Friday, 10 July 2020

Brexit Britain's place in the world

As the talks between the UK and the EU limp on – this week, again, they finished early with little sign of progress - and coronavirus and its consequences continue to dominate the news, the Brexit process has fallen into one of its periodic quiet phases. There are reports of UK lack of preparedness for the end of transition, and an EU statement about the many things which, deal or no deal, will change at that point. However, the first isn’t at all surprising and the second isn’t, for the most part, news though it may shock those who haven't been paying attention. On a more amusing note, Michel Barnier’s reply to Mark Francois’ letter (discussed in last week’s post) drily pointed out that it had been complaining about things which Boris Johnson had agreed to and which he, Francois, had voted for.

Most likely the quiet phase will continue over the summer. But it was clear from the beginning that Brexit was never going to be simply about a redefinition of the UK-EU relationship and we are starting to see in greater detail just how profound and complex a geo-political shift is underway (£). Trade is only one issue to be navigated and trade itself cannot readily be separated from international relations more generally.

For example, as Philip Hammond, the former Chancellor, remarked in an interview this week, with the UK introducing new trade barriers with the EU it becomes increasingly important to improve trade relations with China. Yet these relations cannot be taken in isolation from political disputes over, currently, Hong Kong and Huawei. And the UK’s stance on the latter, in particular, impacts in turn upon relations with the US. Britain is caught in a world of economic and political power blocs, but without belonging to any, in which any course of action regarding one of them has adverse consequences with respect to another.

Britain found a role – and threw it away

The bigger picture, of course, relates to Britain’s place in the world. Having famously lost an empire but failed to find a role in the first two post-war decades, membership of what became the EU led to its finding a role of sorts. With Brexit, it has been observed that “Britain has lost a role and failed to find an empire”. That role, primarily of being a transatlantic bridge, was not always a comfortable one – the Iraq War being an obvious example – but, in any event, it is a bridge that was burned with Brexit.

It’s important to focus on both ends of that bridge. The impression given by some Brexit Ultras is that after the end of December the EU will simply disappear from view (perhaps one subtext of the current misnomer of an ‘Australia-style deal’ is that they imagine being on the other side of the world from Europe). Global Britain will then focus on its relations with the wider world and cement that with the US in particular. But whether or not there is a UK-EU deal there will still be relationships between the two, and between the UK and individual member states.

Dr Helene von Bismarck, an historian specialising in British international relations, has written this week about how Anglo-German relations, despite the  genuine commitment from both countries to a good future partnership, will face the problem of how to put that commitment into practice. How, she pointedly asks, “can joint interests between a Britain that seeks to be ‘global’ but shies away from any form of institutionalised cooperation with the EU, and a Germany committed firmly to Europe be organized and managed in the future”?

Similar questions will arise for Anglo-French relations, and others. Repairing relations with Ireland, which have been horribly mangled by Brexit, will pose particularly profound challenges. Managing relations with Spain, especially as regards Gibraltar will be another complexity. At the core of all this is the strategic incoherence of Brexit in the context of a regionalised and multi-polar world.

A Biden Presidency?

Coming back to the other end of the bridge, the implications of that incoherence are coming into sharper focus as the possibility grows that Trump will lose the Presidential elections. His much-vaunted support for Brexit has never translated into anything concrete anyway, and if Joe Biden wins then UK-US relations will be transformed. Not so much in terms of any trade deal – it’s likely that any US administration would make similar demands and make use of similar leverage – but because, like Obama, Biden and his team are well-known to regard Brexit as a serious mistake. A mistake for Britain, no doubt, but more particularly a mistake in terms of American interests.

A very thorough discussion of this was provided by Henry Zeffman in The Times this week (£). Biden is significantly more pro-EU than Trump (not a high bar, admittedly), and has strong links with Ireland. On the other hand, hardly less than Trump, he is likely to regard China with suspicion. More generally, a Biden presidency would represent some return to the US’s ‘normal’ advocacy of the rules-based multilateral order and to that extent might regard Brexit as one of the things which has put that in peril.

But, more importantly, US-UK relations would be governed by unsentimental calculation of interests. And as a foreign policy expert quoted in Zeffman’s article summarises those, “London has become a less valuable geo-political partner as a result of Brexit, which has eroded Britain’s traditional role as a transatlantic bridge”. That isn’t to say that there would not be particular issues where the two countries may find common ground, but it is more likely to be ad hoc rather than amounting to a coherent – still less a ‘special’ - relationship.

Why seek a ‘global role’ anyway?

Of course, there will be many in the UK who think ‘so much the better’. The problem, though, is what should replace it to re-define Britain’s global role. But one might put that a different way. Why should Britain seek a ‘global role’ anyway? Why not accept being a medium-sized power whose global sway is largely in the past, and which has plenty of domestic problems to address rather than seeking to project itself on the world stage?

Here, the nationalism of the Brexit project, and its carry forward in Johnson’s endless rhetoric about Britain’s ‘world-leading’ or even ‘world-beating’ status in this that and the other is a major barrier to rational thinking. For of course any such national self-appraisal would probably have meant that Brexit would never have happened anyway – plenty of other former colonial powers of various vintages have found EU membership perfectly congenial. Plenty of them, too, don’t experience any conflict between such membership and being a ‘global trading nation’. And France manages to operate as a nuclear power and permanent member of the UN Security Council whilst being a central player in the EU. But the continuing appeal of British exceptionalism mitigated against that, which reflects the fact the present conundrum of post-Brexit Britain’s role has roots which long pre-date 2016.

The Suez Crisis, no matter how it may have appeared at the time, does not in retrospect seem to have occasioned a profound shift in public (as opposed to official) realization that world powerdom was over; the Falklands War gave fresh impetus to the idea that Britain could project global military power at will even though, arguably, it could no longer be repeated (£). In particular, whilst from the 1970s Britain seemed to have found its post-imperial role via Europe, that was never anchored in a wider public debate about its past, either in terms of Empire or in terms of the ever-present mythologization of the Second World War. If anything, acting as the ‘transatlantic bridge’ served to prolong a certain delusion of grandeur, and enabled the historical amnesia I have written about in a previous post.

Sham patriotism

Having failed to have such a reckoning with the past when it might, perhaps, have been possible, it’s very difficult to see how it can occur in the present, highly partisan, times when it is most needed. The clear power imbalance in the Brexit negotiations – underscored by Angela Merkel’s recent comments – which has played out since 2017 cannot, in such times, serve as an education. It is invariably dismissed as punishment or bullying. Nor can the obvious implications of the way that Ireland has been able to exert such influence because of its EU membership. Consider reactions such as that “the Irish should really know their place” and the hostility of the Brexit press to Leo Varadkar. Even Hammond’s straightforwardly factual statements about the realpolitik of Brexit and China brought a furious denunciation from Brexiters.

So what should be lessons in political, economic and diplomatic reality simply entrench the division between those who understood it all along and those who deny it. That is especially so when news is refracted through a media which is not just partisan but parochial. The way that Brexit Britain is regarded by the wider world – take India, for example - scarcely registers, even as fantasies about ‘Global Britain’ and the Commonwealth are indulged in, often with more than a sense of being “the last gasp of empire” as Sally Tomlinson and Danny Dorling argue.

Unable to learn such lessons, this week Brexiters hailed Britain’s new independent post-Brexit sanctions policy as a great “victory”. Yet if the aim of sanctions is to be effective, they will be far more so if undertaken in concert with others. As with Britain’s ‘independent trade policy’, which has little to commend itself economically, the emphasis is entirely on the ‘independence’ – on the symbolism rather than the substance.

Why independence matters, what it achieves, or what it even consists of remain stubbornly ignored. It’s just better to have a ‘British’ policy than a policy, or that policy becomes good policy by virtue of being British. That looks like patriotism but it’s a sham, not because it makes use of symbols but precisely because it lacks any accompanying substance. The failure of the British rival to the Galileo Project is one obvious example, indicating how hollow a slogan ‘taking back control’ is in a world where interdependence is vital.

Fiddling while home burns

The bitter irony is that just at the moment that Britain is least well-equipped but most in need of a serious re-appraisal of its place in the world, this sham patriotism neglects the ways in which, domestically, it is falling apart. A favourite Brexiter line is that Britain is “the fifth largest economy in the world”, yet it is bedevilled by a longstanding productivity growth problem, dramatic levels of inequality and crumbling public services. A report from the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) last year showed how, on a range of measures, Britain is actually ‘undeveloping’.

The current coronavirus has exposed many of these problems to a greater degree, and exacerbated some of them, but it has also, as Fintan O’Toole argued recently, shown the delusions of Johnson’s Brexity world-beating rhetoric. The issue, again, is symbolism over substance. There is no patriotism in endlessly declaring national superiority whilst daily delivering outcomes that are, as in this case, so much worse than most other countries.

The break-up of Britain?

The strangest irony of all in this is that Britain, largely as a result of Brexit, although again exacerbated by coronavirus, looks ever more likely to, literally, fall apart. I’m not going to express any opinion on the merits of the case for Scottish independence or Irish unification (any such opinion would be ill-informed and presumptuous on my part, and whatever opinion I might express would probably invite more of a backlash than, even having written about Brexit for years, I could cope with). But it’s been obvious since the Referendum that Brexit would make Scottish independence more likely, and the hard form and non-consensual way it has been undertaken since has made that even more true. It’s now quite widely seen as inevitable that there will be another vote, and the latest polls suggest that, if so, the outcome would be independence.

Equally, Northern Ireland, which also did not vote for Brexit, was always going to be dramatically affected by it. As hard Brexit developed, and given the measures agreed in the Northern Ireland Protocol to accommodate it, what is about to be created is a significant continuation of economic integration and unification within the island of Ireland along with a significant economic barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That clearly makes the prospect of political unification much greater and at the very least puts it on the agenda in a way which wasn’t true prior to Brexit. Even Wales – where a majority voted for Brexit – may be seeing increased support for independence.

Rethinking Britain?

So questions about Britain’s post-Brexit ‘place in the world’ (rather than ‘global role’ per se) need also to be thought about in terms of what Britain itself is. And with no apparent appetite from the Conservative and, cough, Unionist Party to give serious consideration to either issue, there’s a real possibility that they will still be chuntering on about Global Britain when Britain has simply ceased to exist.

I don’t think that all the blame for this lies with the Conservatives, or even simply with politicians. It’s also the case that the, specifically, English public don’t really want to have the kind of debate that is needed. How often do countries ever really do so? Context is crucial. I would suggest the answer is usually only after some sort of cataclysmic event – most obviously war, occupation or the fall of dictatorships. Often, that is only partial and takes a very long time, as in the very different cases of Austria’s post-war history or Spain’s post-Franco period. Invariably, it is painful.

Moreover, ‘debate’ is perhaps a misnomer if it implies a formal, organized conversation. That sometimes happens, as with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and similar initiatives in other countries. But I suppose – I don’t have any expertise in this area - the reality is that countries more usually re-orientate themselves via multiple, connected but not entirely formalised processes. Perhaps the gradual social liberalisation of Ireland is an instructive example of that.

At all events, there needs to be an impetus and a willingness to do it. Could Brexit provide these? That’s an especially difficult question because Brexit both potentially occasions such a debate but, also, represents an absolute refusal to engage in one: it has only been about what Britain did not want to be, not, in any practical sense, about what it could or should become, still less about what it has been. On the other hand, any such national debate would, if multi-stranded, be not just about Brexit but other aspects of Britain’s past and future. The current increased awareness of the role slavery played in that past could be the beginnings of one example. Discussions of how an ageing society will shape the future of Britain might be another.

So, yes, perhaps - but perhaps not yet. Awful as it is, Brexit isn’t on a par with war, occupation or dictatorship, and its effects will emerge gradually and be difficult to disentangle from other events. Unless or until those effects become very clear there’s insufficient impetus. And it will probably need the coming to power and the coming of age of a new generation to supply the willingness.

What the UK will look like by then, and whether it even still exists, remains to be seen.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Under cover of Brexit

The most important Brexit event of the week came and went with relatively little fanfare, yet it marks a significant moment. The opportunity to extend the transition period went unused (though, just about conceivably, could be revived in new form). That was not a surprise because it had been so strongly signalled by the government that the UK would not seek, or agree to any request for, extension. Still, it is remarkable for being a further indication of the total lack of pragmatism or good sense with which Brexit is being undertaken.

Without reprising all the arguments, with an already short period for negotiation, ratification and implementation massively disrupted by coronavirus only sheer dogmatism mitigated against an extension. As for the negotiations themselves, this week’s round finished earlier than scheduled, with seemingly little or no progress or convergence of positions. There are differing interpretations of the significance of this (to get the range, see here and here) but, frankly, there’s little point in speculating. The crunch point will come in the autumn.

Remarkable, too, that the Labour opposition did not even in passing set down a marker about the folly of non-extension. It makes it more difficult to reach a deal, more likely that any deal that is reached will be limited in scope – with all that means for businesses already reeling from coronavirus - and leave much still to be decided. Yet, having engineered this very situation, the latest complaint of the Brexiters is of an EU ‘plot’ to trap Britain in a never-ending process of negotiation.

Brexit has consequences that people should have known

That is just the latest version of the longstanding disconnect between the decisions of Brexiters and their understanding of the consequences. Of the many examples that could be picked, recall the first Brexit Secretary David Davis’ belief (£) that there was nothing to stop the European Medical Agency or the European Banking Authority from headquartering in the UK (both have now left as a direct result of Brexit), the rage over the UK being excluded from the 2023 European City of Culture competition, or second Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab’s belated realization of the significance of Dover-Calais freight traffic.

This week, an example was Brexiter MP Peter Bone’s bemusement (during a Select Committee meeting) that mutual recognition of standards between the UK and EU will not be possible when we have left the single market. Bone has been campaigning to leave for his entire political life, has all the resources of the House of Commons Library at his disposal and yet still hasn’t acquainted himself with relatively basic facts.

Further, perhaps even more egregious, examples were contained in the ever-ludicrous Mark Francois’ letter to Michel Barnier. Francois, the current ERG Chair and very much the Brexiters’ Brexiter, if only for his “puerile bombast”, cemented those dubious credentials by combining a gracelessness of its language (“A missive from a Free Country”; “it is possible you may have heard of us [the ERG]”), with an obvious ignorance of key facts. These included his apparent lack of awareness of the provisions in the Political Declaration for the Level Playing Field, and the existing commitments within the Withdrawal Agreement for some continuing role for the ECJ in the UK’s “national life”. One might think the ERG should know this. But, then, just as - as everyone except Norman Tebbit realises - the ‘socialist’ in ‘National Socialist’ was a misnomer, as was the ‘democratic in ‘German Democratic Republic’, so too is the “research” in the partly taxpayer-funded European Research Group.

It’s easy to ascribe all this to wilful ignorance – famously, the day after the Referendum saw a spike in people googling to find out what leaving the EU meant – and no doubt that would not be unfair, and very possibly over-generous, in relation to Bone and Francois. But for some, and especially for leave voters rather than their leaders, it is part of something different, namely a belief that, somehow, ‘nothing really changes’ as a result of leaving the EU or, if it does, that this is due to the EU being unreasonable or even punitive.

Brexit isn’t just ‘symbolic’

That’s partly to do with the taking for granted of the familiar accoutrements of modern life without realising that they are the product of extensive, albeit largely invisible, institutional arrangements. So ‘of course’ nowadays planes fly us to wherever we want without restrictions, as if this were not the outcome of complex agreements such as the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA), and ‘of course’ we can travel, work and live freely within Europe, as if that were not the outcome of freedom of movement rights.

In some ways, Brexiters, who despise EU bureaucrats and rail against extra-national decision making, seem to treat it as an act of nature that there are Europe-wide regulatory systems whereas, when transition ends, British citizens will be excluded from their provisions. The related underlying issue is that for many Brexiters the vote to ‘take back control’, with all its emotional resonance, was not thought about in concrete legal or institutional terms but as a kind of symbolic, feel-good act.

It’s this – along with its counterpart in rejecting all warnings of the practical consequences as being ‘Project Fear’ – which I think partly explains why business and governmental preparedness for the end of the transition period has been so limited. Many people simply don’t understand or believe how radically things are about to change, even if a trade deal of some sort is done. Only as they belatedly come to do so do they realise what they have let themselves in for, as with MP Bob Stewart’s recent bathetic plea for the continuation of pet passports so that he can still take his dogs to France.

Brexit is having consequences that no one could have known

All of the above (and there are many other examples) is about things which those advocating or supporting Brexit really should and could have checked, revealed, or understood before. It is going to be a hard education in the coming months and years as what Tom Hayes of the Brussels European Employee Relations Group calls “the Brexit of small things” is experienced. And it won’t even be an education unless people come to understand that these were the consequences of what they voted for rather than treating them as EU ‘punishment’.

By contrast, much that is unfolding now as a consequence of, and often in the name of, Brexit are things which were in no way entailed by it. I’m referring, generally, to the completely unrealistic and reckless way that Brexit is being done. But I’m referring more particularly to the way Brexit is being used to undertake what has the makings of a wholesale restructuring of the British State and Constitution.

This has been incipient since the very early days after the Referendum and I touched on it in my first post on this Blog. More recently, in February, I wrote about it at length under the title ‘Brexit is going feral’. I won’t repeat that here (most of it is still valid), but this week we have seen the latest developments in the shape of the defenestration of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, and the accompanying desire of Boris Johnson that he should be replaced by a Brexit supporter (£). The appointment of David Frost, who is pro-Brexit but has little experience of security matters, to one of Sedwill’s erstwhile roles, that of National Security Advisor, is part of the same process, and led to remarkably blunt criticism from Theresa May. This comes on top of the announcement of the departure of the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office which is widely understood to be related to his lack of Brexit enthusiasm.

The dangers of these developments for civil service impartiality are profound, as governmental expert Jill Rutter pointed out last October. The loss of impartiality is not merely a violation of ‘traditional principle’ but, as Rutter argues, as does Jonathan Powell writing of the current developments, it entails the danger that civil servants simply give bad or even dishonest advice to satisfy the prejudices of their political bosses.

In this way the particular issue of using Brexit as a pretext for Civil Service ‘reform’ (Reformation might be a more apt term) is indeed an aspect of the general problem – undertaking Brexit in a reckless and unrealistic way – and will make it even worse. As I wrote in October 2018 that is the inevitable consequence of faith-based politics.

A “rolling coup”

But the outrageousness of what is happening does not end there. Powell – the longstanding Chief of Staff to Tony Blair, and not lacking in reformist enthusiasm – described it as part of a “rolling coup” in his article. In a tweet, he went further, raising the prospect of authoritarianism and the need to resist it. Someone of his seniority and sobriety does not say such things lightly, and his having done so should be taken very seriously indeed.

This is not like any of the previous, almost endemic, tussles between politicians and civil servants. For one thing, it is very clearly being driven by Dominic Cummings’ desire to see “a hard rain” fall on the civil service (£). It is the bitterest ironies that having vilified the supposed rule of unaccountable EU technocrats that this unelected fan – and, dare one say, exemplification - of “weirdos and misfits” should wield such power. The braggartly, bullying language of “a hard rain” is, in itself, indicative of the reason why such a person should be kept from all power, let alone that as extensive as that which Boris Johnson has gifted him.

It’s true that Cummings’ long-time ally Michael Gove gives some political cover to this, but his much-touted speech on civil service reform was really no more than has been boilerplate stuff since the 1968 Fulton Report. Gove’s pseudo-polite, pseudo-reasonable, pseudo-intellectual smarminess is only a gateway drug to Cummings’ rip-it-up nihilism; the magic dragon Gove merely puffs is the unmagical one that Cummings chases.

If Cummings role isn’t enough reason to ‘just say no’, the constitutional implications of this week’s developments are profound, as Robert Saunders, Reader in British Political History at Queen Mary, University of London, has pointed out, with particular reference to the fact that David Frost will be neither a civil servant nor (despite being made a member of the House of Lords) a member of the government. If such appointments are at the behest of the Prime Minister, neither Parliament nor the Cabinet are the source of Executive authority. It is a move towards a presidentialisation of British politics, but with none of the accompanying checks and balances of, for example, the US system. (It is worth mentioning that as, again, Jill Rutter pointed out some time ago, Frost’s position as Brexit negotiator was already an anomalous one).

A coup rooted in Brexit

It is important to recognize that all of this is inseparable from Brexit (not because it is a necessary consequence of Brexit, but because Brexit is a condition for it). It proceeds from the same populist logic of a culture war against ‘the elite’ and, more specifically, is conceived of by Gove and Cummings as rooting out “ineffective, pro-EU bureaucrats” (£, my emphasis added).

It is that ‘pro-EU’ part which marks this as quite different to all the previous approaches to civil service reform, for it targets specific (supposed) political beliefs rather than competence or even willingness to change in some general way. It is happening under a government with Brexit as its central purpose and its sole loyalty test, and one in which numerous former Vote Leave campaign team members, including Cummings, hold crucial advisory roles. It is making pro-Brexit opinion the defining qualification not even just for those civil servants delivering Brexit but for posts which have little or nothing to do with that.

Crucially, nowhere, ever, in any way whatsoever was it suggested that the 2016 Referendum was a vote for such a ‘coup’. Nowhere, ever, in any way whatsoever was it suggested that the pledge at the last election to ‘Get Brexit Done’ meant using it as a cover to undertake such far-reaching changes.

In this respect, what is happening is potentially far more serious than the dishonest way in which the vote for an undefined Brexit was repurposed as a vote for hard Brexit or even for no deal Brexit. For, now, it is being used as a mandate for wholesale changes to the British political system which are nothing at all to do with delivering Brexit. That was always a danger - it is part of the Brexit McCarthyism I first wrote about in March 2017 (these and other references to my previous posts are not intended to show that ‘I told you so’, but that what is happening now is rooted in what has developed over these last four years). Yet it is developing in complex and subtle ways, which are all the more insidious for being so.

For, as has recently been suggested, there is actually little popular appetite for a ‘Brexit culture war’ but – unlike the screaming ‘enemies of the people’ headline - it is being prosecuted in a way that few voters will really be aware of or interested in. The way the National Security Advisor is appointed is, for most, uninteresting and arcane. Civil service ‘reform’ scarcely less so. But - as with the institutional arrangements which underpin, say, air travel or international trade – once the scaffolding of the political system is dismantled people may be appalled by, but will have to live with, the consequences.

Nothing is inevitable

I keep being told (on Twitter, the fount of all wisdom of course) that all this was “the plan all along” and is inevitable. It may have been the plan of some, but little or nothing is ‘inevitable’ in human affairs. History is made by what, collectively, people do, not despite anything they may do. Without that, there’s no meaning to politics. How Brexit plays out is no exception.

This is what I was trying to get at in last week’s post. Some read it, mistakenly, as a call to ‘get behind Brexit’ or to ‘make Brexit work’. That wasn’t the point at all. Rather, it was to suggest that we should not acquiesce to the inevitability of what the ERG and Brexit Party hardliners insist that Brexit means. With the referendum mandate now discharged, we are freed forever of the yoke of the 17.4 million and with that freedom can and should challenge anew all that is being done in the name of Brexit, as well as comparing it with what was promised. Manifestly, that includes the specifics of whatever may or may not be negotiated with the EU. But it also includes all of the ways Brexit is being made use of to do things which were never entailed by Brexit itself.

The Brexiters have been successful in getting Britain to leave the EU. That is a disaster in itself. But it does not follow that they now own our country to be played with as they will, or to be re-made in whatever way they want.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Four years on, we need a whole new Brexit debate

It is now four years since the Referendum result which convulsed British politics and set the country on a path whose destination remains unknown. In this post I’m not going to review what has happened during those years but instead will suggest that we now need a whole new Brexit debate. No doubt many, probably most, people are heartily sick of hearing about Brexit, so that idea will seem perverse if not downright masochistic. But such a debate is now possible, necessary, and, arguably, inevitable.

Back in October 2018, the leading law and policy commentator David Allen Green made an intriguing and typically elegant argument. It was that – notwithstanding remainers’ disputes about its legitimacy – the 2016 Referendum had created a mandate for Britain to leave the EU. This could only be discharged by doing so, but once Britain had left it would, indeed, have been fully discharged and would (or should) have no further purchase. Then, it would be possible for debate to shift to what kind of relationship Britain should have with the EU.

The Referendum mandate has been discharged in full

On 31 January 2020 we arrived at that point. It is no more, or less, than a truism to say that Britain is no longer a member of the EU. Yet it seems fair to say that political debate has not fully caught up with that fact (perhaps because, almost immediately afterwards, all attention shifted to coronavirus). For example, just a few days ago an opinion poll showed that a clear majority – 56% - would vote to remain in the EU if another referendum were held now. That is an important result, in that it suggests that Brexit is not what the majority want, but it is also strictly speaking a meaningless one. There could be no such referendum because there is no such thing as ‘remaining’ any more. Likewise, there is no such thing as ‘leaving’ any more. Both of those policies ceased to be possible at the end of January. The only thing that could meaningfully be asked is whether to ‘stay out’ or ‘re-join’ – a very different question (and one which would not necessarily yield the same result).

By the same token, as per Green’s original argument, the fact of Britain having left the EU means that it is no longer meaningful for the 2016 Referendum to be invoked as an argument for how the ongoing process of ‘doing Brexit’ should be undertaken. I’d actually go further than that, because since that referendum didn’t specify a form of Brexit it never had any relevance to how Brexit was done. But, even without accepting that, there is now certainly no basis on which ‘the 17.4 million’ have any more say in what happens than the rest of the population or on which that number can be invoked in discussions about what happens.

That includes the question of whether to extend the Transition Period. Recently, the pro-Brexit Bruges Group tweeted, correctly, that it now seems clear that there will be no extension but went on to say, incorrectly, that this will be “a victory for Brexit voters”. That cannot be so, since Brexit voters voted for one thing only, and it has now been done. There can be no further victories or further demands based upon that original vote.

17.4 million is no longer a relevant number

This matters, hugely, because it means that the ‘will of the people’ and the sanctification of the 17.4 million which since 2016 have been used as a cudgel not just to stifle but to stigmatize as undemocratic any debate about Brexit has now gone from being entirely bogus to being entirely redundant. There’s no doubt that, for particular example, the vote to trigger Article 50 was only supported in such numbers, or even passed at all, because of the force with which that cudgel was wielded. But it is now possible, and right, and necessary, to debate and question every single way in which Brexit is being enacted without any reference at all to the Referendum result.

This includes, of course, the terms of any deal which may be done with the EU as well as the possibility of no deal being done at all. It also includes challenging decisions such as refusing to participate in the EU scheme to revive tourism in the wake of the coronavirus or in the EU’s fast track vaccine scheme. Or the idea of setting up a supposed global rival to the Erasmus scheme (mirroring the now failed approach to the Galileo project). Or refusing to create any formal institutional framework for foreign policy cooperation. On all of these, and many other, Brexit issues there is, or should be, an entirely new debate framed not in terms of the referendum result but in terms of what, given that Britain has left, its relationship with the EU should be like.

What about the election?

A potential objection to this argument is that the present scenario is different to that envisaged by Green in that, prior to leaving the EU, a General Election was held. Since the Conservatives won, this gives them a mandate, separate to that of the Referendum, as to how to undertake the Brexit process. Their manifesto stated that this would mean leaving the single market and customs union, ending “the role of the European Court of Justice”, and not extending the implementation period (sic) beyond the end of December 2020. Therefore, all of these are settled matters.

Against that there are several counter-arguments. Unlike a referendum on a single question, a General Election victory does not imply voters endorsed every line of the winning party’s manifesto. In a first past the post system it doesn’t mean majority support. And in a democratic system it certainly doesn’t imply that the enactment of their policies can no longer be discussed and debated. This includes recognizing that changing circumstances mean that governments necessarily do things that run counter to party manifestos, which in this case might mean, in particular, that the force majeure of coronavirus entails a revision of the transition extension policy. On the other hand, if the manifesto is taken to be a rigid and immutable set of commitments, then there is no mandate for no deal, because it makes no mention of that possibility and, instead, states unequivocally that “we will negotiate a trade deal next year”.

Beyond all that, as I discussed at the time, the election campaign was remarkable for the lack of discussion of any detail at all of how Brexit would be done, including and especially any discussion of what the future relationship with the EU would be like. Indeed, the whole message from the Conservatives was that Brexit would simply be “done” by the end of January, obscuring the entire issue of the future terms negotiations. Even the manifesto line quoted above about the ECJ carries no precise meaning as regards, for example, participation in various EU projects. So all the myriad of details about things like, for example, Erasmus lie outside of any mandate that may be claimed from the election. And this goes wider than such details in that it is also legitimate to question the entire tenor in which the government is conducting its relations with the EU.

A new set of issues

In short, it is now entirely reasonable for a new debate to be held, and an ongoing one, too, as circumstances change because of coronavirus or because of emerging global issues such as the evolving/ deteriorating UK-China relationship or the outcome of the US Presidential election. It is entirely reasonable to discuss the clear evidence of the rising costs of Brexit to date (all the more so given the costs of coronavirus). It is entirely reasonable for voters and politicians to demand of the government that it approaches the EU in a positive and cooperative manner rather than with the truculence that has prevailed so far. And it is entirely reasonable to expect that approach to be pragmatic rather than dogmatic.

When Green made his argument, I suggested that, whatever its logic, one flaw in it was that it was highly unlikely that the Brexiters would drop the idea that the Referendum mandated their preferred form(s) of Brexit. And it is, indeed, far too much to expect this ERG-dominated, continuity Vote Leave government to do so, or to heed any of these entirely reasonable requests.

Yet, on the other hand, it could be argued that Boris Johnson has a duty to do so. As Dan Hodges recently pointed out in The Mail, Johnson won the election by pledging to end the culture war of Brexit, not to continue it. The statesmanlike thing to do after all the divisions of the last few years would be to seek to heal rather than inflame them, the more so given that Brexit now only has minority support.

Labour has a key role to play

If – and, really, it’s not in doubt -  such hopes are a pipe dream, then it is still the case that the Labour Party (and others of course, but Labour is the official opposition) can and should be vocal in insisting on this new debate about how to create pragmatic and amicable relations with the EU. It is disappointing and, I think, misguided that Keir Starmer has not called for an extension to the Transition Period (though for a counter-argument, see Professor Tim Bale’s article in the New Statesman). It may well come back to haunt Labour to have been – through silence – complicit in non-extension.

But whether or not that proves true, it will be an even more serious error if he does not start to articulate a new approach to the EU. It is not enough just to ‘hold the government to account’. It’s also necessary, as Andrew Rawnsley argued in last Sunday’s Observer, to show what Labour would do differently. Of course there are many aspects to that, but one would be to show how it champions a better and – Starmer’s calling card – ‘more adult’ approach to the EU. It would be entirely consistent with the growing critique of the government for lacking basic competence (£). Yes, Brexit is happening, but it doesn’t have to be done in this scorched earth fashion which is so reckless of British national interests and international reputation, and which threatens to rip up the cultural fabric and the union itself.

The key to that is, precisely, the recognition that the Referendum mandate has now been discharged. Johnson would no doubt respond to Labour by trying to reprise the ‘will of the people’ line, but it will have less and less traction. And, just from a tactical point of view, those amongst whom it will have traction are voters who are almost certainly already a lost cause for Labour. Whereas, by contrast, there is a large and probably growing constituency of voters, which transcends the leaver-remain distinction, who are appalled at the prospect of no deal and, probably, are out of sympathy with the relentless pathological hatred of all things European that the ERG exhibit.

It is now open to Starmer to find a new kind of ‘centre ground’ encompassing erstwhile leavers and remainers who would welcome a fresh approach, and more specifically a competent approach. At the very least, given that the most important foreign policy question of the moment is relations with the EU it simply can’t be treated as a taboo subject by Labour. With the Referendum mandate now discharged, Brexit should be treated as a political issue just like any other rather than as a culture war shibboleth.

A new approach is needed with or without a deal

This will be true even if, as some well-informed reports this week suggest to be the case (£), a trade deal with the EU is becoming slightly more likely (though, on my reading of Michel Barnier’s comments this week and given those of David Sassoli and David Frost this seems optimistic). On the one hand, it would require intense scrutiny for the damage it is likely to do to manufacturing industry and perhaps particularly to services trade and the wider implications of that for investment generally. On the other hand, any such deal is unlikely to resolve all the many non-trade issues, and even on trade there are likely to be many future, or ongoing, matters to settle. Also in doubt is the extent to which new customs facilities and regulatory systems (for example for chemicals) will be up and running  in time.

For what seems to be in prospect if there’s a deal is, all but inevitably given the time frames, precisely the kind of rushed, can-kicking bodge that happened in January, with numerous, complex, loose ends left to be resolved or disputed later. Moreover, the measures currently being touted as the basis for a deal, whereby a zero tariff regime is adjusted (only) if and when the UK diverges from level playing field provisions, are predicated on a constructive and trusting partnership (£).

So even with such a deal, and certainly in the absence of one, there will be many more years in which the relationship will be under negotiation and, in any case, that relationship will itself evolve, if only through the ongoing operation of the Joint Committee overseeing the Withdrawal Agreement. Even though it has been restricted by what has happened over the last four years, there is still a spectrum of possibilities of what that relationship might evolve into over the coming years, ranging from the minimalist, hostile one to which the ERG is dragging us through to an extensive, cooperative one perhaps along the lines of an Association Agreement.

And to re-emphasize, the issue is as much about the tone as the institutional form of the relationship. With the referendum mandate done and dusted why should we accept that future relations with the EU be conducted in the unremittingly negative, suspicious, accusatory manner of the Vote Leave campaign? They won the right to leave, not to permanently poison and pollute UK-EU relations.

Reframing the debate

To put all this a different way, under the influence of Tory Eurosceptics, UKIP, and their media supporters the entire debate about Britain’s relationship with the EU has for at least 30 years been dominated by a single question: stay or leave? That is a testament to the indefatigability of the Brexiters but also, it should be admitted, due to the supine attitude of pro-EU politicians. They rarely, if ever, made a positive case for membership and when they did it was almost invariably in entirely transactional terms. But all that is past history now and, in particular, that single question has been asked and answered. It can no longer serve as the frame through which UK-EU relations are viewed and it mustn’t be allowed to.

The challenge of ensuring that doesn’t just lie with politicians. It also lies with journalists, academics, business and civic society leaders and perhaps especially grass roots organizations and activists. Those who used to be remainers, when remaining was a possibility, mobilized to a remarkable extent after the Referendum was lost and very nearly pulled off a reversal of the result. In the aftermath of that first, emotionally crushing, loss four years ago (my feelings at the time were recorded on a different blog site, if of interest) and the perhaps even more exhausting tension of last year’s long drawn out battles and hopes it’s not surprising that they are drained and demoralized.

Some continue to revisit the rights and wrongs of the 2016 vote and to re-litigate the Referendum. Others have retreated from the fray, seeing any chance to salvage anything as having gone. Still others have flipped to campaigning to re-join the EU. These three responses are all understandable but they are also all unrealistic. The first is hopeless – and actually panders to Brexiters’ attempts to keep the focus on the Referendum result. The second has too little hope. The third has too much. Rejoining the EU may happen, but if so it is years, very likely decades, away.

But there are still things to argue for, and to do so is both worthwhile in itself and necessary if the ground is to be laid for rejoining in the future or even simply creating an amicable partnership. That has at least three aspects. The first lies at the political level of attempting to influence the evolving shape and tenor of UK-EU relations, as discussed above. The second is to nurture all those remaining ties – be they cultural, academic, familial, or whatever – which will persist despite the wreckage of Brexit. It’s still possible to remind our counterparts in the EU that, despite the noisy voices of the Brexiters, plenty of British people never wanted this and are still their friends and allies. And, third, it means re-engaging in the domestic debate in this new post-referendum mandate world.

In that regard, whereas Johnson’s huge election victory in December seemed like a terminal moment – and was, as regards any hope of stopping Brexit – only a few months later things look different. To a remarkable extent for a new government with a large majority it already feels tired and crisis-ridden. That’s largely because of coronavirus, of course, but also because the virus has only speeded up and made more visible its underlying weakness and ineptitude (as per my last post). The Cummings affair wrecked its dominance of the polls. It almost weekly gets into unnecessary tangles that lead to U-turns and, despite its majority, routinely faces backbench rebellions on everything from Huawei to food standards to Sunday trading. Having reshuffled his cabinet in February, only three months after winning, and losing his Chancellor in the process, it’s reported that Johnson is going to do so again in September.

The point isn’t that government is about to fall. It’s that it isn’t the hegemon it seemed to be in December. It doesn’t control the terms of debate, including debate about Europe. A different debate is now, for the first time since 2016, at least possible. And, since January, the lashing, quasi-fascist whip of the ‘will of the people’ has lost all of its force as their will has now been done. The question is no longer ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ and indeed in that sense is no longer even about Brexit, but about Britain’s relationship with Europe. Which actually makes a different debate not just possible but, sooner or later, inevitable.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Nothing to see here

The much-hyped meeting between Boris Johnson, Ursula von der Leyen, David Sassoli and Charles Michel did not, apparently, see Johnson “banging the table” or even “warning” the EU that Britain would be a “fully independent” country next January “whatever happens” (£). If he did issue such a warning, it would have been interesting to know what the response was. Apart from incredulous laughter, the obvious retort would be that Britain, like all EU countries, had been independent whilst a member state. Were that not so, Brexit would not have been possible in the first place.

For as the very first Brexit White Paper helpfully – but, alas, too late - explained, Britain had always been a “sovereign country”, it just “has not always felt like that” (para 2.1 of link). The noble project of ‘national liberation’ turned out to have been based upon a massive misapprehension, akin to decapitating yourself because of having a bad hair day. As for ending the transition period regardless of the consequences, if that is a warning it would be better made to the people of the UK, who will have to suffer the most serious of them. Then again, since the Brexiters insist that no deal would be just fine for Britain, it could be asked how, exactly, it functions as a “warning” to the EU?

Whatever went on inside the (virtual) room, the joint communique issued afterwards was a masterpiece of anodyne diplo-speak (constructive …. challenges … new momentum …. work hard … blah blah blah). Since the undiplomatic alternative would be to say that the whole thing is a godawful mess and no one knows what to do about it, perhaps such blandness was predictable.

The only line which might have brought a sardonic smile to the face of anyone reading that far was the hope that the July talks would include “if possible, finding an early understanding on the principles underlying the agreement”. Given that this understanding was, supposedly, what the Political Declaration provided and given that there are only six months to go until the end of transition, it might be thought that this aim achieves the unlikely feat of being simultaneously wildly optimistic and woefully inadequate.

A glimmer of realism?

Even so, the very dullness of the statement had a significance of its own. Since last February, the British government’s stance has repeatedly been that it would walk away from the talks unless there was the “broad outline” of a deal. There is manifestly no such outline, but it hasn’t walked away. That could be interpreted as a ‘mini-blink’ on the UK’s part and a recognition that, for all the rhetoric, there is somewhere still left a tiny shred of realism about the damage that no deal would mean.

That’s a viable interpretation for two reasons. First, because it emerged at the end of the last week that the government realises it is not, in fact, ready for the UK to be ‘independent’ in January to the extent of announcing that it will not enforce border controls on goods coming from the EU, at least in the short-term. Eventually the plan, wouldn’t you just know (and if not, see Jill Rutter’s sharp discussion of the government’s ‘world-beating’ rhetoric), is for the ‘best border in the world’, mere competence being anathema to the government and, indeed, something it has successfully avoided thus far.

This announcement comes just four months since that insisting that there would be such controls in place by the end of the year. It won’t, of course, do anything to ease the outbound flow of goods (£) and since, in practice, the vehicles going one way also do the return trip then this decision will have only limited impact. Still, it does show some recognition of practical realities and that is not exactly something that can be taken for granted in relation to Brexit.

The other reason to think the government may be becoming less gung-ho about no deal is the polling evidence that it would be unpopular – and if the idea of it is unpopular, how much more so would be the reality. Of particular interest this week was a poll (conducted for Best for Britain) of the Tories’ newly acquired ‘Red Wall’ seats. Voters here, including those who switched to the Tories at the last election, and including those who voted leave, are overwhelmingly in favour of a deal being done.

And, indeed, they are quite entitled to that view given the promises made both by Vote Leave in 2016 and by the Conservatives in 2019. Oddly, despite their frequent complaints that remainers sneer at the intelligence of leave voters, it is Brexiters who seem to imagine that such voters will be satisfied with sops like blue passports (it emerged this week that the former aren’t satisfied and the latter aren’t blue, and they’re made by a Franco-Dutch firm in Poland; really, the perfect metaphor for the disappointments and delusions of Brexit) or, the latest risible stunt,  a red, white and blue repaint of the Prime Minister’s aeroplane.

So the polls and focus groups may be telling the government that this is not so and – horror of horrors – leave voters actually believed all the promises that were made to them. It’s perhaps also of note that the latest polling shows a 56-44 preference for the UK to remain in the EU. If Brexit is now very clearly not the will of the people, how much less so is Brexit with no deal?

Thus faced with declining popularity due mainly to its inept handling of coronavirus, low electoral calculation as much as anything else might drive the government to making some kind of a deal with the EU in the coming months. But time is vanishingly tight given that any deal would need to be not just struck but ratified by the end of the year.

There really is no plan

But the reality is that no one knows what is going to happen, and its notable that the most astute and well-informed Brexit watchers assessing the current situation – RTE’s Tony Connelly being a prime example – wisely avoid making predictions.

There’s no such restraint amongst the legions of commentators on social media who proclaim, with equal certainty, that no deal is inevitable and was always ‘their plan’ and that the UK ‘caving in’ to the EU is inevitable and was always ‘their plan’. The ‘no deal’ predictions often rest upon repeatedly discredited ideas that Brexit was all about avoiding EU regulations on offshore taxation or hedge fund plans to short the pound. These myths are the mirror image of leavers’ absurd jibes about remainers being in the ‘pay of the EU’ or ‘wanting to keep their cheap Bulgarian nannies’. The ‘cave in’ predictions often rest upon the belief that, ultimately, economic rationality will hold sway. That’s not unreasonable, but, as per my last post, ignores or least downplays the cult-like nature of the Brexit government.

I understand the motivations for these confident claims, because in their different ways they suggest a logic and coherence to what is happening. That would be if not nice then, at least, a nice idea. But it’s wholly mistaken. There is no inevitability, there is no ‘they’, and there is, most certainly, no plan. The Brexiters have no more idea in private than they do in public about what they are doing. Predictions based upon their concealed intent project on to them a competence they simply don’t possess.

A government of all the talentless

It’s this which makes the present political situation truly alarming. We’re not in sway to some set of manipulative geniuses pursuing a well-thought out, if malign, agenda, but the captives of a coterie of utterly deluded simpletons who have stumbled into power by a series of accidents. The plane hasn’t been hijacked by steely-eyed terrorists so much as it has fallen into the inadvertent hands of a group of smirking school bullies and debating society geeks, led by a priapic layabout and advised by those for whom the term Incel inadequates is not so much an insult as an unattainable aspiration. Thus as Rafael Behr writes, convincingly, “incompetence is a built-in feature, not a bug of Boris Johnson’s government”.

This has its roots in Brexit, as I’ve argued before, but that doesn’t mean we have a government competent to deliver Brexit but not to do anything else. Rather, we have what might be called a government of all the talentless, incapable of competence in any domain and almost ludicrously inadequate to any challenge it is set or sets itself.

So even if they have a plan for Brexit it doesn’t follow that they will stick to it, and even if they stick to it then it doesn’t follow that they will deliver it, and even if they deliver it then it doesn’t follow it will have the effects they expect. This dire situation is made all the worse because, as, again, I’ve argued before, the Brexiters’ plan for Brexit was that no plan was needed anyway. Indeed, this was a virtue born of a necessity since were a plan needed it could never be formulated given that no two Brexiters chosen at random are likely to agree what Brexit means.

Trading ironies

The many fissures and fault lines that lack of clear purpose creates are becoming ever clearer by the day. The most fundamental of them lies in the way that what was sold to voters as a largely nationalist project is being pursued as a globalist one. Those who will be most centrally and most symbolically caught in the middle of that are farmers, for it is clear that any meaningful trade deal with the US (£) – or for that matter Australia and New Zealand – will almost certainly bring with it a massive opening up of the UK to food imports from those countries and with that will come issues of consumer and animal welfare standards. But this will be only the most high-profile example – or perhaps not even that if healthcare gets thrown into the mix.

The ironies of these developments abound. The most obvious is that in pursuit of reducing barriers to trade with smaller and more distant markets substantial new ones will be erected with the UK’s closest and largest market, something understood by the US trade negotiators if not the Brexit government. Plus, just as in the case of Japan discussed in last week’s post, the US negotiators recognize that the shape of any deal with the UK is inseparable from what the UK agrees with the EU and, moreover, will be contingent on the absence of an Irish land border. So any idea Johnson and other Brexiters may have of reneging on the NI Protocol agreed with the EU  will scupper their idea of a US trade deal (this shouldn’t be news, as per my post of April 2019).

Another, emergent, irony is that the proposals for a deal with New Zealand seem to entail level playing field commitments that are (arguably) not so very different to those deemed unthinkable in relation to any EU deal. And deals with Australia and New Zealand are, according to Trade Secretary Liz Truss (£), staging posts towards joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in a move which she says will show that Britain is “back as a proud independent nation again”. This in turn is also potentially linked to US trade in that, if Trump loses the election, a Biden administration might well revive US CPTPP membership (Obama had been set to be part of TPP, its abandoned predecessor). If so, and the UK was a member, that could amount to a US-UK deal by the backdoor.

But what’s this? Read the New Zealand press and you find that their government is preparing to veto the UK joining CPTPP if their country does not get the access it wants to British agricultural markets. So New Zealand, which currently accounts for about 0.2% of UK trade, holds a powerful lever in negotiations which could become a spanner in the works for British trade policy. It turns out that ‘independence’ is a bit more complicated than Brexiters thought.

A third irony is that the Brexiters used to say that having an independent trade policy meant that British voters could decide whether or not they approved of what was being done. Lexiters, in particular, made much of the argument that the EU was “negotiating secret trade deals”, especially the TTIP deal with the US. This was linked to the at best dubious proposition that TTIP could lead to the privatization of the NHS, in which they made common cause with arch free-marketeer Peter Lilley.

Yet the government has now agreed that documents relating to the current US-UK negotiations will be kept secret until five years after any deal is struck. And despite assurances that any such deal will not involve the NHS or drug prices, these, along with agriculture, are key US demands regardless of the administration, Trump certainly wants them, and it is known that they have already been discussed – because some of these secret documents have been leaked!

However, there’s no need to consider perhaps obscure details of trade policy to understand that first and fundamental Brexit fissure between nationalism and globalism. It’s enough to see the images of the violent far-right protests in London last weekend. These were not about Brexit, of course, but I don’t think it is a hugely controversial leap of the imagination to think that most of them were enthusiastic supporters of it. And nor is it a great leap to think that they will have been voting for an essentially nationalist project rather than, as Liam Fox claimed when Trade Secretary, a “glorious opportunity” to place themselves “in the centre of an increasingly interconnected world”.

In practice that might mean that in order to do a trade deal with, for (particular) example, India the UK agrees to relaxations of immigration controls. And whilst Brexiters’ political correctness means ‘we’re not allowed to say’ that the leave vote had anything to do with immigration – apparently, it was all based on a close reading of Edmund Burke’s theory of sovereignty -  it’s perhaps not immediately clear that this would find favour with those protestors or others with similar viewpoints. Indeed, it may not be too long before we hear what would be the final irony of them saying that immigration ‘used to be alright’ in the good old days of EU membership but now ‘it’s gone too far’.

We didn’t know what we were voting for

But, to coin a phrase, they will just have to ‘get over it’ (£). Untrammelled by anything as inconvenient as a plan, or even a definition, Brexit can now mean whatever this government of all the talentless decides it to mean.

The very first thing I wrote about Brexit was an article in The Conversation, in October 2015, before a date for the referendum had even been set, laying out the main variants of what Brexit could mean (see also the follow up piece warning of the complexity and uncertainty of post-Brexit trade deals). There are parts of it I would change today but its conclusion was depressingly prescient:

“We must be absolutely clear which of the different Brexit scenarios is envisaged, and not to confuse or conflate them. If not, and the vote is to exit, it will be no good saying afterwards that ‘we didn’t understand what we were voting for’, the repeated complaint made by Eurosceptics about the 1975 Referendum. By then it will be too late”.

Well, here we are, and so it is.

If readers detect a certain weary despair in this post, then they are not entirely wrong.

Friday, 12 June 2020

Brexit Britain risks heading to international pariahdom

The irritation in Michel Barnier’s press statement at the end of last week’s negotiations was palpable. “Things cannot go on like this”, he despairingly warned, and his particular concern was the UK “backtracking on the Political Declaration”. It was a strong indication that any remaining trust in the negotiations has all but disappeared, and that hasn’t just happened in the last few weeks. Rather, it has been in the making for years.

If not earlier, it perhaps began when the Brexiters, including Boris Johnson, denied the legitimacy of any financial settlement – something I will come back to. It became entrenched when David Davis and Theresa May immediately disowned the backstop they had agreed to end of the phase 1 of the Article 50 negotiations in December 2017. Many other examples could be given.

Distrust is now endemic

Under Johnson’s premiership that lack of trust has become endemic. That’s partly because EU leaders recall the long years of lies he told whilst a Telegraph columnist, and have disdain for his role in the Referendum. It’s not difficult to imagine that he is one of those whom Donald Tusk was referring to as warranting a “special place in hell” for having advocated Brexit with no plan. But it is more because of the way in which, since coming to power, Johnson has seemed to resile from what he agreed, especially as regards Northern Ireland.

In a post last month, following the Frost letter, I lamented that the bitter truth is that the UK can no longer be trusted. Yet the Brexit ‘patriots’ feel no shame and, worse, no realism. Their response to Barnier’s press statement was to crow that he was ‘rattled’ by Britain’s ‘tough stance’ – yet apparently not so cowed as to stop him being ‘rude’ and ‘insulting’! The more ‘cerebral’ and, indeed, the official response was to point out, echoing Davis’ comments about the phase 1 agreement, that the Political Declaration (PD) is not legally binding.

The Political Declaration isn’t irrelevant

That is perfectly true, but it is a very long and dangerous jump from that to treating it as totally irrelevant. It was signed by Boris Johnson as a commitment of ‘good faith’ to the agreed framework for the future. As Simon Usherwood, Professor of Politics at Surrey University, points out reneging on it has damaging reputational consequences. It’s not just dishonest but, perhaps worse, naïve, for Johnson to treat as if it were one of his throwaway newspaper columns. You simply can’t conduct international relations that way and expect it just to be laughed off, or forgiven and forgotten, by other countries.

It’s clearly the case that, as a framework, it does not address the detailed provisions of the future agreement. Equally clearly, within negotiation there will legitimately be ‘maximalist’ and ‘minimalist’ interpretations of how to operationalize the framework. But that is not at all the same as simply treating it as totally irrelevant (as, indeed, Brexiters used to realise).

For example, on one of the key areas of contention referred to by Barnier, Level Playing Field (LPF) provisions, paragraph 77 of the PD is very explicit about how economic interdependence and geographical proximity mean there must be robust commitments on state aid, competition law and so on. So, yes, there is legitimate negotiation space around what ‘robust’ means in practical terms, but it is simply dishonest for Brexiters, including Johnson, to pretend that these issues have been newly introduced by the EU (£)*. If Johnson objected, the time to do so was before signing the document off.

Ominous signs

But more ominous than the ongoing disavowal of the PD was a report in the Brexiters’ house journal, The Express, that the government regards the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) as having “unfair defects” that must be remedied. That marks a significant escalation because it is not based on any claim that it is legally non-binding: there is no dispute that the WA was signed as a legally binding international treaty. Reneging on it would go beyond reputational damage.

The justification for this stance is telling. On the one hand, the report refers to an unnamed ‘government source’ (does that mean Dominic Cummings?) as linking the ‘defects’ to what was agreed by Theresa May and Olly Robbins, and the constraints of the May parliament. This reflects something which has been swirling around Brexiter circles for months now – a sense that, despite Johnson signing it, it was in some way not legitimate because of those antecedents including what they regard as a ‘remainer’ parliament. It is dangerous nonsense for whilst, as they are wont to say, no parliament can bind its successor, that does not mean that international treaties negotiated during one parliament become irrelevant afterwards. International relations would scarcely be possible if that were so. And, in any case, it’s an absurdity as Johnson didn’t sign the WA and PD until January 2020 - after the election. He owns them.

This relates to the other aspect of the supposed justification for re-opening the WA, namely that the government did not have time to deal with all the “defects” of May’s deal, just to replace the Northern Ireland backstop. But not only is the government now resiling from the frontstop that replaced it, it was the government that insisted – against much warning – that the whole thing had to be rushed through with scarcely any scrutiny to meet the deadline of 31 January. Moreover, we now know – courtesy of Steve Baker – that the ERG hardliners were persuaded by Dominic Cummings to support the WA, without needing to read it, on the basis that Michael Gove said it could be changed later.

As with Brexit in general, the easiest way to understand the outrageousness of this is to think about it the other way round, and imagine how the UK, and Brexiters especially, would react if the EU said that with Juncker, Tusk et al now gone, the EU no longer felt bound by the WA and PD. Or if the states and MEPs who had voted to ratify the WA now said that they had done so without bothering to read it as they had been told it could all be re-written afterwards. The shrieks of anger would be deafening, and the opprobrium heaped on the EU vitriolic.

The deal formerly known as ‘oven-ready’

Of course it’s not just the trust of the EU which is being betrayed by this deepening farrago of lies. It’s also the British electorate. For don’t forget that this near-discarded PD and this ‘defective’ WA used to go under a very different name: together, they were the “oven-ready deal” that Johnson promised would “get Brexit done” during the 2019 General Election campaign. This was “the great new deal”, not in any way to be confused with May’s despised efforts. In vain did I and countless others warn that it would just be the beginning of a new process of negotiation. Still, at least it might have been assumed that those negotiations would go forward on the basis of the WA and PD, not backwards to try to re-write them.

Such an assumption was always going to be naïve, though. And this goes to the heart of why the EU is right to distrust Johnson. Again and again as Prime Minister (never mind about beforehand) he has shown not just dishonesty but a palpable scorn for law and the normal political process. The doyen of law and policy commentators, David Allen Green, who invariably uses words with great precision, last year wrote of Johnson “going rogue” (£) over the question of whether he would obey the law requiring him to seek an extension to the Article 50 period. It was, Green said, “unprecedented” for a Prime Minister even to be contemplating not doing so. This was also in the context of the illegal prorogation of parliament and these and other examples provide ample evidence of the subfusc authoritarianism that Johnson’s jokey persona increasingly fails to cloak. No doubt it is echoed, amplified, and incited by Cummings’ infamous contempt for ‘playing by the rules’.

This makes Johnson a difficult character for the EU to deal with, but that character is only one manifestation of the problem. As noted above, the UK government’s behaviour since Brexit has been repeatedly untrustworthy, even under the leadership of May, whose character was very different. The underlying issue is neither of them, but the now near comprehensive ‘ERG-ification’ of the Tory Party and, hence, government. Perhaps because the old familiar trappings of the political spectacle persist, it’s easy to miss how hollowed-out Britain’s political institutions have become during these Brexit years.

Government by cult

Indeed, the EU’s bewilderment – like that of many commentators including, at times, myself – stems from a failure to appreciate quite how far and deep that process has gone. The ERG is rather like the Terminator which “can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with, it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear and it absolutely will not stop ever …”. So the hope that, at some point, rationality will assert itself – for example over the damage of no deal or extending the transition period – keeps being dashed. Similarly, the idea that some ‘compromise’ from the EU would unlock things, even if such compromise was possible, is flawed. Really, one could imagine that if the EU conceded on every single UK demand the Brexit Ultras would still denounce it as insultingly inadequate.

We’ve arrived here step by step because every demand made by the Ultras has been conceded – the Referendum, then the row about the question to be asked, then the franchise. And each demand met has led to a still harder one, from ‘we just want to be like Norway’ right up to the point that we are just about at which is that any deal and any form of relationship with the EU is intolerable. That’s totally unrealistic, of course, since the EU will still be there (although the hardcore of the Ultras always believes it will collapse) but realism isn’t part of the story here. Indeed, realistically, it’s far more likely that Brexit will lead to the break up of the United Kingdom.

That an entire government should be in hock to an effectively nihilistic cult is partly to do with the internal history of the modern Conservative Party, the ruthlessness of the ERG, and their parliamentary numbers which are enough to pose a threat even when the government has a large majority. But it requires that those who are far from membership of the cult – and, still, there are plenty of Tory MPs in that category – for one reason or another go along with it. At the present moment, that means buying into the narrative that all that is happening is a tough negotiating stance which will yield an eleventh hour ‘blink’ from the EU and, for this reason, no transition extension should be sought.

Beyond that, it requires a much larger number of people within the electorate to accept the situation – either being themselves cultists, or buying in to the strategy as described or, and here the numbers are probably very large, thinking that it is all a lot of noise and that in the end ‘they’ (whoever that might be) will ‘sort things out’. There is much danger in that. It rests upon the complacent assumption that ‘things are bound to go on much as always’. Yet few realise the complex web of systems and regulations that create what they take for granted, and they may very well not forgive the ‘disruptors’ for ripping those systems up.

The idea floating around that any damage from there being no trade deal will be ascribed to the wider coronavirus crisis is unlikely to be correct when specific consequences – food shortages being the most obvious, but Bloomberg have compiled an extensive and alarming list – kick in overnight, making causation very obvious. If anything, coming on top of all the pain of coronavirus, public tolerance is likely to be less forthcoming, and much of the disruption will occur even with a trade deal.

So far, with the exception of the immediate sharp fall in sterling after the Referendum, Brexiters have been able to provide alibis for the damaging effects of Brexit (what one might call the ‘diesel decoy’). I’m not sure that will be so as people begin to experience what Tom Hayes calls ‘the Brexit of small things’, the things that affect their daily lives. On the other hand, that currency collapse of 2016, which would in any other context have led to a political crisis, was almost shrugged off - so who knows?

The road to pariahdom

But even if the government ride out the domestic economic and political consequences of no deal, the damage to Britain’s international reputation will be substantial. That will matter in relation to the EU and also in relation to other countries, who will see Britain as untrustworthy and irrational but also as desperate to do trade deals on any terms it is given.

For example, it’s already the case that Japan regards Brexit as a betrayal of the trust upon which basis its companies invested so heavily in the UK, and already the case that it is set to make tough demands in trade talks, which have just begun. Their outcome, says Michito Tsuruoka of Keio University writing in the Japan Times, is crucially bound up with the progress and outcome of the UK-EU talks. Indeed, he says, “no country wants to conclude a definitive trade deal with the UK without knowing the final shape of the EU-UK partnership”.

More generally, writing about the ‘original’ no deal scenario, Dr Nicholas Westcott of SOAS argued starkly that it would be “a heavy international defeat for Britain … we would have proven unable to negotiate – with our nearest friends – a deal that protected our economic interests. And the world will see this. They – the US, China, India, Russia, the Gulf States, African and Latin American countries, Spain, Mauritius, Argentina - all will say to themselves that Britain is now weak, it needs our support, and we can ask for whatever we want”. In short, no deal with the EU has a much wider import: it, or any other outcome of the negotiations, will directly impact upon the UK’s global standing and upon global relationships as well as those with our nearest neighbours.

And the thing about no deal is that that won’t be an end to the matter. That’s not simply because – as Tom Hayes, again, points out and as I did , in a different way, last week – all the unresolved issues will still be in need of resolution. It’s also because of the implications of the analysis of the ERG, above. For if it is correct that whatever they get they always want more, then what ‘more’ would they ask for having achieved the no trade deal scenario that many of them advocate?

The answer to that is already clear, even before it has happened, in what is already being said about the defects in the WA. That claim will intensify, because the Ultras have never accepted the idea of a financial settlement being made in the absence of a trade deal, and have always argued that any such settlement should be contingent upon a trade deal. Indeed Johnson, during his leadership campaign, threatened just that, whether in order to pander them or from conviction hardly matters.

So if there is no trade deal come next January they will unquestionably try to force the government to break the WA by reneging on the financial settlement and, very likely, as the signs are already there, the Northern Ireland Protocol, with all that will mean for relations with both Ireland and the US, though probably not, I think and hope, the Citizens’ Rights agreement. We will then be well beyond the current damage to trust and reputation, and headed down the road to pariahdom. We’re not quite on that road yet, but we’ve had glimpses recently of the signposts to it and if, as seems increasingly likely, there is no deal it’s the one the Ultras will be urging us down.

If so, it’s worth recalling that they haven’t, so far, failed to get their own way.



*Actually, on social media at least, it is more common to see Brexiters claim that the EU has reneged not so much on the PD but on the Barnier staircase. On this account, that staircase promised a Canada deal, denoted by the Canadian flag. However, apart from the ludicrousness of regarding a signed agreement as non-binding but a PowerPoint slide as a promise, and as a promise of a deal on the same terms as Canada (when more stringent LPF conditions had been set in more formal documents), it is a misreading of that slide. What actually appears are the Canadian and South Korean flags – an indication of the general category of such a deal (FTA) and also of the fact that within that category there are different variants: not all FTAs are the same.