Friday, 10 September 2021

Betamax Frost is an obstacle to a viable post-Brexit strategy

There’s something like an emerging consensus that the Afghanistan crisis has also created a crisis for Britain’s post-Brexit geo-political strategy and, in particular, shows both the emptiness of the ‘Global Britain’ slogan and the urgent need to increase co-operation with the EU. It’s a message that can be found in recent articles by former National Security Adviser Lord Ricketts, by the Observer’s Chief Political Commentator Andrew Rawnsley and, perhaps more surprisingly so therefore more significantly, by pro-Brexit Times columnist Iain Martin (£). Within the Conservative Party it can be seen in the comments of Tom Tugenhadt and Tobias Ellwood, amongst others.

Of course many people realized from the outset that Brexit was going to create such a crisis, not least because it was so clearly a victory for Putin’s anti-UK and anti-EU policies – the Afghanistan issue has just hastened it and made it more visible. That arises from one of the key flaws in the Brexit case, which always insisted that Britain’s security needs were entirely met by NATO (meaning, in effect, the US), whilst all attempts to develop an EU foreign and defence policy were treated as illegitimate and indeed as a reason to leave. More crudely, during the referendum, any discussion of the geo-political consequences of Brexit was shut down using the ‘so World War Three will break out if we leave?’ straw man.

Subsequently, the government’s attempt to articulate its Global Britain strategy in the ‘Integrated Review’ made only passing references to the EU, and Boris Johnson’s stated aim of “leaving the cramped horizons of a regional foreign policy” underscored that he wanted to act as if Britain’s strategic place in the world could be detached from its geographical place in the world. Exactly the same objective is apparent in relation Britain’s economic place in what Brexiters like to call the “post-geography trading world”.

The strategic logic for post-Brexit Britain

This was always foolish, if only because – as Brexiters themselves were wont to say – ‘we are leaving the EU, we’re not leaving Europe’. The implications of that truism are starting to be belatedly recognized in both geo-politics and economics. There’s a kind of Alice through the looking glass feeling in the words of the newly appointed Trade Commissioner for Europe, which speak of the huge importance of trade with the EU and of the need to work “with businesses and governments across the continent to remove barriers to trade”. It need hardly be said that … no, really, it need hardly be said. Still, it is a recognition, of sorts, of reality.

That recognition is also evident in some of the ‘quiet realism’ I’ve described in recent posts about the limited possibilities for regulatory divergence from the EU. For example, despite the current bluster about diverging from EU GDPR rules it seems almost certain that, when it comes to it, the government will realise that this would have few benefits but carry the massive costs (£) of losing EU approval of UK data protection rules as equivalent to GDPR. The pull of the EU regulatory orbit is too great for a country of Britain’s size and economic integration with the EU to resist. Divergence is simply too expensive, as has in fact been obvious since the 2017 Data Protection Bill was announced even as hard Brexit was being pursued.

Thus the strategic logic of post-Brexit Britain is getting clearer almost by the day. It’s not just that regulatory divergence is too expensive. It is also that continued de facto regulatory alignment makes it pointless to continue to refuse de jure alignment. That is because retaining the theoretical right to diverge (e.g. on Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary [SPS] regulations, which are also central to the Northern Ireland situation) whilst still in practice remaining mainly or entirely aligned makes no sense, or at least it only makes sense to theological Brexiters as an exercise in theoretical sovereignty. No doubt there will be a few exceptions, but that is the general logic of the situation.

Beyond regulatory issues, that logic suggests working in close and harmonious partnership with the EU across a wide range of security, diplomatic, environmental and possibly military endeavours. It’s not an ideal situation but, within the range of those currently politically viable for post-Brexit Britain, it is the best available. Anyone tempted to dismiss this as ‘remainer defeatism’ should recall that such harmony was precisely what many leave campaigners promised as a benefit of Brexit, replacing the antagonism arising from supposed ‘compulsion’ with a cooperation based upon making choices based on the UK’s own interests. It is only more recently that Brexiters have insisted on independence at all costs from anything European, regardless of UK interests.

To the extent that strategic logic points in the direction of a relationship with the EU that is both substantially harmonized and harmonious, it’s a reasonable expectation that at some point in the future a British government will take that path. But manifestly it is not inevitable that governments will act with strategic logic and, most certainly, it is unlikely that the present government will do so. For even as the force of that logic becomes clearer, Johnson’s approach to Brexit – as enacted by David Frost – remains one of antagonism which precludes acting on it.

Frost returns for autumn

That this approach is set to continue was made abundantly clear by Frost this week, both in a major speech and in a written statement to parliament. For all the mention in the speech of not wanting “a fractious or difficult relationship with the EU”, he was unable to resist multiple jibes suggesting just the opposite. Crucially, he made it clear that he does not accept the fundamental tenets of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP): “the difficulties come from the way the Protocol is constructed, not just the way it is being implemented”.

An obvious retort would be that he was the UK’s chief negotiator when it was agreed in 2019, but, as in the past, he made clear that he regards this as having happened because of the constraints inherited from May’s administration, constraints which wouldn’t have existed had “we” (meaning Johnson’s administration) been in charge at that time. For this reason, he evidently feels no shame, or even any sense of inconsistency, in reneging on what he agreed because he feels no genuine responsibility for having made the agreement.

This, as with other claims he makes, entails a ludicrous re-writing of history, but it’s important to understand that – in my view, although of course I am not inside their heads – both Johnson and Frost genuinely believe this stuff (for a longer discussion of Frost’s approach, see my post from last March). That matters, because it explains their present stance. In particular, they believe that May failed to negotiate properly because she didn’t believe in Brexit, that the removal of the backstop was a triumph of their ‘hardball’ negotiation, and that the subsequent threat to violate the NIP with the Internal Market Bill was what led to the TCA being agreed. Most fundamentally, they believe that the entire Northern Ireland border issue was fabricated by the EU in order to stymie Brexit and only gained prominence because May allowed it to. It’s significant that all of these beliefs have recently been affirmed by Dominic Cummings.

These may sound like outlandish statements to many readers of this blog, but they are entirely commonplace, and in no way controversial, in Brexiter circles. As such they are now baked in as articles of faith, certainly for Frost who has re-made himself by embracing them. Johnson seems to have lost interest in Brexit policy entirely, and has subcontracted it to Frost. It’s conceivable - given the general plasticity of his beliefs which, in a sense, mean that the term ‘articles of faith’ is a misnomer in his case - that he might change approach and dump Frost if he saw some advantage in it, of which more below, despite the furore it would provoke amongst Tory backbench Brexiters. But for now he too apparently shares this boilerplate Brexiter analysis of how the NIP came about.

The resumption of the Protocol row

What these beliefs about the past now lead to is the proposition that if the UK pushes hard enough then the EU will abandon the substance of the NIP, including abandoning its refusal to grant SPS regulatory equivalence rather than the UK agreeing regulatory alignment. In this way, both the substance and the tone of the NIP row are indeed blocks both to regulatory harmonization and to the creation of a harmonious relationship which strategic logic mandates.

Central to that approach is the threat to invoke Article 16. It is notable that Frost this week re-issued this threat, along with the unsubstantiated claim that the conditions needed to justify its invocation already exist.  Many sensible commentators rightly say that this would not resolve anything, but would merely exacerbate existing uncertainties and tensions. Such commentors also rightly point out that Frost’s words are at odds with his stated aim of creating the basis for negotiating and resolving problems.

However, we are not in the realm of the ‘sensible’ conduct of international relations. For Frost-Johnson the exacerbation of existing problems is not a failure but a desirable result because it is painful for those – in this case the EU – who persist in playing by the ‘normal’ rules, and seen as a route to total victory rather than to a compromise. Again it is an approach derived from Dominic Cummings’ time in Downing Street (and in the Vote Leave campaign), and embraced by Frost who was in Cummings’ inner circle at the time.

This is what they mean by playing hardball, and they genuinely believe it will lead the EU to re-negotiate the entire NIP. If nothing else, they think that the longer the negotiations go on, the more the unimplemented parts of the NIP will become normalized and EU claims about their necessity will be undermined. If in the process UK-EU relations are further soured then that is taken as a sign that their approach is ‘working’ – and in any case gives them a boost with pro-Brexit MPs and voters.

A looming crisis?

This isn’t going to explode immediately. As was widely expected, this week Frost announced that the UK will extend the various grace periods that were due to expire at the end of the month, and the EU has ‘taken note’ of this (i.e. accepted it). Significantly, unlike previous extensions, there was no date set. The UK position is to want a ‘standstill’ in the existing situation, whilst the EU was clear at the time of the previous extension that it was only a temporary solution. In the latest UK statement the word ‘extension’ is not used – the formulation is just that the UK will “continue to operate the Protocol on its current basis” – and the EU statement says nothing about timeframes.

So, for now, there is a fudge on that, but one which Frost will regard as very much in his favour and, tellingly, the pro-Brexit Telegraph immediately crowed that this was “a major concession” by the EU (£). What I think the EU has failed fully to appreciate is that in Frost’s Cummings-inspired negotiating approach any flexibility or conciliation is banked as a concession and chalked up as a sign that his intransigence works, not as cue for reciprocation.

The EU also continues to pause its legal action over the first, unilateral, extension the UK announced in March and Frost will see that, too, as a victory and vindication. It has yet to respond to the UK’s Command Paper of July setting out the government’s current approach. Once it does, which is expected to be at the end of this month, there will be a lot of sound and fury because what cannot be fudged forever is the fundamental difference between what the UK is now demanding and what was agreed in the NIP (for detail, see my discussion at the time of the Command Paper). At some point this will become a crisis, but how quickly is less clear than it would have been with a defined end date to the new extensions.

When and how the crisis comes will partly depend on the UK. Implicit in Frost’s parliamentary statement is that he might deem that there is no basis for further ‘constructive’ discussions. That is presumably code for an early invocation of Article 16. One counter-argument to doing so is the point made earlier – that the longer the grace periods remain in place with the NIP otherwise functioning, the greater the chance they might continue indefinitely. On that logic, Frost might drag the talks on for as long as possible rather than collapse them.

It will also depend on whether the EU is prepared to be robust in its responses, and if so then to what extent. Thus far, in its willingness to extend grace periods and to pause to legal action, the EU has seemed keen to dampen down and postpone conflict. If that continues it could play into the hands of Frost precisely because suspended implementation could become a permanent reality, and in any case would serve to confirm in his mind the efficacy of his approach.

According to RTE’s Tony Connelly – and he’s almost always right about such things - the EU is currently willing to offer some further flexibilities within the NIP framework but is also testing to see whether there is any flexibility in the UK position of effectively abandoning that framework. If so, that is still based on the misapprehension that Frost’s approach is one of the give-and-take of ‘normal’ negotiations. The problem for the EU remains, as I’ve discussed before, “how to react to a country that constantly behaves in a hostile manner, but hasn’t quite gone rogue”. Much will depend on how it answers that question in the coming weeks.

Domestic politics

However, there are potentially also domestic considerations in play for the government. Whilst an ongoing fight with the EU over the NIP would play well with its core supporters, it could go very badly indeed with wider public opinion if it comes at the same time as a worsening of the labour and supply chain crisis and especially if that crisis is widely attributed to Brexit (hence the importance of where that narrative settles, as discussed in last week’s post). With growing threats of shortages of toys and consumer electronics in the run up to Christmas (£) and of food shortages extending into the new year (£) it could be a bleak time.

In this context, it will be interesting and important to see whether the government introduces import controls, the first main phase being due to start on October 1, which, to spell it out, is only three weeks away, and the second on New Year’s Day. My hunch is that it will postpone again rather than risk the further disruptions that major retailers are warning of.

At all events, it’s not inconceivable that with all this going on the public, including plenty of Tory voters, may become sick and tired with the constant aggravation over the NIP. It’s even possible there will be a resumption of the Jersey fishing row. Yet Brexit, people were promised, would ‘get done’ with Johnson’s election victory. Interestingly, Frost has recently changed his Twitter profile to read “you don’t get something for nothing, you can’t have freedom for free”, but many leave voters might come to recall that no such trade-off was suggested to them when Johnson declared that they could have their cake and eat it. That could also get linked to criticisms of him having broken other manifesto pledges, such as those on national insurance and pensions.

Such a situation would be yet another opportunity for Keir Starmer’s Labour to capitalize on the post-Brexit mess. For, apart from the obvious open goal of the supply crisis, what is opening up, as a result of Afghanistan and (in the scenario I’ve just painted) public impatience with ongoing conflicts with the EU over the NIP, is a space for a distinctive and pragmatic post-Brexit foreign policy. It could even be presented, for the reason alluded to earlier, as the delivery of Brexit in the foreign policy arena. After all, it was the Vote Leave campaign that promised “better relations with our European friends” (p.15 of link).

Ditching Frost?

In this scenario, Johnson might seek to deprive Labour of the opportunity by taking it for himself. To do so, a necessary but not sufficient condition is ditching Frost. Few can doubt that if Johnson sees that as being in his interest – the only calculation that matters to him – he will do it. This could allow a recalibration towards a better relationship with the EU, especially if assisted by some face-saving concessions from Brussels over the NIP, which are arguably possible without jettisoning the entire framework (£). Accepting such concessions rather than demanding an all-out renegotiation would become possible with Frost out of the picture.

That in turn could be a prelude to the kind of strategic shift that logic suggests will eventually come, although it’s unlikely that Johnson could fully effect such a shift. That’s not because he is a committed Brexiter – he has never been that – so much as because of his general lack of ability to formulate and follow through on anything at all, and what even his most enthusiastic supporters would admit is a lack of anything resembling ‘statesmanship’. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that he has some interest in ‘performing’ statesmanship, but no aptitude for its delivery. So any serious and substantive re-set of UK-EU relations is unlikely under Johnson – who is understandably loathed and distrusted across the EU – and probably under any Conservative Prime Minister whilst the diehard Brexit Ultras remain a powerful force in parliament and the media.

In short, there is a place that UK-EU relations can settle, albeit one that will please neither the most committed Brexiters nor the most committed remainers, which has a strategic logic to it given that Brexit has happened. But there are several obstacles to that, the first being David Frost. Whilst his removal would not guarantee anything changing for the better, for so long as he is in post it can be guaranteed that nothing will change for the better. For as the realities of Brexit, both economically and geo-politically, emerge at pace his embrace of a Betamax theory of sovereignty and an adolescent apprehension of international negotiation is increasingly being exposed as not just fatuous but redundant.

 

I will be taking a break from blogging until October 1, and hope that the diagnosis, above, that there will be no immediate crisis proves correct. But if you haven’t done so, then in the meantime why not read my book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) recounting and analysing what happened from the referendum result to the end of the transition period, which was published by Biteback on 23 June 2021. It can be ordered from Biteback, or via other online platforms, as a paperback or e-book. For reviews, podcasts etc. see this page.

Friday, 3 September 2021

A depressing anniversary

It’s now exactly five years since I started this blog and, as it enters its sixth year, with a pleasing symmetry, it will today have its six millionth visit. I must admit that I didn’t really anticipate when I started that I'd still be writing it now, over 300 posts and about a million words later, or that it would settle into a kind of weekly newsletter. I most certainly hadn’t imagined that it would become so widely read. I’m enormously grateful to everyone who has read it or in some way shared or recommended it to others.

Looking back at the very first post there are several things in it which I’d express slightly differently (unlike a certain more famous blogger, I don’t retrospectively change old posts) but, on the whole, it has held up fairly well, and these lines, in particular, now seem almost prophetic:

“Over a whole swathe of issues (the leaving process, the nature of the single market, the way that the WTO and trade deals work etc.) the Brexit position is composed of, at best, half-truths or just outright fantasies. It is therefore inevitable that the coming months and years will see a series of collisions between these fantasies and the realities (and equally inevitable that Brexiters will blame this on others).”

Here we are, five years later, and exactly this dynamic continues to play out though, given that Britain has now left the EU, in ever more bizarre ways.

The concrete impacts of being outside the single market and customs union in terms of damage to trade, supply chain disruption and labour shortages are, as discussed in last week’s post, becoming harder to ignore. But as also noted in that post, though only in passing, this is provoking contradictory responses from Brexiters.

Initially, they argued that these impacts were just a remainer invention. That has become untenable as the shortages continue to grow, affecting everything from school meals to the profound and deepening social care crisis, threatening the ‘cancellation’ of Christmas and even, to the amusement of some, shortages of some beers in arch-Brexiter Tim Martin’s Wetherspoon’s pubs. Meanwhile, the latest trade figures show what the Food and Drink Federation call a “disastrous” decline of food and drink exports to the EU since the end of the transition, with meat and dairy products especially hard hit.

In the face of this, there is now a split between those arguing that the shortages and/or trade declines are essentially nothing to do with Brexit, and that to say otherwise is remainer propaganda, and those admitting they are very much to do with Brexit, but claiming that this is the fault of the EU.

It’s not Brexit!

The first of these is a continuation of the tired old Project Fear line that has served Brexiters so well both before and since the referendum. It is achieved by the familiar sleight of hand of exaggerating warnings (or, now, reports) of Brexit damage so as to create an absurd and easily-demolished straw man. The current straw man is that the shortages are entirely caused by Brexit.

Thus former Brexit Party MEP Ann Widdecombe scoffs that “you cannot put the absence of food on the shelves solely down to Brexit” and thus, supposedly, “clinically crushes attempts to blame Brexit for the UK supply chain crisis”. At the more intellectual end of the spectrum, the pro-Brexit former Chief Economist at the Institute of Economic Affairs, Julian Jessop, points, rightly, to global issues, including the pandemic, as a major cause of the supply shortages with Brexit as “an additional factor”. Thus remainers are wrong “to have seized on the ongoing disruptions to supply chains as proof that ‘Project Fear’ was right all along”.

The first difficulty with such arguments is that, so far as I am aware, there are no serious or reputable claims that all the shortages are “solely” or even mainly caused by Brexit. There may well be people posting on social media saying it, just as such postings can be found making just about any claim, but basing counter-arguments on that is, precisely, to erect a straw man.  ‘Mainstream media’ reporting invariably says Brexit is only one cause and, if anything, tends to downplay its role. I said the same thing last week, whilst making the point that it is also the factor which is unique to Britain and, uniquely, chosen by Britain.

The other difficulty, most evident in Widdecombe’s case, is the slippage from correctly saying the shortages are not solely or mainly due to Brexit to at least implying that they are nothing to do with Brexit. That is both incorrect in itself, but also misses the way that, even without being the main factor overall, Brexit inflects the shortages in the UK in particular ways for particular products. Thus whilst Brexit is almost certainly not a factor in shortages of, for example, semiconductors, and only one of the factors in, for example, the shortage of timber – both of which can be seen globally, and affect the UK in a way similar to other countries – it is almost certainly the major factor in shortages of fresh produce.

This is because of the nature of UK supply chains which are heavily reliant on EU produce, and the specific way Brexit impacts on cabotage rules (where and how often a haulier can load/ unload goods). For these and other Brexit-related reasons (e.g. shortage of labour to pick UK produce) we see widespread shortages of fresh produce in UK shops but not in EU shops. Again it’s not an all or nothing explanation – there are some produce shortages in the US, for example – but the point is that whereas Brexit is low to non-existent on the list of causes in the case of semiconductors it is high on the list for fruit and vegetables.

Of course such shortages have a particular significance in that they impinge directly on the general public. So the ‘denialists’ have important reasons to discredit or downplay Brexit as a cause of such shortages. One is simply a psychological investment in Brexit as an unalloyed good. That presumably explains the contradiction that at the same time as disowning the shortages, some Brexiters are hailing rising wages as a Brexit benefit – a dubious claim in itself, but bizarre when, for it to be true, the shortages would have to be caused by Brexit. But more importantly it is political. There is a battle underway to control the narrative of what the shortages mean because if they come to be associated in the public mind with Brexit then that will do much to discredit the entire project.

The stakes in that battle are likely to increase because the shortages are likely to intensify assuming UK import controls are introduced over the coming months, and will do so in any case to the extent that UK demand for EU fruit and vegetables always peaks in the winter. It is also likely that food prices will rise (£). This battle to control the narrative has been underway since the end of the transition period, and so far it has been fairly easy to blame disruptions on the pandemic. As that wanes in credibility, and to the extent that simple denial is implausible, so too do Brexiters switch the emphasis to blaming others for Brexit damage.

It is Brexit (but it’s not our fault)!

Hence last weekend’s Mail on Sunday carried an editorial with a striking headline: “Let’s unite with the EU to crush the curse of border bureaucracy”. This attracted much ribald comment since, at first blush, it sounded like a call to re-join the EU. Needless to say it was no such thing. Instead, acknowledging the reality of border checks and delays, it was a roll out of almost all the fantasies the Brexiters have nurtured for so long. In particular, it revived the idea (without using the word) that there could be still be something close to frictionless trade despite having left the single market and customs union. The familiar suggestion is that this could be achieved by a mixture of new border technology and accepting UK product standards as ‘equivalent’ to the EU’s because they haven’t, in fact or as yet, changed very much from those of the EU.

At heart, this represents a complete refusal to accept the consequences of hard Brexit, embodying the persistent ideas that none of the things Brexiters like need to change as a result and/or that the UK should have a special status different to other third countries. In some discussions of the article it was suggested that this should indeed be possible because not all third country-EU relationships are identical. But whilst that is true (recall, for example, the Barnier staircase), it is only true within a restricted range of possibilities. It certainly doesn’t mean that the EU could simply grant the UK the benefits of a regulatory union (i.e. the single market) and a customs union without the UK being bound by their conditions and constraints.

Fundamentally, the article shows a continuing and total misunderstanding that it is the single market and customs union which abolished the red tape which, with Brexit, the UK has re-instated for itself. The complaints about that, in turn, reprise the peculiar way that Brexiters talk as if Brexit had been done to the UK, in this case by the EU raising trade barriers, rather than chosen by the UK. Existing regulatory alignment is irrelevant to this because the UK refuses to relinquish the right to diverge, or to accept external enforcement, on grounds of sovereignty. That is its choice, but it brings consequences. Similarly, whilst the MoS bemoans that “we are supposed to impose our own tiresome and self-harming restrictions on goods coming into the UK from the EU” (i.e. import controls) it refuses to understand that ‘tiresome and self-harming restrictions” are what the UK chose for itself in enacting hard Brexit.

Rather than accept these basic facts, the article and its defenders ascribe Brexit’s failure to the EU’s inflexibility and its supposedly ‘political’ approach to the Brexit negotiations. This recycles all the ideas which have been endlessly debunked since 2016, both by commentators and by events. Embedded within them is the implication that the EU has not just punished the UK unnecessarily but miscalculated its own interests (a revived version of the ‘German car makers’ argument), and that as an ex-member the UK should have some sort of ‘alumni’ status or could be ‘out and yet in’.

Mentioned in passing within the MoS article is the role of Michel Barnier, with the suggestion that he pursued a particular, political, agenda that was both punitive to the UK and, by implication, damaging to the EU. This is becoming the received Brexiter wisdom and is a thesis elaborated by Matthew Lynn in the Spectator recently. Its fatuity has been pulled apart by Tom Hayes of the Brussels European Employee Relations Group (who has also provided a separate analysis of Barnier’s negotiating approach), and I won’t add to that.

However, there is one particular aspect I want to highlight: Lynn writes as if the terms of Brexit, both as regards the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) including the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), were the creation of Barnier. That is in line with the habitual refusal of Brexiters to take any responsibility whatsoever for Brexit. But the fact is that both deals were negotiated with and agreed by the UK.

Stuck in the past

This has two implications. One is that the agreements were framed and limited by the UK’s own red lines about Brexit – especially exiting the single market and customs union, but also, under Johnson and Frost, of prioritising sovereignty above all else in the TCA and of removing May’s backstop in the case of the NIP. It was these choices rather than the EU’s (still less Barnier’s) ‘inflexibility’ which meant Brexit took the form it did. The other is that both the agreements were trumpeted by Boris Johnson as triumphs. In the case of WA/NIP it was lauded as the ‘oven-ready deal’ upon which he was subsequently elected. In the case of TCA he said he had confounded his critics by delivering the ‘cakeist’ deal they had said was impossible. Nowhere in any of this was it said that these were sub-optimal deals forced on the UK government against its wishes and priorities.

These facts make current Brexiter narratives both wearyingly the same as they have been since 2016 and yet newly idiotic. For they are talking as if it were still 2016 (or 2017 or 2018) and these deals were still to be made. For that matter, they talk as if the approach they currently advocate hadn’t already been tried and failed in the first half of the May administration. In a sense it doesn’t even matter if all their beliefs about what the EU could, would or should do were correct. As a matter of empirical fact the deals have been done and they are not in line with what Brexiters claimed and promised they would deliver. There is scope for the TCA to be reviewed, but it can be stated with categorical certainty that there is no way that the EU would ever agree, or would even be able to agree, to revise it in the way that the Brexiters envisage.

With almost as much certainty it can be said that the EU will not agree to change the core provisions of the NIP, and in part for similar reasons. For whilst the DUP have yet again stated their opposition to the NIP, an opposition shared by many Brexiters and, to a large degree, the British government, none of them has come up with a plausible alternative. In this sense, again, it’s as if we were still in the pre-agreement period and, moreover, it’s based on the fundamental refusal of many Brexiters to even accept that the Irish border issue is a real one, rather than the concoction of Brussels and Dublin.

It is beyond ridiculous that the Brexiters still don’t understand these obvious facts, which they could if only by imagining what the UK’s stance would have been as a member of the EU had it been another country that was leaving, including to the Irish border if that country had been Ireland. Or, if that involves too much of an intellectual stretch for them, then they might simply consider the matter in their own terms: having spent decades denouncing the EU as an inflexible, bureaucratic, legalistic, lumbering, self-serving ‘protectionist racket’ – decades, indeed, giving these as reasons the UK should leave – why is their entire strategy for how to do Brexit ‘properly’ predicated on the EU being flexible, creative, nimble, accommodating and non-protectionist?

Nothing new, except deepening depression

Very little in this post is new, but that is unavoidable whilst the Brexiters remain stuck on the same Mobius Strip in which the same failed solutions are proposed to the same problems. It also means that, as per last week’s post, we are still in a situation where there is a certain amount of realism developing (e.g. in recognizing the reality of things like supply shortages and trade barriers), but absolutely no truthfulness from Brexiters about the reasons for these realities. With that comes their pathological inability to take responsibility for the choices they made – and urged upon voters – and, always, the sickening insistence, at once treacly with self-pity and sodden with aggression, that it is all someone else’s fault.

There’s something extraordinarily depressing about the fact that all this is going to be played out yet again in the next few weeks as the NIP grace periods some to an end (I suspect they will be extended again by agreement with the EU), and David Frost resumes his attempt to renege on what he and the government agreed in 2019-20. That this is in prospect is shown by this week’s announcement that the government is to postpone implementing the rules on which goods qualify for “unfettered access” when travelling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain (and because this issue interacts with the wider one of introducing import controls, and because the necessary port facilities aren’t in place, it seems quite likely that they, too, will slip again).

Crucially, the reason given was the government’s intention to negotiate major changes to the NIP, which means the pre-summer collision with the EU will resume and intensify. That isn’t to deny there may be some scope for revising parts of it, perhaps including the Article 10 provisions on state aid (£). But it has been clear from the time it was agreed that (despite having agreed it) Johnson’s government don’t accept the basic premise of the Irish Sea border and all that comes with it.

It’s even more depressing to think that, if I am still writing this blog in five years’ time, I will probably be able to refer to that very first post five years ago as containing a still relevant truth. For what it is worth, I think I will still be writing it, at least if there are still readers for it. After all, there may be some value in having kept a continuous record of the folly and failure, the dishonesty and dimwittedness, of what has been done to all of us by the worst of us. There would seem to be no prospect of that, if nothing else, being in short supply.

 

My book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) recounting and analysing what happened from the referendum result to the end of the transition period was published by Biteback on 23 June 2021. It can be ordered from Biteback, or via other online platforms, as a paperback or e-book. For reviews, podcasts etc. see this page.

Friday, 27 August 2021

Post-Brexit Britain can't be realistic until it's truthful

In recent posts I’ve been using the analogy of a slow puncture for the damage caused by Brexit with the political consequences being muffled as a result. An excellent piece by Rafael Behr this week makes an essentially similar argument: “Brexit is an unspectacular failure” and this precludes “a realistic conversation about the relationship that Britain should have with the rest of Europe”.

However, several people have pointed out that a slow puncture eventually leads to a flat tyre which can’t be ignored. We’re not at that point yet, but there are glimmers of a realization that there is a serious problem and, just in the last week or so, these glimmers have been growing. Even if so, it’s coming far too slowly, especially given the still more serious problems which lie ahead. In particular, for all that a little more realism about Brexit may be emerging, there is still insufficient truthfulness about it.

The reality of supply chain disruptions

Like many others, I am increasingly noticing failures in food supplies. My local supermarket has many gaps on the shelves and has signs and announcements apologizing for ‘current supply difficulties’. My milkman (yes, they still exist) has not delivered anything for a week, citing the same reason. Such personal experience probably has more impact on the public than media images of empty shelves and stories of shortages, with McDonald’s running out of milkshakes being this week’s highest profile example. Shortages in food supplies are the most visible, and potentially most politically important because they impact on people’s daily lives, but there are similar problems across the board (£), perhaps most importantly in the construction industry.

As the cliché has it, the plural of anecdote is not data, and it is very hard to pin down exactly how extensive and serious these problems are. But the latest PMI (Purchasing Managers’ Index) survey released this week shows “the number of companies reporting that output had fallen due to staff or materials shortages has risen far above anything ever seen previously in more than 20 years of survey history”. Meanwhile the Chief Executive of the Co-op Group says (£) that “shortages are at a worse level than at any time” he has seen, and there has been a dramatic fall this year in levels of stock held by UK firms which have reached a record low.

We also know that the Road Haulage Association estimates that the UK is in need of up to 100,000 HGV drivers, which is one of the key causes of the supply difficulties. This in turn is part of a wider shortage of labour in all parts of the economy, from farming through to retail and hospitality, as well as in social care and many other sectors. Overall, it doesn’t seem hyperbolic to say that there is now a supply crisis which is likely to worsen, and if that were to lead to widespread panic buying that could lead to a political crisis.

Equally, it is difficult to separate out Brexit from other causes, especially the pandemic, and some of the current supply problems are unquestionably global. But we can say with certainty that Brexit is one of these causes, that some companies and trade bodies say that for them it is the main cause, and that where supply problems are to do with post-Brexit trade barriers with the EU they are, by definition, entirely caused by Brexit. That the exact extent of the role played by Brexit in some of this is hard to determine offers Brexiters a chance to downplay it, as in the case of the HGV driver shortage, but doing so misses the key point: whilst, along with other countries, the UK faces supply chain problems beyond its control, the UK, uniquely, has chosen to add to them.

It’s official: this is what we chose

As regards the HGV driver shortage specifically, the government response is instructive. Back in June ministers dismissed industry concerns as “crying wolf”, implying it was all more Project Fear. Now that the realities are undeniable and facing calls to grant temporary work visas for EU drivers, a spokesperson said:

“The British people repeatedly voted to end free movement and take back control of our immigration system and employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad.”

So the government itself is explicitly tying driver, and hence in part supply, shortages to the delivery of Brexit: it is, so to speak, ‘the will of the people’. Yet it is an odd statement. For one thing, there has never been a vote on the issue of free movement, per se. Moreover, the government are not being asked to re-instate freedom of movement but, precisely, to exert control over the immigration system. Control does not necessarily mean restriction.

This goes to the heart of one of the inherent contradictions within Brexit, but glossed over by Brexiters. Many ‘globalist’ Brexiters claimed (usually after the referendum) that a key advantage of leaving the EU would be the freedom to design an immigration system in line with British needs, rather than to end immigration. For them, overall immigration might even increase after Brexit. Other, more ‘nativist’, Brexiters did indeed see it, and sell it to voters, as a way of reducing immigration across the board.

Apparently, the latter view holds sway with the government, although a U-turn is perfectly possible and even likely. But it is based, as the statement shows, on the idea that domestic labour can be a substitute (just as, more widely, Brexiters like John Redwood think that domestic production can substitute for imports). As such, it is a fantasy because of the UK’s ageing population and because prior to Brexit there was arguably full employment, or something close to it (depending on definition).

HGV drivers could be paid more, but if that solved the problem in one part of the labour market it would displace it to another. Or all workers could be paid more, though their gains would arguably then be eaten up by inflation as workers are also consumers. But this won’t solve the overall domestic labour shortage. Training could change the skill profile of the domestic workforce, but won’t increase its size. Pensioners won’t, and for the most part couldn’t, harvest the crops. And the limitations of the idea that the unemployed can shift to significantly meet labour needs are tacitly acknowledged by the latest attempt to fill the gaps by using prisoners on day release (£). Increased mechanization may be a partial solution in some sectors, but is currently of limited use for, say, HGV drivers or social care. Not for the first time in history, Britain needs immigration for economic reasons alone.

Freedom of movement of people was actually a very efficient and flexible way of addressing this, as well as having all sorts of other, non-economic, benefits. For that matter, it can’t be assumed that if the government did introduce temporary visas for EU drivers they would flock to come to work here. The hostility EU workers have experienced, the fall of the value of the pound since the referendum, the changing economic situation of many EU countries, the miserable treatment of EU truck drivers in the UK and many other reasons might mitigate against that.

Choices have consequences

With all that said, the government’s (current) stance on HGV drivers is an important one in that it asserts and acknowledges that some of what is happening is a matter of the collective choices made by the UK: by the vote to leave the EU and the way that the Brexit government has interpreted that vote. And although I can’t be sure, my impression is that even in the last week there has been a growing willingness in media reports to link labour and supply shortages to Brexit. For example, the Mail report on using prisoners to fill labour shortages named both Brexit and the pandemic in the headline.

Against that, many reports in the pro-Brexit press continue to be in denial. A peculiar piece in the Mail on Sunday claimed to have undertaken an “investigation” that enabled it to “reveal” extensive and costly barriers to trade since the end of the transition period. That is hardly the triumph of investigative journalism it purported to be, but more importantly nowhere was it acknowledged that these things are a consequence of the UK’s choice to undertake hard Brexit, and the headline reference to “the EU border blockade” implied, as usual, that something unfair or punitive had been done to the UK by the EU. Similarly, the Express this week, also reporting on the barriers facing exporters to the EU, identified the need for “urgent talks” to reduce the checks that were being “forced” on British firms by the EU, as if these checks were not the result of the form of Brexit the UK chose and the Express itself vociferously supported.

Again this goes deep into the Brexit process, in several ways. First, it reflects the refusal to understand or to admit that Brexit would have costs, and that the harder the Brexit the higher the costs. So when these were warned of it was dismissed as Project Fear, and as they emerge they are ascribed to EU punishment. For that matter, even now Brexiters seem unable to decide whether talk of Brexit damage to trade is a remainer invention or, as in the two reports just discussed, an EU plot. Secondly, and more deeply, it continues the longstanding pattern whereby Brexiters behave as if Britain had been forced to leave the EU rather than choosing to do so. It is the failure to be honest about the choices Brexit entailed which remains crucial.

It’s important to understand why this matters so much. An illuminating report by Sarah O’Connor in the FT this week (£) discusses the truck driver shortages, and the many issues that lie behind that and other labour shortages, and argues that “to use them to bicker about Brexit” or to suggest that “everything was fine without [Brexit]” is to miss their complexity. That’s reasonable enough in itself, but it doesn’t mean that their relationship to Brexit can be ignored. Until there is a widespread honesty about what having chosen Brexit means – as well, certainly, as what it doesn’t mean - we are stuck in the same old loops of Brexiter denial and obfuscation.

For particular example, what kind of ‘re-negotiation’ with the EU is envisaged in these ‘urgent talks’ in order to remove the border checks? It is totally pointless to disinter the old lies about how the UK can be outside the single market and customs union and yet treated the same as if it were not. We can’t, as a country, be realistic about Brexit until we start being truthful about Brexit.

Truthfulness is more than realism

In my previous post, I suggested that, under the radar, there are a few signs of realism, and this week has seen a further, and very important, example. The government has announced it will postpone the requirement for goods sold in the UK to carry the UKCA mark, and therefore extend the validity of the CE mark in the UK, from January 2022 until January 2023. This issue (again, discussed in more detail in an earlier post) epitomises many of the Brexit debates in that it imposes extra costs on firms, whether British or not, wanting to sell their goods here. But it does so for very little substantive reason since for the most part product standards remain unchanged, so its only justification is a purely theoretical idea of sovereignty (£). It is also an example of how the government seriously underestimated the complexity of what it and businesses would have to do and how long it would take.

So it’s sensible to postpone. But it would be even more sensible to recognize its pointlessness. We might as well postpone indefinitely and, if we did, absolutely nothing bad would happen. And if we recognized that, then, in the end, the same thing could be said of the pointlessness of not trying (it wouldn’t be easy or automatic or quick) to re-enter the single market via EFTA or, at the very least, to have as close a relationship as possible with it, rather than stick to the sovereignty-first approach that led to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. That would mean, for example, accepting the EU offer of dynamic alignment on sanitary and phyto-sanitary regulations, which as well as resolving many of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) issues would ease border frictions all round. It would also mean dropping the latest fantasies of data protection divergence (£).

From this point of view, whilst it is indeed sensible to postpone UKCA, we shouldn’t feel any ‘gratitude’ to the government for doing so (though businesses affected will feel relief). It’s actually all of a piece with what has happened with Brexit from the very beginning: Brexiters in and outside government have refused to accept reality until the point that it becomes impossible to do otherwise. Then, they either accept it with bad grace (the financial settlement of the Withdrawal Agreement being an example) or postpone the difficulties if they can (as in this UKCA case, or the Northern Ireland grace periods). What is lacking is any truthfulness about why reality keeps trumping the promises and plans of the Brexiters.

In this sense, there is a realism but no honesty in quietly postponing UKCA. The government is avoiding adding to the already visible supply chain disruptions (because, literally, no goods requiring such marking would have been legal in the UK from January without it). Since, to most, it’s an arcane technical issue they’ve never heard of, this postponement also avoids political discussion of Johnson’s approach to Brexit. So it slows the puncture. The same applies if there is a reversal of the policy on HGV driver visas.

It’s not hard, now, to imagine a further postponement to the introduction of import controls that are due to start on 1 October, for exactly the same reasons, but again without any honest acknowledgement of the failure to tell the truth of what hard Brexit meant for borders from the outset, and consequently to prepare for it in time. If so, unlike UKCA postponement, it will carry risks because in leaving the border relatively unchecked the risk of smuggled or even dangerous goods entering the UK market grows.

Post-Brexit Britain needs a new truthfulness - urgently

In short, it simply isn’t enough for the realism to be quiet and under the radar, especially whilst – as is likely to resume shortly – engaging in the antagonistic posturing over the NIP that precludes close and harmonious relations with the EU. What’s needed is an open public and political debate not so much about Brexit, though that is part of it, but about Britain’s post-Brexit future and relationship with the EU. That isn’t, and can’t be, a re-hash of the 2016 referendum, as it can’t be conducted in the terms of the now dead question of EU membership, and so it mustn’t be conducted in terms framed by the Brexiters which, by definition, arise from that dead question.

This is highly unlikely to happen, but it’s just possible it might be provoked if not by the supply chain crisis then by geo-politics. That is, the shock of the Afghanistan pull-out (£) could be the spur to the government realising that it needs to rebuild its relationship with the EU - a sharp puncture to the vanity of Brexit, so to speak. (See also the ‘noisy fantasy’ section of my post last week.)

It certainly seems likely to hasten the EU’s already growing drive for ‘strategic autonomy’ which will, in turn, create new pressures upon the UK to work with rather than independently of, or even against, the EU. This is partly about security and defence issues, but also the wider set of ways in which the EU might develop a greater degree of – oh, the irony – sovereignty. These encompass emergent ideas about EU technological sovereignty and the closely related initiatives to secure sustainable access to ‘critical raw materials’, including the European Raw Material Alliance which was established late last year. This has recently led, for example, to a strategic partnership between the EU and Ukraine over such raw materials, which include the rare chemical elements and minerals needed for new battery technologies and other key, especially green, industries of the future.

The UK has a similar interest – mainly driven by a need to diversify from reliance on Chinese suppliers – and might benefit from involvement in such developments. The same applies to ongoing developments in both EU and UK hydrogen strategy. But any such involvement can’t currently be separated from the omnipresent issue of the NIP disputes and all the other spats, or the constant whining about the EU punishing the UK for its own choices. In turn, it can’t be separated from over-arching issues of Brexiter hubris about ‘Global Britain’ and sovereignty, and visceral hostility to the EU and fantasies of its imminent collapse or, alternatively, its overweening potency. That is all dead wood which needs, very urgently, to be discarded.

These are enormous issues, encompassing the climate crisis, the economy, war, peace and diplomacy - and they are all intertwined. So, as with Brexit, Britain has choices and those choices have consequences. The refusal or inability of the current government, and the pro-Brexit media, to engage seriously with them, which necessarily includes engaging seriously with the EU, instead of an imaginary independence and a fantasy of its global role is shaping up to be a massive strategic failure. It isn’t automatically entailed by Brexit, but it is an outgrowth of applying Brexiter logic to the post-Brexit world. More precisely it is an outgrowth of the dishonesty of that logic, of the lack of truthfulness which precludes realism.

Empty shelves in the shops are only the first payment of the costs for that lack of truthfulness.

Friday, 20 August 2021

Living with Brexit

In my previous post I wrote about the effects of Brexit as being a slow puncture gradually degrading the economy and well-being more generally. I mentioned that one aspect of that is the structural, demography-related, problem of labour shortages across all sectors, but hadn’t at that point read an excellent Bloomberg report published a couple of days earlier which provides a more detailed analysis of this. Notably, it contained the assessment of the senior UK economist at Bloomberg Economics that “Covid was a short sharp shock, but Brexit is a slow burn”. It’s fair to say that this gradual decline has always been the expectation of the vast majority of economic forecasts for Brexit, even before the pandemic, although what I mean by ‘slow puncture’ goes beyond economics to include all the social and cultural harms.

It would be perfectly possible to fill a blog post each week with further reports of this gradual falling apart of our country. The latest examples include how Brexit has deprived Britain of being the air freight gateway to Europe; the way that the post-pandemic bounce back of German trade is far less strong with the UK than with the EU and the US; the continued “dampening” effect of Brexit shown by the latest ONS trade figures (the Eurostat figures, which use a different methodology, paint a far worse picture); the mounting evidence of massive Japanese disinvestment in UK financial services; the gradual reintroduction of mobile roaming charges for British people visiting the EU; the 29% fall since the end of transition in goods flowing between Ireland and the rest of the EU via Great Britain, with the consequent ‘abandonment’ of, in particular, the port at Holyhead; supply shortages across the board that are partly or mainly attributable to Brexit, with KFC being a high profile example of a company affected and timber being an example of a key commodity affected.

It’s definitely worth recording these and other examples and, as I’ve often mentioned before, the ‘Kelemen archive’, comprising now an astonishing listing of 817 reputable reports of Brexit damage, is a key resource. However, it’s also important to understand that there are several different, though sometimes related, responses from Brexiters and the Brexit government to this unfolding disaster.

Denial and bluster

The most predictable of these, and perhaps now the least important, comes from the hardcore Brexit ideologues. In their world, the mounting damage is largely ignored, whilst bogus or misleading statistics are quoted to ‘prove’ the success of Brexit. A recent example, from the misnamed Brexit Facts website, uses the latest ONS trade statistics showing exports to the EU have risen 20% since the referendum to ask the rhetorical question “who needs EU’s single market?”. Whilst impressing the feeble-minded, this is of course an absurdity since Britain didn’t leave the single market at the time of the referendum, but only at the end of the transition period.

These kinds of claims are often linked to highly distorted representations of the warnings that were supposedly made about Brexit, sometimes by referring to Brexiters’ own hyperbolic descriptions of those warnings as being of economic 'Armageddon'. In particular, on trade, and economics more generally, they tend to confuse the warnings made of falls in anticipated growth with absolute falls, and the warnings of reductions in trade with warnings of an end to trade. Similarly, as Jonathan Lis points out in a recent acute analysis, they typically argue that because ‘the sky hasn’t fallen in’ then Brexit has been justified. But, Lis rightly says, “Brexit was marketed as a national rejuvenation, not something to be survived”.

Presumably in search of some signs of this rejuvenation, the ‘Brexit Facts’ website (like many similar ones) also devotes much attention to boosterish stories such as how Team GB won more Olympic medals than any individual EU country. Apart from Brexit being irrelevant to this, the report is amusing to read for the contortions it has to go through to point out (correctly) that the EU isn’t a single state, denying its members national identities, given that precisely this has been a persistent myth amongst Brexiters. The flip side of this kind of bluster about Brexit benefits is the obligatory weekly, if not daily, story in, especially, the Express about how the EU is on the point of collapse.

Performativity

Closely related to the denial and bluster, but perhaps slightly more respectable, or at least subtle, in the way that they mislead, are the ‘performative’ responses to Brexit. These are things which appear to be substantive gains from Brexit but which on examination are at best trivial or at worst untrue. The false claim about vaccine licensing is the most glaring example of the latter, though less commonly heard as the EU rollout gathers pace.

More persistent are the claims made about the rollover of trade deals with countries that the UK participated in as an EU member. Here, whilst it’s true that they couldn’t be made by the UK on its own when it was a member, they only more-or-less replicate what was there before Brexit. Closely related are the claims for prospective trade deals which are, or will be, new but which bestow very little economic benefit. They are performative in being ‘for show’ rather than being of great substance.

A recent variant of the same thing was the announcement that the UK is to become a ‘dialogue partner’ of ASEAN, the South-East Asian trade group. There’s nothing wrong about this, but the EU had been such a partner for years and, anyway, it doesn’t bestow any great prizes. Yet Dominic Raab announced it as a triumph (£), whilst arch-Brexiter Owen Paterson opined that it was a “very significant” development although nothing concrete is, or could be, claimed for it.

Similarly lacking in substance is the news that the UK’s new independent geographical indication (GI) scheme has awarded its first protection, to salt marsh lamb from Wales’s Gower peninsula. Yet, unlike EU GIs, it only applies to Great Britain (not Northern Ireland, despite being called UKGI), so at best it offers very limited protection and it’s not clear that there were many, if any, cases of farmers in other parts of Great Britain trying to pass their product off as Gower lamb.

Meanwhile, to achieve EU-wide protection for GB products, such as Gower salt marsh lamb, not previously registered as EU GIs (those which had been registered prior to the end of the transition period have been rolled over), a separate application and registration process will be necessary. So again, UKGI is performative without having much substance. It’s not a false story, and it’s not totally meaningless, it's just that like ‘independent trade policy’ it doesn’t mean very much beyond the symbolism of being ‘independent’.

Bombast

Whilst much of the government’s approach to Brexit now consists of such performative posturing, the summer political hiatus is masking its bombastic response to the realities of the Brexit it created as regards the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). September will see the resumption of what may quickly turn into a crisis, with the various grace periods set to expire at the end of that month. In the meantime, a substantial reshaping of Ireland-Northern Ireland trade continues apace. That matters, in two contradictory ways. On the one hand, unionists, and possibly Frost, will misuse this evidence of ‘diversion of trade’ as running counter to the NIP and warranting it suspension and re-negotiation. On the other hand, it shows the value of the NIP to the Northern Ireland economy, making suspension and re-negotiation foolish and unnecessary on that ground alone, let alone for wider political and diplomatic reasons.

The extent to which the NIP row escalates into crisis will depend in large part on whether David Frost and the government persist in insisting that the Protocol be, effectively, completely revised, and on whether they follow through on the repeated threat to ‘invoke Article 16’. If not, then perhaps this bombast will be re-assigned to the category of performative – making a show of independence but with no substance. As I’ve suggested before, that may in turn depend on wider considerations of domestic politics but, to some extent, whether over the NIP or something else, such as the previous ‘vaccines war’ or the emergent row over Gibraltar, there will always be some domestic value in picking fights with the EU.

Apart from the expiration of the various Northern Ireland grace periods, the other upcoming test of the government’s Brexit resolve is over the introduction of import controls on goods arriving from the EU. The next (and really the first substantive) stage in doing so will also come at the end of September. After that, export health certificates will be required for meat, cheese, eggs, fruit and vegetables and a wide variety of other food and drink products. But, as both the Fresh Produce Consortium and the Food and Drink Federation have made clear, neither industry nor government is ready for this. The result will be further disruptions to supplies in shops, on top of those already being caused by the lack of HGV drivers and other labour shortages and supply chain problems.

Thus, again, the question will be whether the government pushes on, in the name of ‘true independence’, or whether it decides to again postpone import controls (the October phase was originally meant to have been implemented in March, and the EU’s controls were in place for the end of the transition period). I sometimes see people on social media suggesting that a continuing failure to implement import controls would violate WTO rules, because it would discriminate between EU and non-EU importers, but my understanding – for what little that is worth on this issue – is that this is largely theoretical: any action against the UK would be very slow and the penalties nugatory. Rather, again the decision will depend on a domestic political calculation of how much inconvenience the public will put up with for the sake of Brexiters’ eighteenth-century notion of sovereignty.

Quiet realism

The recurring tension between Brexit purism and pragmatic realism is being played out, more or less under the radar of public attention, as different sectors of society and the economy are quietly accommodating to the new restrictions and inconveniences of Brexit. So, for example, what were supposed to be the temporary Operation Brock powers to manage post-Brexit lorry queues to the channel ports are to be made permanent.

Equally, as has been happening for months, firms are adjusting to the Brexit trade barriers by learning to deal with them or, especially in the case of many small firms, giving up on trading with the EU. Each example may get little or no news coverage, and the overall effect may not even be very visible in aggregate trade figures, since small traders are, by definition, small. But it is quietly reshaping the structure of the British trading economy to the detriment of small businesses – an ironic outcome given the persistent claim that Brexit would benefit such firms whereas it was supposedly only ‘big business’ that gained from EU membership.

Other forms of quiet realism are to do with how regulation operates. In my previous post I discussed some of the issues of regulatory duplication. Because of the problems this poses, some sectoral regulation is gradually being redesigned because of Brexit. An important example is regulation of medicines and medical devices, the subject of an extensive report in the Financial Times this week (£).

The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is supposed to “seize the opportunities” following from departing from the EU regulatory system and was identified in Iain Duncan Smith’s TIGRR Report as having the basis to expand and become a world-leading regulator. This was against the background in which, having hosted the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the UK had indeed been central to the global regulatory nexus with important consequences for its position as hub of the bio-medical and pharmaceutical industries. The EMA was lost with Brexit, but so too was the flow of funds to the MHRA from the EU for medical authorisation. That, along with other budgetary cuts, now means that the MHRA looks set to be scaled back.

One potential consequence, according to the FT report, is that companies will seek authorisations from EU or US regulatory agencies, with MHRA becoming a rubber stamp in the UK market for decisions made elsewhere. If this is so, it undermines the idea of the UK becoming a world-leading regulator – and that probably has knock-on implications for the wider scientific and industrial eco-system – but, and this is my point here, it will also be a recognition of the reality that the UK cannot be a ‘regulatory superpower’ in the medical or any other sector, and for that matter cannot even afford to try.

As such it directly contradicts the naïve ideas of, especially, David Frost about the UK having regulatory sovereignty in the modern world, and the equally naïve idea that the UK could become an international regulator. Something similar is unfolding even in the area of financial services (£), where the UK is undoubtedly a major player. Yet the core dynamic is the same as for other sectors: creating two separate regulatory regimes, EU and UK, is too expensive but the UK on its own isn’t large enough to become a global regulator.

So, again under the radar, and beneath the bombast of ‘independence’, the UK is gradually morphing from being a rule-shaper to being a rule-taker. Of course there will be scope for some tinkering around the edges, and when that happens it will be the subject of performative triumphalism, and in turn feed the denial and bluster of the hardcore Brexiters. But in broad terms the realities of regulatory realpolitik will hold sway.

Noisy fantasy

It isn’t glib to draw comparisons with the unfolding catastrophe of the Trump-initiated withdrawal from Afghanistan, because there are parallels in the way that once the US decided to leave it was inevitable that the UK did the same (just as the UK would never have deployed there had the US not done so). Brief talk of the UK leading a new international coalition was nonsense and came to nothing. For, despite the bravado of the recent deployment of the UK’s Carrier Strike Group in the South China Sea, any idea of ‘Global Britain’ as a military superpower is a long-dead fantasy.

That has been obvious since at least the Suez crisis, although the embers of the fantasy have long smouldered, and were fanned by post-Brexit nationalist hubris exemplified by Johnson’s ‘East of Suez’ speech when Foreign Secretary. Now, caught between US isolationism and self-imposed and antagonistic isolation from the EU, UK post-Brexit foreign and defence policy looks not so much incoherent as non-existent.

Even the residual diplomatic and soft power strengths we had have been depleted by Brexit and Johnson, whilst nativist Brexity sensibilities shape the spiteful policies on accepting refugees and on overseas aid, thus limiting those few things which Britain can still offer Afghans. Meanwhile calls for the Taliban to honour the commitments they have made ring hollow coming from a government that treats the deal it signed with the EU over Northern Ireland as disposable.

Beyond all that, the Afghanistan crisis once again exposes the sheer mediocrity of a government which, from Johnson downwards, is staffed by those whose real or feigned enthusiasm for Brexit was the sole criterion for ministerial office.

Silence

It is as fantastical to imagine Global Britain as an economic or regulatory superpower as it is to pretend it is a great military power. Brexit increasingly looks like the classroom in which these lessons are being taught, albeit that the hardcore Brexiters are slow pupils, sitting slack-jawed at the back, alternating sticking their fingers in their ears with shouting insults at the teacher and their fellow students. Meanwhile the majority of them sit silently, no longer mentioning the Brexit for which they made such extravagant promises until so recently. To be fair, there are a few - such as Shanker Singham still blathering on about creating ‘smart’ borders, a Pacific trade tilt and unspecified regulatory reforms - who are permanently stuck in the pre-2020 bubble. But for the most part it is as if they would like us to forget all those promises, to forget, indeed, that Brexit ever happened. When, for example, did anyone last hear anything from Michael Gove?

In that amnesia, they are considerably aided by the relative lack of media attention to what is happening. It’s not that the so-called ‘mainstream media’ does not cover Brexit, but that for various reasons it does so in fairly muted ways. For example, this week’s story of Nando’s closing restaurants for lack of chicken supplies was reported on the BBC website as only affecting Great Britain, not Northern Ireland (or Ireland), making it obvious that Brexit must be the key factor and yet it was not mentioned. It’s true that the main lunchtime BBC1 news bulletin covering the story on Wednesday did use the B-word, once, but it was muffled in a list of various factors. Given his own public statements, it is hard to resist the conclusion that Tim Davie’s leadership has, even if only indirectly, influenced this approach, along with the ferocious criticism of the BBC from Brexiters and the government.

But, as for all news outlets, it is more complicated than that. For one thing, precisely because the Brexit effects constitute a ‘slow puncture’ they don’t make for headline news. There may also be a sense amongst journalists, for whom topicality is inevitably important, that Brexit is ‘yesterday’s story’. Both of these factors also mean that it is hard for Brexit to compete for news space with big, current stories, and of course that has been especially true over the last eighteen months when the pandemic has inevitably been centre stage. And the pandemic, in particular, in its interactions with everything from trade volumes to labour shortages has served to complicate many stories which might otherwise be straightforwardly about Brexit.

Beyond the media, it seems likely that companies, like Nando’s, damaged by Brexit are sometimes reluctant to name it for fear of offending many customers and in some cases, perhaps, the government. There’s a circularity here, because where they do explicitly name Brexit as the cause, as trade bodies unequivocally did this week in relation to the “chaos” in the poultry industry that is the main cause of Nando’s (and KFC’s) woes, it becomes much easier and more likely for the media to do so, even as far down the journalistic food chain as the Express.

All of this means that, except for the minority of people who are passionately engaged, a lot of the public are quite apathetic about, and probably largely unaware of, the many significant and ongoing Brexit developments. Again there is a circularity in this, as it is partly a consequence of the relative lack of media coverage, whilst that lack of coverage is partly a reflection of lack of public interest. It also results from the wariness of the Labour Party in tackling the consequences of Brexit, since the one thing that the official opposition does have the power to do is influence the news agenda.

As I have recently noted, and I’m not the only one (£), there are signs that Labour is beginning to speak more loudly about Brexit. In any case, Brexit will come back to public attention when import controls start to be introduced and when the NIP row resumes. No matter what some Brexiters may now hope, Brexit isn’t going to be forgotten nor, by many, will it be forgiven. As events even in this quiet summer show, we will be living with Brexit for a long time yet.