliamentary vote of the sort proposed.

A country that can no longer be trusted

For the bitter truth – bitter, that is, to have to say it about one’s own country – is that the way the UK has conducted itself these last four years means that the EU has very little grounds for confidence in us. That is both because we – or more accurately our governments - have repeatedly shown ourselves to be untrustworthy but also to be incompetent – either reneging on, or apparently failing to understand the implications of, what has been agreed to, for example, but also especially, as regards Northern Ireland. It doesn’t need a PhD in textual analysis to realise that when Michel Barnier wrote in his reply to Frost’s letter this week that “I would not like the tone you have taken to impact the mutual trust … that is essential between us” it was diplomatic code for the fact that it already has done so.

But this is not just a matter of a single letter £). The shrivelling of national reputation has been long in the making and, again, for this we must thank the Brexit Ultras such as Jacob Rees-Mogg who over a year ago proposed that the UK should use an (Article 50) extension period to make things “as difficult as possible” for the EU. Or David Davis who disowned the phase 1 agreement within hours of the UK signing it. Or the entire legion – Andrew Bridgen, John Redwood, Nigel Farage - who have made it clear that they regard the financial settlement as illegitimate.

And this is also relevant to the Ruparel proposal (or similar ones that may be made in the future) more generally. For whilst, as I agree, some re-badging and indeed repackaging is likely to be a politically necessary for the UK to agree to any form of extension, the question is – why is this so? The answer is solely in order to once more dance around the sensibilities of the Brexit Ultras – the same old dance that has driven the entire Brexit saga from the decision to hold a Referendum onwards. Again, it’s rather as with a spoiled child who is constantly indulged and, of course, whose behaviour gets ever worse the longer the indulgence goes on.

It is a national tragedy for us but, more importantly in the present context, it is a game the EU is no long willing and no longer needs to play. Having for decades offered compromises and opt-outs to satisfy British Euroscepticism, our domestic political poison is, luckily for the EU, no longer its problem. I don’t sense any appetite within the EU to indulge Britain further.

The brutal truth is that neither Britain, nor Brexit, really matter very much anymore for the EU. Except, to an extent, for Ireland, Brexit is scarcely discussed in the European media, doesn’t figure in the political debates of the member states, and is well near the bottom of EU priorities. The passage of time and the press of coronavirus means that almost no one outside the UK cares now. Yes, the EU would much prefer a deal, but not at any price. So there’s going to be little flex from the EU side because it cares so little about Brexit and, apparently, none from the UK government because it cares too much about Brexit.

For these various reasons, and despite my previous opinion that an extension would probably end up happening because of the overwhelming rationality of the case for it, I agree with Tom Hayes’ excellent discussion in his latest BEERG Brexit Blog which suggests that the transition period will almost certainly end as scheduled, and with no future terms deal in place.

Post-Brexit Britain is coming in to view

Whether or not that proves right, we are now seeing more and more detail of what kind of post-Brexit Britain is envisaged by the government. This is being revealed by, for example, the ongoing parliamentary passage of legislation such as the Agriculture Bill, the dangers of which for animal welfare and product standards were analysed by veterinary surgeon Anna Bramall in Prospect this week. It is also revealed by the Immigration Bill which gleefully cements the end of freedom of movement rights. Though it is rarely stated, this includes the end of those rights for British people - on the other hand, they are awarded the special Brexit bonus of having the lowest paid jobs reserved specially for them! There’s even now a dedicated ‘pick for Britain’ website to facilitate this.

This has been an unusually busy week for Brexit-related stories, and also a busy one for me, so there are several important developments and reports that I have not been able to discuss in this post. So I will just briefly mention some of them.

First, the UK announced the new Global Tariff schedule it will apply to countries with whom it does not have a trade agreement from the end of the transition period. If that includes the EU, then the cost of food and cars imported to the UK from there “will rise sharply” (£). At the same time, the new Customs Academy – set up to train the estimated 50,000 new customs agents that will be needed after Brexit – is reported to have neither the money nor anything like enough trainees to deliver them.

Second, there was a good BBC report on the complex issue of fishing quotas, where all the Brexiter promises are unravelling. Third, there was an analysis of the intricacies of the Irish Sea border by Dr Katy Hayward and Tony Smith on the LSE Brexit site, plus a wider discussion of Brexit and Irish border issues by Dr Andrew Blick at Federal Trust. That is the same Irish border that, before the Referendum, Boris Johnson said would be unaffected by Brexit and about which, since, he denied the consequences of what he signed up to with EU.

Disparate as these and the other stories in this post are, they all point towards what is emerging for Britain. A country that is poorer and meaner, in antagonistic relation with its neighbours and natural friends. A country mired in complex and intractable problems that are entirely of its own making. A country that in the name of taking back control and animated by nationalist chauvinism is now reduced to childish whining when the world outside does not do its bidding and scarcely even registers its complaints.

What makes us “so unworthy”? “It does not have to be like this”, David Frost caterwauled in his letter to Barnier, like a spurned teenager berating the intransigence of a lost first love. Well, certainly, it did not need to be like this and wouldn’t have been – without Brexit, of course, but also without the utterly cack-handed way in which Brexit has been pursued. But it is like this, and it will go on being like this. As indeed the Brexiter faux-patriots were warned from the start and throughout these years of negotiations in which they have, by their own choices and incompetence, dragged our country into internal distress and external disrepute.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Lost in time and space

This week saw the third round (by videoconference) of the increasingly surreal post-Brexit negotiations, which rumble on as the one supposedly immutable thing in a world otherwise transformed by the coronavirus crisis. Unsurprisingly, the indications so far (there is a finally plenary session today and so something may change, but I doubt it) are that the impasse continues.

David Frost, the UK’s Chief Negotiator, has reportedly briefed the cabinet to the effect that the EU are still refusing to grant the same deals that it has done with other independent countries. In other words, the flawed logic of ‘sovereign equals’ discussed in my recent post continues to guide the UK’s approach. As noted there, it is an approach that almost guarantees that the negotiations will fail. Next month, when the transition period extension decision deadline looms, is likely to be crucial as it also marks the point when, in the past, the government has said that it might simply end negotiations if there is no deal in prospect.

As always it’s worth recalling, as the 2016 Referendum retreats into history, that the current situation grows organically out of the fact that the Brexiters never had an agreed plan for how Brexit should be done, despite the fact that they had spent years scheming and dreaming for it to happen. Since then, at every stage, the hardest of Brexiters have driven the meaning of Brexit in an ever-harder direction. Thus we have arrived at the present point when virtually any kind of deal is ruled out by red lines that have now turned the deepest crimson.

The plan was that no plan was needed

Yet this does not mean, as unworldly cynics often claim, that no deal was ‘the plan all along’. It’s far worse than that: the central truth about Brexit is that there was no plan all along. It’s true, no doubt, that there are some Brexiters who have always wanted a no deal outcome. But there are plenty of others who genuinely harbour the fantasy that it should be quick and easy to do a deal, and that Britain ‘holds all the cards’. They didn’t for the most part cynically deceive the voters, they naively deceived themselves. And, moreover, the current UK negotiators are almost certainly fully and genuinely in sway to the theology of the Brexit Ultras that, if met with sufficiently firm resolve, the EU will break its own red lines.

This is not inconsistent with having no plan for Brexit. On the contrary, it is one of the reasons for having no plan, since the assumption is that all that is needed is sufficient determination and, no doubt, ‘bulldog spirit’ for all obstacles to disappear. Such reasoning ought to have been discredited by May’s government’s initial attempt – led by David Davis – to negotiate in just that spirit.

But in the circular logic of Brexiters, the failure of their claims invariably proves that they were right all along. For example, this week Douglas Carswell argued that the EU “constantly failed to make the concessions they ought to have made” (my emphasis) and so “administered to Theresa May the equivalent of a punishment beating”. On this analysis, all would have been well had May not – with the Chequers Proposal that saw the resignations of Davis and Johnson – blinked in the face of EU pressure (rather than belatedly, and partially, recognized the economic damage of the original approach).

One serious consequence of this is that the hard core Brexiters have never accepted the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) she negotiated, large chunks of which survived in that which Boris Johnson signed, as fully legitimate. Rather, it is seen as testimony to May’s lack of steel and as the legacy of ‘the remainer parliament’. In due course, if there is no trade deal, this will reappear in the form of questioning what was agreed about the financial settlement, for the Ultras never accepted that this should have been signed off in advance of a trade deal being struck. The aborted ‘row of the summer’ (of 2017) over sequencing still rankles.

In the meantime, it is evident in the way that, having shifted commitment on the Level Playing Field (LPF) from the WA to the non-binding Political Declaration, Johnson’s government are treating even that as some new imposition from Brussels (in fact, it was spelled out at least as early as March 2018). Hence this is now routinely referred to as the “so called” Level Playing Field, as for example in Michael Gove’s recent statement. Brexiter commentators, meanwhile, use more colourful, and yet strangely self-pitying, language, with Ambrose Evans-Pritchard recently suggesting that the EU is “trying to impose terms appropriate for a country defeated in war” (£).

Brexit: unmoored from history and geography

Such hyperbole is the counterpart of the ‘sovereign equals’ idea, but a particular twist on that, which is currently the government’s constant refrain, is that the EU is refusing to understand that the UK has now left and is not still a member state negotiating exit terms (£). This is deeply disingenuous. For whilst, of course, it is literally and legally true, it implies that the UK has suddenly appeared out of nowhere as if with no history and is seeking to create a relationship with the EU from scratch.

Yet, clearly, the form of the future relationship cannot be independent of the near 50-year period that preceded it, or unaffected by the very high level of economic and political interconnection that exists as a result. Moreover, to the extent that the UK is still interconnected in this way because of the transition period, it is nonsense to treat the legal truth of having departed the EU as negating the empirical truth of those interconnections. It’s self-evidently the case that The UK isn’t ‘just another’ third country seeking a relationship with the EU: it is in a half-way house between having been a member and creating a third country relationship.

That can also be put in two different ways. First, it means something which Brexiters have never understood, namely that Brexit is a process and not an event. That failure is precisely encapsulated in the idea that, as of 31 January 2020, the UK’s departure was cut and dried, when in fact the terms of that are still a matter of ongoing implementation (as regards the WA) and ongoing negotiation (as regards the future terms). Second, it puts paid to the entire gambit of seeking ‘precedents’ from other EU relationships with third countries that is associated with the ‘sovereign equals’ logic. For there is no precedent for Brexit – it is a unique process, without precedent, and therefore the form of the future relationship will derive from those unreplicable conditions.

So, context matters. History matters. And of course geography matters. This week a tweet from Robbie Gibb – formerly Director of Communications at 10 Downing Street and an enthusiast for Brexit – opined that “in the modern world of international commerce and trade, geography is irrelevant. It’s just the EU excuse to keep us in its orbit”. It was widely mocked, but Gibb was only saying what is an article of faith to Brexiters. Not only is the UK envisaged as having a completely ahistorical relationship with the EU, but also one in which the spatial reality of proximity is irrelevant, except as an EU ploy.

This lies at the heart of what public policy academic Gabriel Siles-Brugge of Warwick University has aptly called “the emotive political economy” of Brexit trade policy. By contrast, the ‘gravity model’ of trade is just about the most robust empirical observation in economics, and even for services traded electronically there is no real evidence for what Liam Fox called “a post-geography trading world”. As I’ve argued before, Brexiters in both their ‘nationalist’ and ‘globalist’ variants fail to understand that the name of the modern game is regionalisation. Inescapably, the UK’s region is the continent of Europe, most of which is in the EU.

A consistent approach

The key to unlocking the Brexiters’ misunderstanding of this is to see that it is entirely consistent with their overall approach to the current negotiations. In a revealing tweet in 2018 Dominic Raab stated that “Remainers believe UK prosperity depends on its location, Brexiters believe UK prosperity depends on its character”. So just as no plan is needed if the UK shows sufficient ‘determination’, so the brute fact of geographical location will wilt in the face of ‘character’.

It’s no coincidence that Boris Johnson’s endless gung-ho rhetoric appeals to them: it’s not that he has the salesman’s trick of selling the product, it’s that the rhetorical trickery and the product are one and the same. That’s why, from a Brexiter point of view, constant appeals to people to ‘believe’ in and ‘get behind’ Brexit make perfect sense. With such belief, commitment and character all the inconvenient facts of history, geography (and economics) become irrelevant.

Unhampered by this peculiar metaphysics, it is neither capricious nor manipulative of the EU to seek a relationship with the UK which is modulated by the history and geography of the two parties. On the contrary, it is a remarkable folly on the part of the UK to imagine that these can or should be ignored, or that a pivot to ‘the Anglosphere’ or, even more absurdly, the Commonwealth, represents a viable strategy or a realistic calculation of self-interest. That is a critique of Brexit, of course, but given that Brexit is happening there is no reason to compound that other than the implacable hatred that Brexiters hold for the EU and for any proposal emanating from it. Even if one harboured such hatred, it is strange to carry it to the extent of inflicting national self-damage even after having achieved Brexit.

However, with the Ultra Brexiters now firmly in charge of the government, it seems that every aspect of the negotiations, including the constant attempts to resile from the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol (although this week has seen some signs of realism about this), are to be conducted in this spirit of half-paranoid, half-bellicose antagonism. Since this of course is daily eroding what little trust the EU has in the UK as a reliable and responsible negotiating partner the growing danger is not just of there being no future terms deal but of there being long-term diplomatic and economic conflict. This isn’t remotely what voters were told Brexit would mean but, then, nothing that they were told by the Vote Leave campaign was true.

Canadian conundrums

So, for now, the negotiations limp on. It’s no longer entirely clear whether Brexiters know what it is that they are aiming for. It used to be an article of faith that the aim was a “best in class” Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and a “fantastic new partnership” - what else, after all, would be good enough for Brexit Britain? In the past that meant, at least, a ‘Canada-style’ (aka CETA) deal. For example, as recently as February, Dominic Raab explicitly elided the two in talking of a “Canada-style, best in class, free trade agreement”. Mysteriously, though, such an agreement is now being described – Ambrose Evans-Pritchard again (£) - as a “skinny FTA” which would be “no tariffs or quotas but nothing special” or, more commonly, as a “bare bones” deal.

It’s difficult to disentangle all the shifting meanings here (there are shades of the way that ‘hard Brexit’ used to mean ‘Canada-style’ but morphed into meaning ‘no deal’). CETA is not, in fact, an entirely zero tariffs deal, and at the House of Lords EU Committee last week Michael Gove talked of downgrading UK demands from zero tariffs so as to “end up like Canada”. So ‘Canada-style’ has been used at different times to denote both a ‘best in class’ and a ‘skinny’ or ‘bare bones’ deal.

The idea seems to be that by re-badging ‘Canada-style’ in this way it discredits the EU’s LPF demands so as to make them seem unreasonable. Being thwarted when ‘all we wanted was a skinny FTA’ sounds like a better reason to be aggrieved than being refused a ‘best in class’ deal, even though it appears to reference the same, or a very similar, thing. And, after all, if it is deemed that with sufficient character the UK can slip the anchors of time and space it is surely a small matter to re-define Canada in whatever image is chosen.

But, however labelled, the immutable facts of history and geography persist, and these inform the EU’s position. So even a ‘skinny’ or ‘bare bones’ deal would be a complex matter, and come with LPF requirements that the UK currently rejects, partly because, as a matter of fact, CETA itself does have some LPF conditions and partly because, as the EU have long made clear, such a deal for the UK would entail more stringent ones. If these irreconcilable positions persist, we will be back to that other linguistic sleight of hand, an ‘Australia-style’ trade deal – more accurately known as no deal.

A test of character

Again, it would be a mistake to think that all this is simply a well-worked out plan to dump the blame on the EU if no deal is done – although that is certainly what will happen in that event. Rather, many Brexiters genuinely believe that the EU will ‘blink’ at the end of the year, making a transition period extension irrelevant because it delays getting to the ‘blink point’. And, again, that makes sense within a world view that regards history and geography and economics as so much flim-flam, and the real issue to be displaying determination and character.

Yet this is of little comfort to the rest of us, since we have a government whose most obvious characteristics are being pumped high on the steroids of Brexiter hubris and being staffed by perhaps the most woefully incompetent politicians in modern British history. Indeed, the two are scarcely unconnected, since the sole criterion for membership of the government is slavish obedience to the most reckless and irrational approach to Brexit. This hardly augurs well if we are reliant upon ‘character’ to see us through.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Must we mention the war?

There’s relatively little happening as regards Brexit developments this week (although the increasing row over the Northern Ireland Protocol is important), and little new to say about such developments as there are (but see Dr Katy Hayward and Professor David Phinnemore’s analysis of the background to the row). As regards the current situation overall, Katya Adler, the BBC’s excellent Europe Editor, has provided a clear summary.

So instead of writing a new post, I am ‘re-upping’ one from 28 September 2018 on Brexit Britain’s war fixation. It seems appropriate since Britain is having a public holiday for VE Day. That was decided last year, to reflect that this will be the 75th anniversary (the same happened for the 50th) but perhaps also reflects, precisely, a fixation with the Second World War which is growing rather than diminishing with time, even as those who still remember it diminish in number. (For further, interesting, reflections on this do take a look at an excellent blog post by Miles King)

And, indeed, since writing that post it does seem as if war obsession is growing and coarsening, with the behaviour of pantomime oaf Mark Francois a prime, even paradigmatic, case. That could be seen as harmless enough, but it does carry dangers as the post points out. These have come into even sharper relief during the coronavirus. For as discussed in my post of a couple of weeks ago dubious comparisons with Spitfire production or the Blitz have undoubtedly adversely affected Britain’s response to the pandemic.

Despite the post being about 18 months old, there is not much that I want to change or add (and I haven’t edited it apart from expunging one, now legally superseded, phrase), except for two things. One is that my point in the third footnote that people might not be sanguine if faced with disruptions to supplies in the event of no-deal Brexit seems borne out by the panic buying at the start of the pandemic crisis. The no-deal Brexit under discussion at the time was that of there being no Withdrawal Agreement at all, but similar disruptions can be envisaged if, at the end of December, we leave the transition period with no trade deal in place and, actually, even with such a deal there will be a need for new customs processes which will disrupt established supply chains. Also of note is that the coronavirus shortages were caused by a short-term demand spike; those at the end of the transition period will be driven by supply shortages, and may be of longer duration.

The second additional point is that, in response to the original post, I received several messages saying that I was ‘showing disrespect’ for those who fought in the war, or failed to understand its significance. This is nonsense. I spent eight years researching and writing a history of Bletchley Park, Britain’s wartime codebreaking organization. That history is itself often mythologized or misunderstood and as I wrote in the book it shows no lack of respect to those who worked there “to avoid sanitization and sentimentality … most of them would have regarded an attempt at analytical rigour as a more fitting tribute” (p.32).

That same idea matters in the current context, where there is sometimes a mood of almost authoritarian insistence upon jingoistic celebration. It would have seemed odd, I imagine, to those who were engaged in fighting authoritarianism and for individual freedom.

At all events, it is a strange historical irony that, in the long-run, it has proved more difficult for Britain – or perhaps England – to ‘get over’ winning than it has for other countries to get over defeat and occupation. And perhaps an even stranger and grimmer one that this has been partly responsible for Britain leaving the institution which embodies the successful attempt to provide the continent of Europe with an alternative to the horrors of both the war and its long, bleak, ‘cold’ aftermath. Happy Victory in Europe Day.

The September 2018 post follows.

Brexit Britain’s wartime fixation

In the run up to the referendum, it was widely remarked upon that one significant strand of the leave campaign channelled the British fixation with, and often mythologization of, World War Two (WW2). How big a part it played in the outcome of the vote is impossible to say, but it seems plausible that it was a factor amongst the demographic that voted most strongly for Brexit, the over 50s. This would be not so much people who remember WW2 – now a relatively small number – but the generation or two who grew up, as I did, in its shadow. It was a time when every other film and TV series was set in the war, when children made models of Spitfires and Lancasters, and teachers and parents spoke of ‘the war’ both routinely and as the defining event of their lives.

No doubt future analysts will have much to say about this*. For now, what matters most urgently is to understand how that same fixation and mythologization is impacting upon the ongoing politics of Brexit. As the outgoing German Ambassador to Britain remarked earlier this year, it has two components**. One is the idea of Britain ‘standing alone’, the other a narrative that links, as Boris Johnson has explicitly done, Nazi Germany’s attempt to subjugate Europe with the present-day EU. Perhaps we could add (at least) a third aspect, quite often seen on social media, that Europe owes Britain a debt of gratitude from the war that ought to be repaid by accepting all Britain’s negotiating demands.

These and similar sentiments constantly re-appear almost every day, and, possibly, with increasing regularity as the negotiations grind, stutter and stall. Just today there was a report of the views of Conservative Party members on these negotiations. One said: “I’d rather have no deal than a bad deal … if this country had a chance and an opportunity it could look after itself. In the second world war we were feeding ourselves”.

This is obviously historically inaccurate (much food was brought to Britain, at huge cost in human life and suffering, by Atlantic convoys) but the real point is that seems to have been said not as a worst case scenario, but as something desirable, part of the opportunities of Brexit, not as a calamity or as Project Fear hyperbole. It is revealing of the quite different ways that people may react to things like the appointment this week of a Food Supplies Minister as part of no deal planning. Many will think it extraordinary that a rich country in peacetime could even be entertaining such a possibility but others may feel not just sanguine but enthusiastic about it***.

A national quirk takes centre stage

We’re no longer in the situation where this longstanding quirk of the British psyche can just be dismissed as an amusing eccentricity. It has somehow come to occupy centre stage in the politics of Brexit. The Brexit Cabinet sub-committee is routinely described as the ‘war cabinet’. Boris Johnson constantly attempts – and fails – to cultivate a Churchillian image.

Peter Hargraves - the businessman who donated millions to the leave campaign, funding a leaflet to every household in the country - celebrates the insecurity Brexit will bring: “it will be like Dunkirk again”, he enthuses. Liam Fox announces his support for a round-the-world flight of a restored Spitfire to drum up exports for post-Brexit Britain.

Nor is war fever the preserve of crusty oldsters. Darren Grimes, the 22-year old Brexit activist, recently pronounced that “we’re a proud island nation that survived a world war – despite blockades in the Atlantic that tried to starve our country into submission. I don’t think we’re about to be bullied by a French egomaniac [i.e. Macron]”.

There’s a certain bathos in all this. Brexit, sold to the voters as a sunny upland of national pride and prosperity, reduced to the glum promise by Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab that the government will ensure “there is adequate food supply”. Slogans like ‘it won’t be too bad’ or ‘you won’t actually starve’ would probably not have had much traction, no matter how shiny and red a bus they were written on.

The dangers of war fixation

But there is far more danger than humour in it. The underlying sentiment of confrontational antagonism has permeated the Brexit negotiations from the beginning. Brexiters, having won their great prize, and having assured us how easy it would be, immediately adopted a stance not of confident optimism but of sullen suspicion punctuated with bellicosity.

Recall one of the early moments that the complexities of Brexit became clear – in relation to Gibraltar – and former Conservative leader Michael Howard immediately started talking about war. Or, more low-key but showing how permeated with hostility the approach has been, Johnson’s ‘go whistle’ jibe or Davis’s ‘row of the summer’ bluster.

That’s one danger, and it has already done its damage. The far greater one is the now ingrained and sure to become worse narrative of EU ‘bullying’ and ‘punishment’. This is almost invariably accompanied by invocations of WW2, of standing alone, of German aggression and French duplicity. It is dangerous not so much because it often invokes a highly partial picture of the war but because it always invokes an entirely unrealistic picture of Brexit.

Britain, through its vote and its government’s actions, has chosen to leave and to do so in the form that it has. That entails losing all of the benefits of membership of the EU and of the single market. It is not bullying or punishment to be expected to face the consequences of that choice. Britain has not been forced by foreign aggression to ‘stand alone’: it has chosen to do so. It has backed itself into a corner, through lies and fantasies about the practical realities of what Brexit would mean. It is now in danger of telling itself lies and fantasies about why that has happened.

Britain’s wartime history is something we can justly feel proud of. For that matter there are plenty of people - older people, now, inevitably - in countries like France, Belgium and Holland who continue to feel gratitude for it. But pride should not mean truculence, bellicosity, entitlement and self-pity. Above all, Dunkirk was almost 80 years ago. There is also plenty to feel proud of since and, in any case, that one desperate moment in our history should not and does not define us forever.



*Indeed some already have. See in particular the excellent chapter by Robert Eaglestone, ‘Cruel Nostalgia and the Memory of the Second World War’ in Eagelstone, R. (Ed) Brexit and Literature. Critical and Cultural Responses. Routledge, 2018.

**It is noteworthy that even pointing this out was enough to enrage Brexiters, with the Daily Express railing against the comments for ‘mocking’ them.

***The relative numbers in these different camps will become politically significant if a no deal Brexit were to happen. Brexiters are likely to find much less appetite than they think for massive disruption to the amenities of everyday life, even amongst those who currently appear relaxed about the prospect.

Friday, 1 May 2020

The flawed logic of 'sovereign equals'

This week’s Brexit news, such as it is, continues to circle around arguments for and against extending the transition period. The government’s substantive arguments against doing so – state aid rules, budget contributions, and ability to deal with the coronavirus crisis - were rehearsed in a good article by Arj Singh in HuffPost. The article also included useful critical discussion of each of these, from Professor Anand Menon of King’s College London, and Georgina Wright and Maddy Thimont Jack, both of the Institute for Government.

However, one development of note was flagged up in Michael Gove’s comments during a Select Committee appearance. Some of these were boilerplate stuff about there being no need to extend the transition period as there is enough time for a deal to be done. In support of this contention there was, as usual, a bogus historical comparison (on this occasion, with the time taken for the 1957 Treaty of Rome to be completed, ignoring that there were many years of prequel and sequel to that) and a slightly absurd call for the EU to ‘concentrate its mind’ on Brexit in view of the coronavirus crisis.

This is all largely by-the-by and was really only a riposte to Michel Barnier’s pointed criticism of the UK at a press conference the week before which might be summarised as a call for Johnson’s government to ‘get real’. Considered as such a riposte, it could in turn be summarised as ‘shan’t’ and, indeed, all such calls have been resisted for four years now.

The UK’s new approach to the Brexit negotiations

By contrast, the interesting aspect of what Gove said lay in his repeated references (subsequently re-enforced by ‘Number 10’) to the UK as being an ‘independent’ or ‘sovereign’ state and, with that, his complaint that the EU was failing to treat the UK as such. This terminology has been emphasised for several weeks now, beginning at least with the publication of the government’s negotiating approach at the end of February. It is also frequently used by the UK’s Chief Negotiator David Frost who regularly re-iterates that the negotiations are between ‘sovereign equals’, and it was deployed forcibly this week in the UK’s insistence on certain fishing rights being “just fundamental” to what “an independent state” means.

At first sight, this might be taken as just another outing for Brexiter sloganising about ‘taking back control’, but it codes a much deeper shift in how the UK is approaching Brexit under Boris Johnson. Throughout May’s Article 50 negotiations, the frequent accusation was that Britain was trying to ‘cherry pick’ the advantages of EU membership, whilst avoiding the constraints and obligations of such membership. Both the EU and many UK commentators remarked that this failed to understand that, after Brexit, the UK would be a ‘third country’. At the same time, many Brexiters were suspicious of such an approach, believing that in practice it would keep the UK tied too closely to the EU’s orbit.

In the new approach, the government has flipped this criticism around so as constantly to emphasise that what it is seeking is a series of arrangements which are in line with precedents from third country relationships with the EU. The precedents vary, according to what aspect of the future relationship is being referred to, but in the negotiating approach document they include Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, USA, and Norway. The term ‘precedent’ or cognates of it appear 30 times in the 30-page document.

The significance of this is two-fold. On the one hand, it is a message to the EU but also to both pro- and anti-Brexit actors domestically, that the UK is neither asking for anything which is unreasonable for a non-member nor for anything which is in any way incompatible with Brexit. On the other hand, and here the notion of ‘sovereign equals’ is important, it implies that these arrangements are or should automatically be on offer to the UK since they are selected from the menu of what independent states are able to agree with the EU.

A naïve and misleading approach

In this respect, it is an approach which is at best naïve and at worst deliberately misleading. It seems to derive from transposing the rules-based nature of EU membership on to the EU’s external relationships. EU membership entails rights and obligations within a system of rules, since that is the only way of holding together a group of (yes) sovereign, independent countries. It is that which precludes cherry-picking, which would fatally undermine such a rules-based system. Once the rules are bent, they cease to be rules. Hence the impossibility of being both a beneficiary and a non-member. What the government’s new approach implies is that the same logic applies to third countries. That is, that they, too, have a certain set of rights, albeit different to those of member states. David Frost has expressed this quite unambiguously in saying that the British approach is “to claim the right that every other non-EU country in the world has”.

If that were indeed so, then, of course, there would be no reason why the UK shouldn’t have, say, a New Zealand-type veterinary agreement or a Japan-style agreement on financial services regulation, to give two examples envisaged in the UK negotiation approach document. In particular, to take the central and most contentious example, there is no reason why the UK should not have a Canada-style Free Trade Agreement without the need for additional Level Playing Field Commitments. All of these are ‘within the rules’ for third countries, have ‘precedent’ and, therefore, the UK has a ‘right’ to them by definition.

But there are no such ‘rules’ or ‘rights’, and the quasi-legal notion of ‘precedent’ is all but irrelevant in this context. To the extent that the EU is, indeed, a ‘sovereign’ it can make whatever external agreements it sees fit, with or without regard for ‘precedent’. What it will do is based upon the calculation of its own interests, refracted through the internal negotiation of the differing interests of its own member states. In particular, what is at issue is the relative negotiating strengths of the EU vis a vis the UK.

A meaningless construct

In this respect, ‘sovereign equals’ is a meaningless construct. Sovereignty applies equally to all countries, but that does not make them ‘equal’ with respect to what they can achieve in trade or other negotiations. The US is the sovereign equal’ of, say, Chad – but in any negotiation between them the US is clearly the stronger party, and it would be absurd to imagine that because the US has such and such a relationship with, say, Canada, it follows that this would be made available to Chad.

The disparity between the UK and the EU is, of course, much less than in this example. But economically, especially, the differences in size between the two is enough to make the EU stronger. Yet, on the other hand, precisely because of the UK’s economic size and proximity to the EU, it is unsurprising that the EU is not willing to offer a Canada-style trade deal without additional preconditions and safeguards.

An alternative reading of being ‘sovereign equals’, and one which is found in numerous government statements, is that it simply means that just as the EU will not accept or be bound by UK law, regulation and jurisdiction so the same thing applies to the UK as regards EU law, regulation and jurisdiction. This is important within the context of the negotiations because it codes, in particular, the idea that any role for the ECJ would be unacceptable to the UK.

But this version of sovereign equality is also naïve and misleading. The global economy relies upon trans-national regulatory systems of which those of the EU and the US are by far the most extensive and powerful. The UK is of course free to set its own standards, and to that extent is the sovereign equal of any other country. But there is no possibility of the UK being an international ‘rule maker’ and to that extent is bound to be a ‘rule taker’. The Brexiter position on this is in any case contradictory given the enthusiasm they evince for trading ‘on WTO Rules’.

The outcome of the negotiations will therefore be a matter of realpolitik, not of a quasi-theological notion of ‘sovereign equals’ nor of a fantasy that some system of rules and rights governs what kinds of deals the EU does or does not do. It is also quite irrelevant here to talk, as Brexiters often do, of what the EU ‘ought’ to do if it had regard for their (the Brexiters’) calculation of its (the EU’s) interests, or those of its member states, or of their industries (the German car maker argument). That’s a matter for the EU, just as it is the for the UK – in that sense, only, are they sovereign equals. Both can make their own decisions and, as it may be, their own mistakes.

How to make sense of all this?

At one level all this is – as so often – more to do with a domestic audience than the EU. Thus the Daily Express reported it as Gove “blasting” the EU for refusing “to accept its own logic” (i.e. a version of the ‘precedent’ argument). That is in part another example of how Brexit continues to be conducted as if it were still in campaign mode but, of course, also an indication of how, especially if no deal is done, it will be blamed on EU intransigence.

At another level, I think it reflects something which many remainers fail to understand. Committed Brexiters really do believe their own propaganda and, in particular, really do believe that ‘sovereignty’ confers unconstrained freedom. In this sense, their fantasy of what being a ‘sovereign equal’ means as a non-EU member is the mirror image of their erroneous belief that sovereignty had been lost by virtue of being an EU member. And allied to that is the persistent paranoia that, as a member, the UK was ruled by the EU and as a non-member is being punished by the EU.

But there are some more fiddly and detailed issues in play here. Firstly, during the May years, as it became progressively clearer how complex the realities of Brexit would be, Brexiters developed the notion of ‘managed no deal’. It was a non sequitur, for it entailed making deals without making a deal. But it lives on in the present negotiations as what might be called ‘managed no deal 2.0’. For whereas the EU approach is to seek a single deal, encased in a single governance architecture, the UK ‘precedent’ approach envisages a series of mini-deals, modelled on this or that precedent.

There’s some irony in this, since one could argue that the EU approach is to offer a ‘bespoke’ EU-UK relationship whereas the UK’s is to seek a number of ‘off the peg’ solutions. So the EU is proposing something which, to the cheers of Brexiters at the time, Theresa May and David Davis said was vital – this was the meaning of her ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ - whereas the UK is proposing what she, again to Brexiter cheers, dismissed as unacceptable.

Secondly, what is going on is an outgrowth of another Brexiter nostrum, namely that the EU ‘always blinks at the last moment’. This has been a claim going right back to David Davis’ tenure as Brexit Secretary, much of it based on an erroneous comparison with what often happens at EU Summits between member states and the situation of a negotiation between the EU and a departing – or, now, departed - member. But it took on a new life when Johnson supposedly re-negotiated May’s withdrawal agreement last year.

The ‘supposedly’ gives the lie to the analysis that it offers a template for the current negotiations. For it is not that the EU ‘blinked’ but, rather, that Johnson accepted something that both he and May had previously rejected as unacceptable, namely an Irish Sea border. And, in any case, what that episode reveals more than anything else is that the hasty cobbling together of an agreement to suit an ad hoc timetable created something which has huge practical problems of implementation (as Dr Katy Hayward of Queen’s University, Belfast has pointed out this week) and key aspects of which the UK does not seem to accept anyway leading to rapidly increasing tensions. So if there is a lesson for the EU in it, it is not to do a deal in a hurry.

That aside, the ‘EU will blink first’ idea is given fresh impetus by the new approach of relying on third country precedents, because the assumption is that since the EU has agreed to them for other countries then, when push comes to shove, it will do so for the UK. On this analysis the EU is simply being recalcitrant and, when stood up by ‘an equal’ will back down. Again, that’s clear in this week’s fishing row, when the UK line is that it’s going to take time for the British position to “sink in” with the EU.

One huge difficulty this creates is that it precludes agreeing to an extension by the end of June, when it needs to be decided if it’s to happen, because the assumption is that the ‘last moment’ for the ‘blink’ will not arrive until the end of December. So if the analysis is then proved to be flawed it will be too late, and the UK will have to pay the heavy price of the consequences.

Contradictions and limitations: Europol and Lugano

Finally, within the undergrowth of the detail, this week saw two stories which speak, in different ways, to the analysis offered in this post. The first shows the contradictions of the UK position. For, despite the new ‘third country precedent’ approach there are still elements of the old ‘cherry picking’ approach in relation to Britain’s reportedly “impossible demands over access to Europol databases”. Here, the UK wants to “approximate the position of a member state as closely as possible”, suggesting some continuation of the flawed idea that there is a kind of ‘alumnus’ status available to Britain as a former member.

The second story shows the limitations of the UK position. It relates to what is, no doubt, to many the obscure issue of the Lugano Convention (the obscurity is also yet another example of how the huge ramifications of Brexit were barely discussed during the Referendum campaign). This is a cross-border legal agreement whereby civil and commercial judgments made in one participating country’s courts can be enforced across all the participating countries. It sounds dull, but it’s important to business, and doesn’t present a problem for Brexiters because it doesn’t involve the ECJ.

So Britain, which hitherto participated by virtue of its EU membership (and, currently, the transition period), applied for independent membership earlier this month. The government’s argument is that this something open to countries around the world (so: the third country precedent argument). But Britain doing so requires, amongst other things, the approval of the European Council and it has been reported this week that such approval may not be “in the EU’s interest” (£). The outcome remains to be seen. But the significance of this is clear. The idea that the UK can fall back on an imaginary world of self-determining national sovereignty is entirely flawed. That sovereignty is constrained by, and contingent upon, decisions made by others.

The bigger picture

Crucially, this is not just about specific aspects of Brexit. It goes to the heart of the entire, flawed, Brexit project. Again and again that project relies upon, at best and then only questionably, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century ideas of nationhood and international trade.

That is most evident in the way that free trade is treated mainly as being about goods tariffs and their abolition (£), which also explains the failure to understand the nature of the single market, services trade, and how removing non-tariff barriers entails ‘losing’ sovereignty through creating international regulations. But it was also evident in David Frost’s recent speech explaining the entire approach to the future terms negotiations as based on Burkean theories of sovereignty.

It is from this approach that the current rhetoric of ‘sovereign equals’ derives. It is totally inadequate for the present day and to use it as the basis for negotiations is almost to guarantee that those negotiations will fail.

Friday, 24 April 2020

Coronavirus and Brexit: the connections and their consequences

It is now increasingly clear that there is a complex web of interconnections between Brexit and responses to the coronavirus crisis. I have been writing about that on this blog since the beginning of March (and especially here and here) which I mention not as a boast for any perspicacity on my part but just to avoid repeating too much of what was said in those posts.

There are two ways of thinking about those interconnections. One might be called ‘ideational’, meaning things arising from an overlapping mind-set (it would be to ascribe too much coherence to it to call it an ideology). The other might be called ‘institutional’, meaning those things arising from governmental or administrative overlaps. And, of course, there is an interplay between the two.

Ideational connections

Here, the main issue is the very clear overlap (£) between those who think that the coronavirus restrictions are overdone, should never have happened or should be lifted quickly, and that the whole thing is essentially a fuss about nothing – the self-styled ‘lockdown sceptics’ - and those who support Brexit, think it is easy and simple, and should have been done by now.

There is a small but very influential group of politicians and commentators who approach a nexus of issues in the same way be it Brexit, coronavirus, climate change, immigration, sexual harassment or any number of other things. It’s always the same people, and always the same blokey, angry, resentful, constantly triggered but can’t-you-take-a-joke-snowflake, sneeringly superior yet self-pitying victimhood schtick.

And it’s always the same argumentative tricks – cherry-picked statistics (£350M/ comparative death rates), semi-understood factoids (WTO rules/ herd immunity), bogus past comparisons (we managed fine before/ flu), overblown rhetoric (dictatorship/ house arrest), and drastic exaggerations of their opponents’ claims so as to erect absurd strawmen for demolition (so it means WW3/ we’re all going to die? Really?).

In a previous post I gave Tim Martin, the Wetherspoon’s boss, as an exemplar in discussing this overlap, at least as regards Brexit and coronavirus. Martin, of course, is a passionate advocate of Brexit and ferocious critic of social distancing measures. Since then, fascinating work has been done by Professor Ben Ansell, a political scientist at Oxford University, showing correlations between Brexit-voting areas and lower levels compliance with social distancing instructions.

The data are open to different interpretations – especially the possibility that those in leave voting areas might be more likely to have jobs that cannot be done from home – but a plausible one is that the correlation partly reflects the overlap in mind-set I alluded to (just as there is an overlap in the US between Trump’s core vote and those objecting to coronavirus restrictions).

Another set of interconnections was identified this week by Professor David Edgerton, a historian of science and technology at King’s College London. He argues that both Brexit and the government response to coronavirus reveal shared “fantasies about British scientific and inventive genius”. He also links this to pervasive myths about the Second World War which, of course, have been central to Brexit and are almost unavoidable in relation to the pandemic. As the historian Robert Saunders, of Queen Mary, University of London, remarked, it is as if British politicians only have one historical reference point and it’s one they don’t understand anyway.

Institutional connections

Edgerton’s analysis centres on the government’s attempts to boost ventilator production, the story of which was devastatingly laid bare by Peter Foster in the Financial Times this week (£), provoking an angry response from the government. And here the ideational and institutional connections begin to merge. For as Foster records, the link is not just idiotic comparisons with the Blitz or Spitfire production, but a constant boneheaded refusal of politicians to engage seriously with experts. In other words, governmental failures over coronavirus are inseparable from Brexit ‘simplism’ in general and the Second World War myths in particular.

The institutional interconnections were thrown into even sharper relief by a truly devastating report in The Sunday Times about the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis (which also provoked a furious reaction from the government or perhaps, as is widely rumoured, from Dominic Cummings). They were at least two-fold. One was, simply, political exhaustion from all the Brexit battles of the previous months. A second was the way that planning for a future pandemic had been entirely sidelined by planning for no-deal Brexit, not just in general but in relation to specific recommendations about pandemic planning.

The latter is just another way of saying that it’s impossible to deal simultaneously with coronavirus and the Brexit negotiations, a point I’ve made repeatedly on this blog. It’s also been made, with more authority, by Georgina Wright and by Joe Owen, both of the Institute for Government, and innumerable others.

Why does this matter?

Most obviously, it matters in terms of the concrete question of whether the transition period will be extended. Without repeating the arguments for that, an important development this week was the Scottish government calling for it. It’s also been called for in a punchy editorial, again in The Sunday Times, and by a group of senior ex-civil servants. And a new opinion poll shows that 64% of the public support extension with even 45% of Brexit Party voters doing so. What is also coming into focus in this debate is, as I wrote this week, not just the question of whether to extend but by how much given that only one extension is possible. Yet we still don’t know that it will happen, as Tony Connelly of RTE explains.

But I think there is a deeper importance to all this. What both Brexit and coronavirus reveal are some fundamental flaws in the way we are governed and the political discourse around it. The populist explosion of this decade, of which Brexit was a prime example, has bequeathed a way of governing which is impervious to reason, and incapable of engaging with complexity. It isn’t just chance that we have a woefully incompetent Prime Minister, a dud stand in, and a cabinet of mediocrities, propped up by a cadre of special advisors with few skills beyond contrarian posturing.

They are the legacy of Brexit. They were brought into power by Brexit. But all the things which secured the vote for Brexit – the clever-but-dumb messaging, the leadership-by-slogan, the appeal to nostalgic sentiment, the disdain for facts and evidence, the valorisation of anger and divisiveness, the bluff ‘commonsense’ and the ‘bluffers’ book’ knowledge – are without exception precisely the opposite of what is needed for effective governance in general, and crisis management in particular.

This can be seen in the increasingly bizarre and convoluted stories about (non-)participation in EU procurement schemes, and the Turkish PPE flight. Both bear the hallmarks of the Brexity ideology, dishonesty, bullying, spin and incompetence that are the stock-in-trade of these people.

The realities of delivering Brexit had already found them out, but in the face of the pandemic their entire approach has been comprehensively discredited. If we must use Second World War analogies then, as Peter Oborne writes, Johnson is a Chamberlain not a Churchill. Oborne also notes what is being increasingly widely recognized about Johnson, and which I wrote about when he was still Foreign Secretary, namely that he is always in campaign mode and has no facility for, or much interest in, governing. The same is true of Cummings and, for that matter, the entire Brexit high command which has always been characterised by protest and victimhood not competence and responsibility. That is a disaster in terms of Brexit, but it is – literally – fatal in terms of coronavirus.

But – and this is the worst part of the legacy – despite all this some opinion polls show public approval for their approach continues to grow (and though the picture on growth is mixed, still, it shows continuing majority approval). They have no incentive to change their ways – even if they were capable of doing so - when the rewards for not doing so are so ample. That may change, though, and quickly. I have just a sense that the narrative may be shifting at the moment and one index of that is, actually, the furious responses to adverse news stories, which smack of desperation. It shouldn’t be forgotten how easily public opinion can turn, as it did, for example, over the Iraq War.

A final thought

From those thoughts flows another. In this post, as in many others on this blog, I have referenced academics, journalists and think-tankers who do such extraordinary work in analysing and communicating what is going on. So much for having enough of experts. Indeed, as has been widely remarked upon, it is noteworthy how, in the coronavirus crisis, the UK government has turned not just to medical experts but to academic scientists and to businesses to cope with that crisis.

What is less widely pointed out is that, on the basis of the education profile of the vote to leave the EU, the majority of these are likely to have been against Brexit and are very much the kind of people who for the last four years have been reviled as the ‘liberal elite’. Equally, the heaviest burden in dealing with the sharp end of the crisis has fallen on NHS workers of all sorts, care workers, delivery drivers, supermarket staff and so on. Many of these, at all levels of skill, are immigrants, including many from the EU-27 who did not even have a vote in the Referendum.

Yet it is all these people, rather than the archetypical coastal town pensioner or home counties golf club bore, who are now expected to deal with the coronavirus crisis (just as civil servants are expected to deliver Brexit whilst being traduced as remainer traitors). In this sense, the deepest connection between the coronavirus and Brexit is the way that the former has comprehensively discredited some of the central myths and lies of the latter. It turns out that when the chips are down educated professionals, immigrants, and indeed educated professional immigrants are rather important after all. More so, at least, than contrarian newspaper columnists raging against restrictions on their inalienable right to go around infecting people.

Friday, 17 April 2020

Beyond all reason

Once again, there’s not a great deal to say. But, once again, for as long as there is no change to the Brexit timetable it is worth looking at what has been happening because, as things stand, we’re less than nine months away from the transition period ending with, potentially, no future terms deal in place.

The consequences of that will not only be economic, but in economic terms alone they will be considerable, since they will come on top of the grisly impact of the pandemic, as outlined by the Office for Budget Responsibility this week. The proposition is that, in addition to this spectacular short-term 35% fall in GDP, rise in unemployment, and destruction of public finances, it is the inviolable ‘will of the people’ to add the effects of Brexit with or without a deal. Why make a tough situation tougher, as the Managing Director of the IMF put it in advising extension? No sane government would do so, and there are really no rational arguments against extension.

An attempt to make such arguments came this week from Shanker Singham, the highly influential “Brexiteers’ brain”, primarily based upon the idea that it would mean delay to the UK making trade deals with other countries, especially the US. But the value of such deals is nugatory compared with trade with the EU. The current government estimate is that a deal with the US would be worth, at most, an increase of 0.16% of GDP over 15 years, whilst even securing a free trade deal with the EU would see UK GDP grow 6.7% less over the same period than it would have done but for Brexit, and 9.3% less with no deal at all.

In any case, as I’ve pointed out many times before, the issue is not just the already incredibly tight timetable for trade negotiations with the EU. It’s the time needed to create the domestic regulatory institutions which – given the Government’s scorched earth Brexit policy – will need to be created from scratch when the UK exits REACH, EASA etc., and also for businesses to adapt to whatever the new trading relationship is. No serious commentator believes this is possible, so further disruption and damage is inevitable in the absence of an extension.

The current situation

The formal situation is that the Chief Negotiators for the EU and the UK met by videoconference this week and issued a new timetable for negotiations (again, these will be by videoconference). This will entail far less negotiation time than had been originally envisaged before the transition extension decision has to be made. To the extent that anything of substance is happening in the latest negotiations, it lies in the (negative) news that whilst the sides continue to exchange proposals, the UK has held off doing so for fisheries (£).

As has long been predicted (see this prescient article by RTE’s Tony Connelly from last November), this economically trivial but symbolically potent industry is likely to be crucial. It’s worth recalling that had the UK sought a ‘Norway-style’ Brexit then it would have meant exiting the Common Fisheries Policy and could have been negotiated whilst still remaining in the single market. So if it’s really so crucial to leave the CFP (a doubtful proposition anyway), it could have been achieved by that route, as could an independent trade policy which is supposedly the other main economic benefit.

Conflicting accounts and predictions

There are widely conflicting accounts of UK thinking on an extension. The Sun has reported that the government want a ‘pay as you go’ arrangement, with extension on a month by month basis. It seems highly unlikely that the EU would agree to this, and it would cause endless agony to UK businesses (not that the government seems to care about them). By contrast, The Spectator is adamant that no extension will be requested. Note that both publications are heavily hooked in to the Conservative government’s political and media networks. It wouldn’t be too cynical to imagine that what is going in these reports it kite-flying with different parts of the media and electorate, to see what the reaction might be.

There’s a reason to think that such kite-flying would be necessary: the Brexiters are very split, now, about extension. Some of the most intransigent now accept its necessity, yet read any forum in social or online media and it’s clear there is massive opposition from others, and that opposition would certainly be exploited by Nigel Farage, opening up all the old Tory fears that led to the Referendum, and Brexit, in the first place.

As to whether extension will happen (from the UK side – it’s generally expected that the EU would agree if asked, depending on the exact details), astute and well-informed commentators reach very different conclusions. Denis MacShane, who amongst other things predicted Brexit in 2014, sees coronavirus as offering Boris Johnson a Brexit ‘get out of jail’ card to pause and soften Brexit. However, Brendan Donnelly, Director of the Federal Trust, who knows the Conservative Party intimately, argues persuasively that in its current incarnation it will almost certainly stop Johnson doing any such thing.

For what very little it is worth, I still tend on fine balance to think that MacShane is right – and it’s notable that some well-connected right-wing journalists are beginning to dismiss suggestions that extension is a non-starter for the Brexiters -  but that may only reflect my residual and probably misplaced optimism that the UK isn’t doomed to call every single decision about Brexit stupidly. However, as I wrote a few weeks ago, the question isn’t just whether there is an extension but for how long? Given the likelihood of ongoing dislocation because of coronavirus a short extension will be scarcely better than no extension at all. In some ways it will be worse as further extension, should it be necessary, is precluded.

Beyond all understanding

On the other hand, do we still have a ‘sane government’ in the UK? Well-informed accounts give a disturbing picture of chaos and dysfunction which is unlikely to be ameliorated by the reports that Boris Johnson “will not be involved in decisions” whilst convalescing and that Dominic Cummings “is back in Number 10 and working”. The latter, one assumes, is the unnamed “spokesperson” for the Prime Minister who yesterday unequivocally insisted that the UK would neither seek nor agree to an extension.

Within this statement, it was claimed that extension would reduce the UK’s flexibility in responding the coronavirus crisis. What this could conceivably mean is totally mysterious, although one suggestion, from Katya Adler, the BBC’s sagacious Europe Editor, is that it is code for avoiding paying into EU-wide post-virus recovery schemes. That’s a plausible explanation of Brexiter thinking, but, if so, exhibits the same tedious dishonesty as in the Referendum campaign of looking solely at the budget in assessing the economic costs and benefits, and indeed looking at membership only in transactional terms. For, of course, even assuming the UK were obliged to pay into such schemes (which is far from clear), even assuming it were a net contributor to such schemes, and even assuming no humanitarian arguments, the UK would also benefit from its nearest trading partners recovering as quickly as possible from the economic effects of the pandemic.

Anyway, I think it’s equally likely that the idea is to try to blunt the argument that Brexit should be extended to focus on coronavirus by pretending that extending would hamper dealing with it. So, as from the start, the entire Brexit project remains steeped in spin and lies. Nor is it difficult to predict the next one, if indeed there is no extension – that all the damage caused in the New Year is nothing to do with Brexit, but all down to the virus.

Yet, equally, precisely because of the endless lies, the current unequivocal statements do not offer a sound basis for prediction. It was, after all, Boris Johnson who in his very first speech as Prime Minister, and repeatedly thereafter, insisted that the UK would “come out of the EU on 31 October, no ifs or buts”. So, really, who knows?

But, for now, we go on with every single aspect of life in Britain transformed, disrupted or on hold but a government still masochistically insisting that for Brexit, alone, it is ‘business as usual’. It’s beyond understanding, because it’s beyond all reason.