Friday, 16 April 2021

We are still Brexiting

We have now passed the 100-day point since ‘economic Brexit’ – the end of the transition - and to mark it Yorkshire Bylines put together an excellent series of briefings from regular and guest contributors (disclosure: I am one of them). Taken together these provide as good a summary as there is of what has happened during this period.

It may seem as if not much is happening, but that’s far from true. As regards this week, specifically, a few developments stand out. One is the release of February’s trade figures which, as expected, show some bounce back after January’s precipitate decline, but as before it is still too early to see what the eventual structural changes will settle to, especially as regards services trade. Plus the UK has yet to introduce import controls.

So it is certainly far too early to proclaim, as some of the usual suspects have, that the hit to the UK economy has been “completely trivial”. The best analysis I’ve seen of the economic cost of Brexit, updated to include these new figures, comes from John Springford of the Centre for European Reform (which, in fact, shows that, even were there to be no more damage, just what has happened since 2016 is far from ‘trivial’).

The other, more political, story is in reports of progress and a more positive atmosphere (£) in talks between the UK and the EU over implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol against the background of the violence in the province. Yet there is a need for caution, as Mujtaba Rahman suggests, because a durable political solution seems as far off as ever (if, indeed, such is possible). Whatever may happen in the next few days – a ‘stock taking’ meeting between Joint Committee co-chairs David Frost and Maros Sefcovic was held yesterday evening, and Sefcovic is briefing EU Ambassadors this morning, so there may be a statement soon – the issue, as with the economic effects, is to recognize that not too much weight can be put on individual ‘data points’. The implementation of the NIP is not suddenly going to be resolved in a single moment, but will be, at best, an ongoing process that goes in fits and starts.

A multi-threaded process

So just as the structural impact on trade will emerge over time, partly as a result of decisions about supply chains that companies take in the coming months and years, so too will the politics of the UK-EU relationship go in fits and starts. Moreover, the process will be multi-threaded, with the threads not necessarily aligned. Thus even if there is currently some rapprochement over the NIP, we also saw this week reports that the EU will not agree to the UK re-joining the Lugano Convention (£). This, which allows the civil and commercial judgements made in one member’s courts to be enforced in the countries of the other members, is one of the many byways within the Brexit saga. As I discussed in May 2020, when the UK made its application to rejoin, it was questionable whether the EU would agree, and it now seems that it won’t.

My point, then, was that it showed the limitations to the Brexit government’s idea of sovereignty, because like it or not the UK, like every other country, is partly dependent on the decisions of others. Now, it also shows the limitations of the government’s ‘hardball’ approach to post-Brexit negotiations, because it invites the same response from the EU. I am not saying that there is a direct link between the UK’s decision to flout the NIP as regards grace period extensions – still the subject of legal action, which the government this week requested it be given more time to respond to – and the EU’s stance on Lugano membership. But it doesn’t seem outlandish to think that squandering trust and goodwill over one issue has some impact on other issues.

All of this serves to illustrate that the entirety of Brexit is, as it was always going to be, an ongoing process even after the exit and future terms deals were struck. Indeed, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) has still to be ratified by the European Parliament, and setting a date to do so has been held up by concerns over the UK’s violation of the NIP, although votes in some important committees this week suggest that approval may be in prospect. Moreover, the complex architecture of technical sub-committees established by the TCA have still not actually been convened, primarily because the UK government’s pique about the delayed ratification – a classic example of cutting off the nose to spite the face, since it would greatly help UK businesses were they to meet.

Then there all the things which, like Lugano, lie outside of the TCA. These include the still unresolved matters of recognition of financial services regulation and data protection equivalence. The latter now looks to be getting close to being granted but if so then, like anything granted on financial services, it will always be possible for the EU to unilaterally withdraw recognition. In short, we are still Brexiting.

Laying the blame

As noted in my previous post, there’s nothing in opinion polls to suggest a widespread consensus that Brexit was a mistake. If anything, according to pollster Peter Kellner, there has been a slight rise in support for it, probably attributable to perceptions of the vaccine rollout. But commentators leaping to conclude that Brexit has now been accepted as a positive thing (£) are, again, putting too much weight on current data and on small shifts within it. Such judgments are premature, and will be for quite some time.

The reality is that, with small variations, public opinion about Brexit remains more or less evenly split. Yet in a way this is a sign of its failure. After all, Brexit wasn’t supposed by its advocates to create a permanently divided nation. It was supposed to be an incontestably ‘good thing’. Instead, just a few months into actual Brexit, what is striking is how few are standing up to claim credit for it. The more prominent discussion is of the question: who is to blame for this mess?

It is a discussion which entails a certain amount of re-writing of history. This week, the Labour MP Barry Sheerman correctly made the point that Boris Johnson had been repeatedly warned of the dangers Brexit posed for the Northern Ireland peace process. In response, Gavin Barwell, who became Theresa May’s Chief of Staff after the 2017 election, asked Sheerman how many times he had voted “against a Brexit deal which would have avoided these problems, ultimately leading to Theresa May standing down and Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister”. The week before, the Mail on Sunday columnist Dan Hodges made a similar argument, though referencing remainers in general rather than Labour MPs as having responsibility for what is now happening because of having failed to back May’s deal.

A trip to the archives

I anticipate this kind of account gaining considerable traction – in fact it has been swirling around for well over a year already - so it is worth examining in some detail, not least as Barwell was a serious player and, by all accounts, an honourable politician. There are actually two different claims within it. One is that May’s deal could have been passed had Labour (and other opposition) MPs supported it. This has to be about MPs, not ‘remainers’ in some general sense, as only MPs had a chance to vote on it. The second claim is that, had May’s deal passed, the present problems in Northern Ireland would not be happening.

I’ve written before of the perils of such counterfactual history, and back in August 2020 also gave a preview of the ‘blame games’ that would emerge if there were no (trade) deal, many of which are now on display in this different context. So I won’t repeat all that, but focus only on the claims Barwell makes, neither of which stacks up.

Barwell claim #1

On the first claim, the first thing to say is that May made no attempt to garner opposition support for her deal, even though the original ‘meaningful vote’ planned for December 2018 was postponed because it was clear she would lose it. Only after it was held and lost in January 2019 did she belatedly ‘reach out’ to opposition parties but excluded Labour until after losing the third meaningful vote. Moreover, she continually insisted that the only alternatives to her deal were ‘no deal’ or ‘no Brexit’ and thereby – even if unwittingly – encouraged all those who wanted either of those outcomes to oppose it.

More importantly, if her deal had passed in the face of bitter opposition from the ERG and the DUP but with Labour support, it is inconceivable that her government would have survived even long enough to sign the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) with the EU. There would certainly have been a parliamentary Vote of No Confidence, which all opposition parties would have been bound to vote for and, unlike the one which actually occurred in January 2019 (after the first meaningful vote), the ERG and DUP would surely have joined them. That is evident from their “furious” reaction to the talks she did have with Labour. What exactly would have happened then is unclear – presumably a general election with the Tories under a caretaker leader, and whoever that was they could hardly fight on a platform of May’s deal, given how few Tory MPs supported it.

But even if the inconceivable is conceived, and May’s government survived to sign the WA with the EU, what would this have meant for Brexit in general and for Northern Ireland in particular? May’s premiership itself could not have lasted much longer than the WA, if only for lack of DUP support and, anyway, she offered her resignation in return for backing her deal at the time of the third meaningful vote in March 2019. So there would have been a Tory leadership contest, presumably leading to Johnson coming to power, and very likely a general election at that point. If that also yielded a Johnson victory (or if there had been no election but he’d regained DUP support to continue without one) then there would certainly have been an attempt to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement which he and the ERG would undoubtedly be calling a ‘surrender document’. And, even if that attempt failed, such an administration would (as the actual one did) seek a very distant relationship with the EU.

Barwell claim #2

So, then, Northern Ireland. If May’s WA had been struck and survived, it would still have been regarded by unionists as unacceptable – as the DUP’s implacable opposition to it showed - because there would still have been some degree of differential treatment of Northern Ireland. How much would depend on the future terms agreement not the WA. Barwell suggests that it would have been minimal, or non-existent, because May had promised regulatory alignment. But that promise had no guarantees, and it is impossible to see how May (even if she had continued) could have delivered that in the face of ERG opposition, unless Barwell seriously envisages Labour propping her up for months whilst she negotiated her trade deal, and supporting all the related domestic legislation. In any case, since she couldn’t have survived, the future terms would have been agreed by Johnson, and there would have been no regulatory alignment.

In short, under any realistic assumptions, there is no way that May’s deal (and, even more, anything, such as Common Market 2.0, that might have been agreed to in the Indicative Votes) could have been delivered by the government given the ferocious opposition to it from the ERG and the DUP. And, even if it had, the unionist opposition means it wouldn’t have prevented what is now happening in Northern Ireland. That could only have been averted by enacting it in a form that retained single market and customs union membership, which Brexiters – including the DUP – rejected as did May, from the Lancaster House speech of January 2017 up to and including the Political Declaration which suggested that the future terms deal would exclude freedom of movement of people and would provide for an independent trade policy. So the blame lies squarely with the Brexit Ultras, with May and, of course, with Johnson.

This isn’t ancient history – it’s live politics

This is history, in a way, but that matters because, in George Orwell’s famous line, ‘who controls the past controls the future’. In any case, it is hardly ancient history. It may seem a life time ago – both because of all the Brexit developments since, and of course the pandemic – but it is only a shade over two years ago that the meaningful votes were held. That really is no time at all. And, perhaps more to the point, the reason it is being dredged up again now is because people have political reputations to protect and agendas to pursue, and assigning and diverting blame is crucial to that.

Indeed, just as Barwell contends that the current situation derives from May’s deal having been thwarted, it is now a foundational myth of Brexiter belief that all that is going wrong with Brexit is down to Theresa May having ‘given in’ to the EU’s ‘unreasonable demands’ (as, for example, in historian Ruth Dudley Edwards’ absurd Telegraph piece this week, the more absurd since, like so many now lambasting the sea border, she advocated Johnson’s deal which created it). In doing so they absolve themselves of responsibility, whilst also ignoring that the problems May’s approach created were due to her misguided embrace of the hard Brexit they advocated. In that, they are actually helped by Barwell’s misguided characterization of May’s approach as being a substantive repudiation of hard Brexit since, to them, therein lies her sin.

So what is underway isn’t the ‘post-match inquest’. Because we are ‘still Brexiting’, it is about the live, ongoing politics of how the UK-EU relationship should be conducted and how it should develop. Specifically, the extent to which the impact of the Irish Sea border can be minimized is still a question of UK willingness to align regulations with the EU, especially sanitary and phyto-sanitary regulation. Even such an alignment won’t fully resolve matters, because the unionist objections are more based upon the symbolic politics of the border than the technical details (which is why, in those symbolic terms, May’s deal was almost as objectionable to the DUP as Johnson’s). Still, the technical details do affect the practicalities of supply disruption and that’s not unimportant.

The shape of future UK-EU relations

More generally, the question of a closer or more distant relationship with the EU continues, and will continue. It inevitably did not end with the TCA because of the brute facts of geography and economy. Thus Brexiter accounts of May having ‘given in’ are potent primarily because they give licence to their present attempts to make the relationship with the EU antagonistic and more distant. That is allied with attempts to obscure the damage that Brexit is doing, one part of which is to suggest that if there is any such damage it is down to Brexit not having been done properly because of May’s supposed weakness.

The latter is significant, because one of the crucial fault lines in public opinion now and in the coming period is between those who think that Brexit was intrinsically flawed and those who think it was only flawed in its delivery. As Kellner points out, there is a large constituency of voters whose views about Brexit are not very strongly held and who are liable to change their minds quite easily. Where (and whether) the opinion of this group eventually settles will have an important effect on where the politics of post-Brexit relations lands. However, this terrain is a tricky one for Brexiters because it pushes them in contradictory directions. On the one hand, to defend Brexit they need to downplay or deny the adverse consequences. On the other hand, to critique the way Brexit was done they need to focus on those consequences.

In this context, an important development this week was the formation and first session of the UK Trade and Business Commission, a cross-party group of MPs, business leaders and economists. Its focus will be the trading relations between the UK and the EU, and UK trade deals with other countries. It is noteworthy because almost all parliamentary scrutiny of the ongoing realities of Brexit has been closed down, including the Select Committee on exiting the EU that was chaired by Hilary Benn, who co-chairs this new commission. It is not an official or parliamentary body, and so has the potential to do the same kind of job for the trade and business aspects of Brexit that Independent Sage has done in providing informed, evidence-based data and discussion in relation to coronavirus.

This initiative has already received quite a bit of media coverage, and that is important because it is remarkable how little attention Brexit is now receiving. For example, the fact that the UK has requested extra time to respond to allegations that it has broken international law – hardly, one would have thought, a minor matter – is barely mentioned in the UK media. Where there is high-profile coverage, it eschews mundane but important issues like, say, the fact that the TCA committees haven’t met, in favour of, for example, James Dyson’s airy fatuities about Brexit giving Britain an ‘independence of spirit’.

The politics of ‘don’t know’

Overall, then, the guiding thread in all this is that we are in an unsettled situation across a number of dimensions which makes it too difficult, and too early, to identify a direction of travel. That uncertainty relates to the economics of Brexit, the politics of the UK-EU post-Brexit relationship, the security situation in Northern Ireland, the question of Scottish independence, and, out of all that, the formation of public opinion. Going back again to Kellner’s analysis, this will have big implications for domestic politics: “if Johnson, leading a more-or-less unified party on this issue, can persuade voters that Brexit is going well, he will be hard to defeat at the next election. Wherever Labour ends up, its first task is to undermine that Panglossian sentiment. A bold and compelling alternative to the current version of Brexit would help.”

That echoes my own recent argument that Labour needs to offer a different narrative on Brexit, and now is the time because a ‘common sense’ public opinion about whether Brexit was a success or a failure could coalesce quite quickly. That won’t be based upon arcane details of sanitary and phyto-sanitary regulatory alignment or membership of the Lugano Convention, but formed by big, broad brushstrokes of perception.

There is, however, another and perhaps more plausible scenario. One, quite sensible, reading of the referendum result would have been that the answer the public, considered as a single entity, gave to the question posed was ‘we don’t know’. The biggest scandal of Brexit is that this was then taken as an endorsement for almost the hardest form of Brexit imaginable. But what if, with that having been enacted, the settled view of ‘common sense’ public opinion remains ‘we don’t know’?

If that is how things shake out, then we are in real trouble: doomed to unending domestic division, whilst still, despite everything, having failed to create a stable and sustainable form for our country’s relationship with its continent.

Friday, 9 April 2021

The ir/responsibility of Brexiters

The loud disputes between the UK and the EU of just a few weeks ago over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) have quietened and there has still been no public response from the EU to the UK’s new roadmap for its implementation (though there are rumours of “disappointment”[£]). Nor, so far as I know, has there been any public indication of what its contents are.

As per my post last week, I think this is only a lull: the Brexit government’s aversion to the Protocol is now very deep-rooted. That is the Protocol which is part of the Withdrawal Agreement it negotiated, claimed as a triumph, campaigned on in the 2019 election, and signed with the EU only a little over a year ago. It is also the Protocol which has as its core provision a permanent sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a fact mendaciously denied by government ministers, up to and including Boris Johnson.

This provision in turn arises from Brexit, or more accurately from hard Brexit. The facts here are so basic and so simple that they should not require repeating, but as events unfold there is perhaps a danger of them being forgotten. Hard Brexit did not flow automatically from the 2016 Referendum but was the interpretation chosen by successive British governments. It meant choosing to leave the single market and customs union, the institutions that prevent economic borders between their members. That meant choosing to create the need for an economic border with the EU and, as regards Northern Ireland, there is no politically acceptable place to put that border. Neither Brexit nor hard Brexit were the choices of the EU, they were not the choices of Ireland, and they were not the choices of the people of Northern Ireland.

Violence in Northern Ireland

Thus on the ground in Northern Ireland things have been anything but quiet, and the deteriorating security situation there, with the worst rioting “for years”, is becoming a matter of serious concern. Considerable care is needed in commenting on this from a Brexit point of view, especially when that comment comes from someone, such as me, who does not live in Northern Ireland and can claim no expertise in its complex politics.

Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear from numerous reports that Brexit, or more particularly the NIP, is a significant factor in the renewed violence from some members of the loyalist or unionist community, even though it is not the only one. Moreover, it has been stated on good authority that there is a paramilitary involvement in the latest violence – and although that is disputed, it is a fact that over a month ago loyalist paramilitary groups announced they had withdrawn support for the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement because of the Brexit deal. Perhaps worst of all, there are signs of a new generation, that had grown up with peace, now being drawn in, and there are also credible reports (£) of plans for an ongoing campaign of ‘civil disobedience’.

It is two months since I wrote on this blog that “what is now becoming ever-clearer is that Brexit threw a huge rock into the high delicate and fragile machinery of the Northern Ireland peace process, a machinery of complex checks and balances which had as an implicit condition the fact that both Ireland and the UK were within the EU”. As Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry puts it, “Brexit has cracked Northern Ireland even though its constitutional status hasn’t changed”.  

The directions that will take are highly unpredictable, and there can be no pleasure whatsoever taken from saying ‘I told you so’. Equally, it cannot be pretended that what is happening in Northern Ireland has come out of a clear blue sky - as one might think from some of the news headlines.

No contrition from Brexiters

So it would be fitting for some of the high-profile advocates of hard Brexit – perhaps especially those who are also Irish unionists – to take some responsibility for having, at the very least, misunderstood its consequences for Northern Ireland (£). It is no good simply blaming it all on Johnson’s deal, for whilst that is the cause of the specific form that these consequences are taking, the fact that there would be consequences is squarely down to the hard Brexit that so many, including but not limited to Johnson, championed.

Where Johnson can be most heavily criticized - as Naomi Long, the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland, implied, and former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain said in terms yesterday - is for not being “straight” about what his Brexit agreement meant. That, of course, grows directly from Johnson’s wider, pathological, dishonesty as devastatingly chronicled by the journalist Peter Oborne.

It is all but unthinkable that Johnson will acknowledge his responsibility, and there are no signs of contrition amongst the Brexit Ultras more generally. On the contrary, where they are not silent, at least some are doubling down on the same misrepresentations that have caused this situation. Thus the increasingly peculiar former Brexit MEP Ben Habib insists that the problems were caused by the EU and Ireland “weaponizing” the border issue, with the British government at fault for giving in by agreeing to the Irish Sea border (he doesn’t find it necessary to mention that he voted for this agreement when he was an MEP).

For an alternative, he falls back on the stock Brexiter misunderstanding (to put it charitably) that the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement does not prohibit a land border and that this is what should be created.  It’s as if all the endless debates and explanations of the entire issue over the last five years had never occurred. Worse, Habib even regresses to the pre-referendum nonsense spouted by Johnson and others that, somehow, the solution lies in the Common Travel Area (it doesn’t because that relates to the movement of people, not goods and livestock), or that customs formalities could simply be waived - in others words, denying the basic fact of the economic border that hard Brexit requires.

In a similar vein, Brendan O’Neill, the would-be contrarian editor of Spiked, predictably argues that “it was the failure to implement Brexit properly, not Brexit itself” which created the problems for Northern Ireland, and that, inevitably, is down to the – yes, same language, as if they all take dictation from the same Brexity algorithm - “weaponizing” of the border issue by the EU etc. What Habib and O’Neill also share is a strange inconsistency in which the Sea border is a terrible outrage and yet a land border would have been “a practical challenge that could have been straightforwardly resolved” (O’Neill) involving merely “filling in a few forms and submitting the odd lorry load of goods to inspections” (Habib). More fundamentally what they share, needless to say, is a complete failure to accept that they have any responsibility whatsoever for Brexit or any of its consequences.

Choices have consequences

The decision to enact Brexit as hard Brexit is also the main reason for the myriad of emerging economic consequences. It is difficult to keep up with the daily reports of the damage that Brexit is doing. As I wrote in my previous post, these are ‘micro-damages’ taken as separate stories, but in aggregate they suggest an alarming degradation of businesses and livelihoods. This week’s crop ranges from delays, barriers and charges faced by independent garages getting parts, small-scale antiques dealers, and chocolate makers. As ever, the burgeoning 'Kelemen Archive' is an invaluable record of the astonishing scale of the damage. One potentially important development this week is that the Labour Party has (£), really for the first time, pushed the government hard on the economic effects of the trade deal. It remains to be seen if this is the start of a sustained strategy or a passing moment.

There is also still an ongoing stream of news stories about the post-Brexit problems facing British immigrants in EU countries. It’s important to make two distinctions here, both of which appear to elude the Brexiters and, for that matter, much of the media. Firstly, what is at stake is not how ‘the EU’ is treating these people, because each individual member state (being, Brexiter ideology notwithstanding, sovereign nations) has its own rules and procedures. Secondly, there’s a difference between those problems caused by member states not understanding or applying the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement (£) and those which are simply entailed by Brexit itself, or, once again, at least by Brexit in the hard form chosen by the British government.

That issue of choice is central, and yet still evaded by Brexiters. A recent symposium with Michel Barnier was illuminating in his stress upon the point that he also often made during the negotiations: that choices have consequences. It seems so obvious as to hardly need saying, but even now, and perhaps especially now, it does. For in relation to Britons’ freedom of movement in the EU, former Brexit Party MEP Lance Forman is still perplexed that they should no longer have these rights, as if that were somehow not entailed by the policies his party had advocated and the agreements which he, like Habib, voted for when he was an MEP.

Contorted logic

Of course this can be dismissed as just the problem of a sightly dim ex-politician, but its roots go much deeper, and explain a lot of the mess the Brexiters have created. Part of that is to do with the strange phenomenon, which I’ve discussed many times on this blog, of the way that many Brexiters seemed to think that whilst leaving the EU was a matter of vital necessity nothing much would really change as a result. But it is also to do with the weird arguments that they constructed around that; especially weird in relation to British ‘expats’ in the EU given the centrality many Brexiters placed on ending freedom of movement of people as the rationale for Brexit.

In the latter case, those arguments took two forms. One was that British people had moved to continental Europe to work, study or retire long before joining the EU, so Brexit was irrelevant. That was fatuous because it ignored the way that doing so was far more difficult before membership, and far easier afterwards. But it was doubly fatuous because it posited that freedom of movement rights had made no difference for British people’s free movement whilst arguing that they had made it far too easy for those from the EU-27 (as was).

The other, still on display in the present news stories, was that British immigrants in the EU were beneficial to the EU (spending money, paying taxes) whilst those from the EU were a drain on the UK. That was nonsense in itself as regards EU nationals in the UK, but was also a version of the ‘German car makers’ argument that ‘they need us more than we need them’. Both versions were at best economically illiterate and at worst insufferably arrogant, and both have now been comprehensively discredited. Yet they live on.

Will Brexiters take responsibility for what they have done?

When Article 50 was triggered, I wrote that from then on Brexiters would be responsible for whatever happened (the same argument was more eloquently made by Jay Elwes in Prospect). Four years on, it is clear that, on any objective criteria, there isn’t a single claim they made for Brexit that has come true. Economically, that has been obscured by the pandemic to a degree. The vaccine rollout has also given a temporary alibi and, notably, is about the only claim for the benefits of Brexit they make any more. But it didn’t require Brexit and, very likely, within a few months’ time the difference between the UK and EU record will have disappeared and become irrelevant.

As Mujtaba Rahman, the respected and influential Eurasia Group analyst puts it, “looking in rear view mirror, a lot of the drama [over UK/EU vaccine performance] of the last few weeks will look v[ery] silly indeed”. Already the Brexiter thunder over the treatment of the AZ vaccine in some EU countries (inevitably they ignored that of non-EU countries) looks even sillier in the light of emerging changes in the UK’s approach. As I have been arguing for weeks, viewing the vaccines issue through the lens of Brexit, or vice versa, was always nonsense.

Even so, the vaccine rollout will certainly be cited by Brexiters for years as a justification but – based on the inordinate amount of time I spend lurking on pro-Brexit sites, in an attempt to understand their views - I have the sense that it is already a rather half-hearted one, knowingly grabbing at straws. The far more dominant mood amongst the Brexit hard core is that their dream has been betrayed and, in a now recurrent phrase, that ‘this is not what I voted for’.

However, that certainly doesn’t mean that there is likely to be some great moment of realization that Brexit is a mistake, in the way imagined by, for example, William Keegan of The Observer. For the hard core, the keyword is indeed, as it was always going to be, ‘betrayal’: they still see no flaw in Brexit, only in how it was done, which they attribute to politicians in general (Theresa May especially and Boris Johnson partly), to the ‘remainer Establishment’, and to the EU. Indeed if there were one single thread running through Brexit it would be that Brexiters never, ever accept responsibility for their choices and the consequences of those choices. It is always someone else’s fault.

Will Brexiters be held responsible for what they have done?

That may be different for those outside the hard core of leave voters, but it’s the last and most enduring of the remainer illusions to think that there will be a sudden shift in which the country comes to its senses. Nor is there likely to be a moment of justice in which the guilty are arraigned or shamed.

More likely, though even this is by no means certain, there will just be a long, slow process – akin to what happened with other once-bitter polarizations such as those over Munich or Suez – through which Brexit becomes widely understood, more though an osmotic process than as a result of particular events or arguments, as a humiliating failure.

For the time being, at least, opinion polls suggest that that has yet to happen and that, excluding ‘don’t knows’, the leave-remain split is … 52% to 48% (page 9 of download). Of course strictly speaking asking how people would vote in a new leave-remain referendum makes no sense now that Brexit has happened but another poll shows a 46% to 43% split on the question of whether in hindsight it was right or wrong to leave the EU. There’s very likely some temporary ‘vaccine’ effect in these figures, but despite the self-evident failure of Brexit to deliver its promises, and the clear damage it is doing, support for it has proved remarkably durable. It’s a fact that has to be faced.

I think that, in turn, this means that there may never be a reckoning, in the sense of a holding to account of Brexiters for what they have done. Notably, there hasn’t been a single leading Brexit campaigner who has recanted. It’s possible to imagine some of them doing so in political memoirs decades hence, though I suspect most will go their graves unrepentant and blaming others. And perhaps, even probably, history books will treat Johnson much as they have Chamberlain or Eden, and with better cause, but that will be too late to matter much.

It's not fair, but then we learn in the nursery that life isn’t fair. Most of us also learn that our choices have consequences, and that we should take responsibility for them. It is a lesson for which the Brexit leaders were apparently absent.

Friday, 2 April 2021

A Brexit reset?

The ‘big picture’ of the economic consequences of Brexit continues to get filled out, as discussed in an excellent panel event hosted by the UK in a Changing Europe think tank this week. But behind that unfolding disaster lie a whole host of ‘micro-damages’ (although for those involved they may be anything but trivial). In some cases they are linked directly to the new trade barriers, as in the collection of individual stories in Daniel Thomas and Peter Foster’s recent Financial Times article (£) telling of presents undelivered and swingeing payments for handling charges and duties. But the authors make the important point that these are not just ‘economic’ stories – indeed the financial aspects are in some cases trivial – but about familial and cultural ties which have been strained or broken by Brexit.

So even when reported as ‘business stories’ it is important to recognize that there is a human dimension to them. Small firms have been especially hard hit, with a survey for the Federation of Small Businesses this week showing that over a quarter of small exporters to the EU have temporarily or permanently ceased selling their goods there. Others have relocated. Such firms, whilst certainly being commercial enterprises, are very often the labour of love of individuals or families, so it is not surprising that, in the words of one such business owner, “it’s really emotional seeing your business crumble around you”.

It’s a reminder that whilst Brexit is in some ways old and stale news, it is actually only in the last three months that many of the concrete effects have been felt, and these are throwing up all sorts of consequences of varying degrees of predictability in part according to how well-informed people were. These range from a spate of recent stories about unregistered British ‘expats’ in Spain having to return to the UK to the problems obtaining driving licences faced by those living in France. Meanwhile British gardeners are suffering an acute shortage of plants and equipment, in large part because of Brexit. Charities are warning that thousands of, by definition vulnerable, EU children in the British care system risk becoming undocumented adults. A House of Lords Committee has identified the problems of lack of access to EU policing data. And so the list goes on … and on … and on (an excellent new source of information is Professor Gerhard Schnyder’s weekly Brexit Impact Tracker).

These effects vary from the mildly inconvenient to the potentially life-shattering, and from the immediate and possibly temporary through to those which are permanent or are lurking dormant for now. Of course it is highly unlikely that many people will link such disparate things together as being about Brexit, or even to necessarily recognize them as being to do with Brexit at all. Most will only be affected by a minority of the consequences, and those that affect them will not all happen at the same time. Nevertheless, taken in the round, they represent a downgrade, not necessarily dramatic but real, in quality of life as a sole result of the political choices that the UK has made.

The political psychology of remainers

As all this happens, it’s unsurprising to hear remainers say ‘we told you so’ and, for example in the case of reports of leave voters having to give up their Spanish retirements, to jeer or sneer. That may be unedifying or even graceless, but it is psychologically understandable.

I’ve written quite often about Brexiter political psychology but less about that of remainers. Losing the referendum was obviously a fundamentally different experience for remainers than it would have been for leavers, for at least two reasons. One was that a decision to remain would not have required any process of enactment, it would simply have meant the continuation of the status quo. So whilst leavers, and certainly committed Brexiters, would have been hugely disappointed they would not have had to adapt to a new reality, nor would they have had to endure the tortured making of that reality, including the way that, at times in the years that followed, remainers were still able to have the hope that the decision would be reversed.

Another big difference is that there would surely have been no equivalent amongst remainers of the strange phenomenon amongst some Brexiters of disappointment at having won because doing so denied them their victimhood and grievance. In other words, it is very hard to imagine remainers having felt aggrieved had remain won, and it is also difficult, though not impossible, to imagine them having spent the next five years telling leavers to ‘suck it up’ and ‘dry their cry-baby tears’ whereas that is what they – remainers – have been expected to do. It’s also difficult to envisage leavers, had leave lost, facing the prospect of the equivalent of the ‘Festival of Brexit’ that remainers are supposed to get behind.

In the years that have followed the referendum the reactions of remainers have shifted, at least somewhat, as some of the anger and disbelief has perhaps evaporated. If nothing else, they have been forced to shift by the brute fact of Brexit having happened. Strictly speaking, neither leaver nor remainer is a meaningful term any more: we can no longer leave or remain because we have left. But that is the more so for remainers, in that leavers can think that they are now ‘living’ their identity whereas that of remainers is now definitively obsolete.

Yet it is remarkable the extent to which some Brexiters continue to be dissatisfied and to nurture a sense of grievance. That, in combination with the absolute refusal of a single high-profile Brexiter to take any responsibility whatsoever for the damage they have caused – even where they accept that there has been damage – perhaps explains why some remainers are not especially magnanimous when hearing of the travails of leave voters, such as those for whom it has turned out to mean leaving Spain. That might be especially so when, even now, the pro-Brexit press talks of them being “booted out”, as if it were a punishment for, rather than a consequence of, Brexit. Or when it emerges that those now complaining of such consequences had hitherto been crowing about ‘independence’. For all that leavers denounce remainers as ‘bad losers’, the bigger problem is that Brexiters have been such ‘bad winners’.

Reactions to vaccines

It’s against that backdrop that we can also understand the various reactions to the vaccines rows of the last few weeks, which break in numerous directions. For Brexiters, the paradoxical way that, as Fintan O’Toole so eloquently analysed in Heroic Failure, their self-pity combines “a high sense of grievance and a high sense of superiority” (p.3) continues to be on display.

The superiority motif is abundantly evident in, for example, the doltish triumphalism of Iain Duncan Smith’s account (£) of “the EU’s failure” which he contrasts with the re-discovered “national self-confidence” of “a nimble nation, finally at ease with itself”. Of course, a truly ‘self-confident’ nation ‘at ease with itself’ would not have to brag in this way anyway, especially if the EU was really, as Smith believes, “an incompetent organisation full of self-doubt”.  

Yet even within Smith’s windy chauvinism there is still the recurrent grievance trope of the EU “lashing out” and trying to “scapegoat” the UK. Similarly, Nick Timothy – the master strategist behind both Theresa May’s approach to Brexit and the 2017 election – opines that the EU is “dangerous”, “fixated by its own accumulation of power” and “determined to stop Britain making a success of Brexit”. As the eighth characteristic of Umberto Eco’s study of Ur-Fascism has it, “the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak”.

In fact, more objective accounts of the vaccine rows, such as that of RTE’s Tony Connelly, suggest that once there has been a “long and painful inquest” into how the EU handled things “it may well be that member states will need to grant more powers to Brussels as a result”. In other words, the real problem may well be not be that the EU is, as Smith has it, a “Leviathan” or, as Brexiters in general claim, a ‘super-state’, but that it is insufficiently centralized or, to put it another way, that the problems have resided more with individual member states than with the EU. That certainly seems more plausible than the hyperbolic talk of an EU “meltdown” provided by Matthew Lynn in The Spectator.

The reactions of remainers are varied. One, undoubtedly, is a kneejerk reaction to defend the EU at all costs and deny that any errors of leadership or organization have been made. Another, more sensible I would say, is to recognize that there have been such errors (as Connelly’s analysis makes abundantly clear) but also to recognize that they hardly constitute a damning indictment of the very existence of the EU. No political institution is perfect, and just because Brexiters insist that the EU is flawed in every respect it does not mean that remainers have to defend it in every respect. That is a difficult stance to take, though, precisely because of the provocative gloating of the likes of Iain Duncan Smith.

But there is a third remainer reaction, which is from those saying that the vaccines issues have led them to change their minds and to support Brexit (or, at least, that Brexit has enabled the UK to deal better with the pandemic). Of course it may be that we should just take that at face value, but I think that in at least some cases there is another explanation.

There is something emotionally exhausting about maintaining, year after year, an anger and sadness about Brexit and living with a sense of being stuck in a country that has taken a fundamentally wrong direction, when there is now absolutely nothing you can do about it. In those circumstances it can be a relief to find some way to feel reconciled, and that is what the vaccines issues have provided, even if only to the extent of being able to think there was some upside to Brexit. That is entirely understandable, even though my own view (as per previous posts) would be that it tells us little or nothing about Brexit either way, simply that it shouldn’t be viewed through that lens and, outside the UK, tends not to be.

Dialing-down the antagonism?

What is interesting, and somewhat surprising, is that despite the IDS-type reaction there are at least some signs that the government is not milking the vaccines row in the same way. There was a conciliatory joint statement on 24 March about these talks, although, unless I have missed them, there have been no further announcements since then. It also seems significant that it chose not to use David Frost to negotiate an agreement over vaccines with the EU, but rather former Ambassador to the EU Tim Barrow, and certainly was seen as such by EU officials (£).

The big question is whether this betokens a more general dialing-down of antagonism from the UK, and there are also glimmerings of the latter. The tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol do seem to be easing a little. The Ireland/ Northern Ireland Specialised Committee met in what both the UK and EU described as a “constructive atmosphere”, following which a new ‘road map’ for operationalizing the Protocol was delivered by the UK to the EU. The EU is likely to respond next week, but it seems as if it has forestalled the threat of initiating arbitration procedures under the Withdrawal Agreement for breach of good faith which was to have occurred (although the separate legal process about infringement of the Protocol by the unilateral extension of grace periods continues).  

Equally notable is what is not being said – there has been a marked absence of the bellicose language of the last few weeks and both the UK government and media have suddenly gone quite silent about the Protocol. To this can be added very tentative signs of progress on financial services regulation (£) and data protection adequacy.

Thus it’s possible that there is some thawing of relations and this is the impression of some who watch Brexit closely, including the respected political analyst Peter Kellner. That is plausible, in that basic rationality, both economic and diplomatic, would suggest a need to improve the tone and content of UK-EU relations. Such rationality has hardly been evident in Johnson and Frost’s approach to date, but perhaps some limited common sense has belatedly broken out.

Yet, if so, the question in the heading of Kellner’s piece – ‘will Boris Johnson betray hardline Tory MPs?’ - is a telling one. For such a change of approach would represent a decisive break with what Iain Duncan Smith and the other ERG Ultras advocate. Goodness knows that’s long overdue, but I’m not sure that it is likely, if only because it goes against the grain of the dynamics of recent Tory Party history. It would also mean Johnson giving up on the tactical advantages of whipping up his voter base – and the Brexit press – that confrontation with the EU confers.

The spread of Brexit Jacobinism

In fact, I think that many commentators in the media and think tanks miss or underestimate the extent to which the current government is radically different from any that we have seen before, not so much in its policies as in its repudiation of the norms and conventions of politics, including previous expectations of economic competence. Such an approach is not lacking in political rationality, for what Johnson has discovered is that, so far anyway, there is little or no political price to be paid for it.

So analysts keep over-pricing a return to normality, in which established rules of conduct apply, and under-estimating the extent to which Brexit Jacobinism has become dominant, spreading from Brexit to infect the government’s entire approach to politics. That is the thread that runs through everything from the illegal prorogation of parliament to the illegal clauses of the Internal Market Bill to its draconian approach to policing protests, hostility to the legal system (‘activist’ lawyers, judicial review) the civil service and 'woke' universities, excessive use of Executive powers (Henry VIII powers, Statutory Instruments), disdain for the ministerial code, illegal lack of transparency in public procurement with associated accusations of cronyism, resistance to scrutiny and accountability by both the media and parliament, and much more besides. Many of these issues have been problematic in the past, but as Tom de la Mare QC puts it - in relation to the “epidemic” of Statutory Instruments, but it applies more widely - “Brexit is that coca leaf refined into cocaine”.

As regards, specifically, post-Brexit relations with the EU, this means a rejection of the norms of diplomatic conduct with friendly nations. I wrote a few weeks ago about the delusionary approach to these relations that David Frost (and presumably Boris Johnson) appears to believe in, and the Brexit Ultras certainly do. Within this approach, the unilateral extension to the grace periods in the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), for all that it provoked legal action from the EU, will probably have been seen as a success because it also led the EU to push for further talks and to express a willingness to ‘show flexibility’ in the application of the Protocol, which has already had some concrete results.

A feral State

So I think that what is happening in the present, apparently calm, moment is more likely to be that Johnson and Frost are ‘banking’ what they see as the gains of violating the NIP and that in a few weeks’ time they will launch another ‘strike’. Sober voices will warn that this is doing terrible damage to the UK’s international reputation, but that will cut no ice with this Brexit government because it believes, on the contrary, that what the ‘declinist Establishment’ calls ‘damage’ is actually Britain gaining respect by showing its strength.

From that perspective, things like yesterday’s call from the Irish Taoiseach for a “reset” of relations over the NIP to make them more trusting and constructive are likely to be interpreted as a victory for Frost’s negotiating strategy and encourage its repetition rather than, as hoped, its abandonment (as regards the NIP – the fact that he’s not involved in the vaccines talks does suggest that these are being treated differently).

In short, on this analysis, Brexit Britain has become a feral State and there’s no obvious way that that the EU can deal with this. It’s like being confronted by thugs or blackmailers, but with the peculiar twist that they believe themselves to be the aggrieved party. So you can stand up to them and provoke further aggression; or you can try to conciliate them, but they will still keep coming for more.

It would be no surprise if this should continue to be the dynamic, because it is exactly the same as that between the Brexit Ultras and the Tory leadership for the last thirty years. Now they have captured the Tory Party, and hence the government, and are attempting the same thing in relation to the EU. And it is crucial to understand that the most hard core of them do not simply want some easements of the NIP, but are adamantly opposed to it in its entirety, and to the Withdrawal Agreement itself, all of which they see as not being ‘sovereignty compliant’.  

Perhaps I am wrong, and Johnson is about to embark on a more pragmatic and consensual path. It’s not - to put it more charitably than is warranted - as if inconsistency is entirely alien to his nature, either political or personal, if he can see some advantage in it. But as he glances over his shoulder and sees the Smiths and Redwoods and Jenkynses and Patersons and all the rest of the gurning fanatics, well, even someone possessed of an altogether more Cromwellian resolve might be forgiven for having second thoughts.

Friday, 26 March 2021

Almost quiet on the Brexit front

This will be a slightly shorter post than usual. That’s partly because this week I’ve been working on the proofs of my forthcoming book, Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to). Yes, that is a shameless plug – it will be published by Biteback in June and can be pre-ordered now.

But, more to the point, it has been a fairly quiet week for Brexit news, perhaps the quietest since the end of the transition. To the extent that much has happened it does not really require new analysis. There were some truly horrific figures produced by the Food and Drink Federation, based on HMRC data, showed a massive collapse in that sector’s exports to the EU. The year-on-year fall between January 2020 and January 2021 was 75.5%. That is not all attributable to Brexit (coronavirus being an obvious factor) but the fact that in the same period exports to non-EU countries dropped by just 11.1% suggests Brexit played a major role.

Exports to the EU of some products fell by colossal amounts, including salmon (98%), beef (92%) and cheese (85%). Former Brexit Party MEP Lance Forman, himself in the fish business, has claimed that the data, at least as regards salmon, are flawed, though offers no verifiable evidence for this. Be that as it may (or not), a House of Lords Committee report on post-Brexit trade in goods published this week identified significant new “structural barriers” to trade, and its parallel report on services trade tells the same story. Both are based on extensive evidence. Despite the attempts of Forman and others to revive it, the ‘Project Fear’ rebuttal is now effectively dead.  

There is no real surprise in this news, certainly not to anyone who has had experience of, or who has read about, what has been happening to export businesses over the last three months, as the posts on this blog have documented. So although it is important to continue to amass evidence of what Brexiters have done to our country there is little new that can be said about it beyond recording it. The ‘Kelemen archive’ continues to do just that (as usual when I refer to this, the link is to the entry at the time of my last blog post, in this case #306, so scroll down the twitter thread to see the most recent damage, and scroll up for the back catalogue).

Changing the post-Brexit narrative

What is more surprising is that there’s still no sign of the Brexiters, or Johnson specifically, paying any political price for the failure of their project. The general public seem largely unaware of, or uninterested in, the impact Brexit is having. That is partly because of coronavirus, obviously. But also perhaps they have already discounted it, or ascribed it to the EU, or decided that it is ‘just one of those things’. It may also reflect a view that Brexit, for good or ill, is in the past. If so, what becomes politically important is the nature of post-Brexit policy.

In a typically pellucid blog post last week, David Allen Green, the eminent law and policy commentator, pointed out – partly responding to my previous post about David Frost – that there exists a political vacuum in which no post-Brexit policy other than that of Frost and Johnson is on offer. Realistically, at least in England, that can only come from the Labour Party – not, of course, that as the opposition it could implement any such policy, but because it is best-placed to provide an alternative to the otherwise unchallenged narrative.

It’s true that some senior Labour politicians, notably the Shadow International Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry, have recently been raising important questions about the TCA and its effects, and Harriet Harman, from the backbenches, has suggested measures to ease restrictions on touring musicians. But Keir Starmer is not leading on it. Bobby McDonagh, the former Irish diplomat, has written a closely argued analysis and critique of Labour’s stance. Amongst his other points is that the longer the silence goes on, the more complicit Labour will become in the Brexit damage.

That complicity already exists by virtue of Labour having voted for the TCA but even so, as I have argued before, there is a ready-made, potent line of attack for Labour in denouncing not Brexit but what Johnson has delivered as a betrayal of Brexit. Obviously the Brexiters would seek to twist that to being an anti-Brexit stance, but all political parties have to accept that their opponents will attack them. If politics was completely bi-partisan it would no longer be politics. At the moment, as Robert Shrimsley argued in a perceptive article this week (£), Starmer’s Labour is fearful of taking a stance over a range of issues which include Brexit or flow from it

The point of critique would be Johnson’s dishonesty and incompetence rather than Brexit itself. But critique would not be enough. Labour also needs to articulate how, given where we are now, it would develop a different approach. That could include concrete ways in which the TCA could be built upon, for example in terms of a mobility chapter to assist service industries, and entering into a sanitary and phyto-sanitary and a veterinary agreement with the EU to assist food and agriculture industries.

More intangibly, Labour could make proposals to improve the tone of relations. These could include diplomatic recognition of the EU Ambassador and a re-commitment to working within, rather than in violation of, the Withdrawal Agreement and NIP. Apart from any short-term tactical advantages, if Labour are serious about forming the next government a significant strategic challenge will be the normalisation of UK-EU relations.

Behind the vaccines smokescreen

As regards those relations, what have of course been in the news extensively this week are the vaccine rows. For reasons I’ve argued before, I think it is bogus to view those rows through the prism of Brexit, an argument made cogently by Ruadhán Mac Cormaic in the Irish Times last weekend. The vaccines issues don’t provide an acid test for Brexit. Nor should EU statements about a possible export ban be read as a commentary on, or reaction to, Brexit, rather than as a reflection of the internal politics of the EU. After all, India’s announcement this week of an export ban (£) will affect the shipment of some 5 million doses to the UK, yet no one is interpreting that as indicative of India’s envy or resentment of the UK.

When not making opportunistic claims about the vaccination programme to justify what they have done, the other Brexiter defence of the extraordinary damage that is being done to trade is to say that it will lead to import substitution, with more goods being produced and sold within the UK. They are right to think that to some extent this will occur, and probably already is, although they are wrong to think that, especially as regards foodstuffs, it can be done without increases in the prices of some goods, shortages of others, and lack of the choice that British consumers have come to take for granted. And whilst surveys have shown that almost a quarter of these consumers say that Brexit has made them more likely to buy British food, that is very price dependent.

The import substitution argument is an ironic one in terms of the idea of ‘Global Britain’, and it is strange to see erstwhile free-market Thatcherites like John Redwood now embracing the long thought obsolete idea of economic autarky. But it derives from one of the longstanding and paradoxical dynamics of Brexit, that between Brexit as a nationalist and protectionist project and as a globalist free market project.

Many leave voters were persuaded on nationalist grounds, most obviously immigration, but the idea of local, British companies having been lost, and decisions about jobs being made in far off boardrooms was lurking in the background and could often be found on social media and vox pops. Theresa May’s 2016 conference speech reference to ‘citizens of nowhere’ was taken as a dig at cosmopolitans and perhaps especially remainers, but read in context it is also clearly to do with the links that she argued should exist between businesses and communities and that Brexit offered the chance of a re-set.

Selling-off control

In that context, the recent report of a massive new round of sell-offs of British firms to overseas owners (£) hardly seems to suggest the ‘taking back control’ that was promised. No doubt Brexiters will spin this as a sign of foreign investors having confidence in Brexit Britain, but the report makes it clear that what is happening is a cut-price sell off which has occurred since the end of the transition period and is due to Brexit (and the pandemic, but the correlation with the end of transition suggests that Brexit is the bigger factor) causing British companies to be under-valued.

Of course it was always nonsense that EU membership was the cause of the UK’s particularly lax approach to foreign ownership of its businesses. That was a choice of successive British governments, going back to the first Thatcher administration in 1979, which followed a very different path to, say, France or Germany. Despite some recently proposed reforms, mainly related to security concerns, this relative laxity continues, and Brexit has created even greater opportunities for global takeovers of British firms. Again this could be fertile territory for Labour, perhaps especially in the red wall seats.

So whilst Brexit, to the extent it is in the news at all at the moment, is being discussed almost solely through the lens of the vaccination roll-out and the possibility of an EU vaccine export ban it’s important not to lose focus on the more fundamental roll-out of Brexit effects. I suspect that within a few months the vaccine issue will have been largely forgotten and, certainly, that it will not in the long-term be the way Brexit is evaluated.

Friday, 19 March 2021

The great Brexit bodge job

It has been a complicated week for Brexit news. If there is a unifying thread that runs through it, it is of the consequences not just of Brexit but of the particular way that Brexit was done becoming clearer. In parallel, there is a concerted attempt by Brexiters to ignore, deny, disown, obscure or distract from these consequences and the decisions they made.

Brexit and trade update

There can be no serious doubt now that Brexit is inflicting significant damage on UK trade with the EU, the only debate is about how great that damage is which won’t be known for a while. Last Friday, just as I was posting, the Office for National Statistics reported a massive fall of 40.7% in UK exports to the EU in January 2021, the first month after the transition period ended, with imports from the EU falling by 28.8% compared with December 2020. Some sectors’ exports have been devastated, most notably food and live animals which fell by 54%.

The ONS report allows some wriggle-room for Brexiters (which they are taking full advantage of) to downplay, if not deny, the extent to which Brexit is the cause, rather than the pandemic. This, of course, was to be expected not least because, even before the pandemic struck, they ascribed any piece of Brexit bad news to some other factor. In effect, they have set up a circular - or more accurately ‘unfalsifiable’ – argument. When the effects of Brexit were predicted they were dismissed as Project Fear because no one could ‘prove’ they would happen. Now the effects are happening they are dismissed as having another cause because no one can ‘prove’ they are down to Brexit. Thus, happily for them, no evaluation of Brexit is deemed possible.

However, detailed analysis by John Springford of the Centre for European Reform, which corrects for pandemic effects, and uses a sophisticated ‘doppelganger’ method to model Brexit against the counterfactual of no Brexit, finds a 22% fall in total goods trade with the EU in January. There is still scope to argue that some of this is explained by anticipatory stockpiling of traded goods and it remains to be seen the extent to which that was a factor, but some supply chain experts suggest it will not have had a major impact. The 22% fall comes on top of a 10% fall in UK-EU goods trade since the 2016 Referendum. These figures all relate to goods trade. The picture for services trade is more difficult to establish yet, and more difficult to separate from pandemic effects, but it is not going to be good (£).

Whatever emerges in the longer-term, there are two particular points that stand out. One is that, given that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) established zero tariffs in UK-EU trade it follows that what we are seeing, and will see, are the effects of non-tariff barriers, including customs formalities, as well as of tariffs due to rules of origin in some cases. This is important, because going right back to the Referendum campaign, Brexiters continually failed to understand the difference between a ‘free trade deal’ and single market and customs union membership and, in tandem with that, focused far too much on tariff barriers to trade and, even within that, ignoring what rules of origin would mean for international supply chains. That was a conceptual failure, and one which is now beginning to be quantified. In turn, this shows the deep flaw in David Frost’s claim, mentioned in my previous post, that economic models over-stated the significance of non-tariff barriers.

The second point of note is that exports have been much harder hit than imports so far. The most obvious reason for that is that the UK has not yet introduced import controls and, indeed, announced last week that their introduction would be delayed by a further six months. That will be welcome news for importers, but creates a quite extraordinary situation, especially when viewed from a Brexiter perspective, since it means that British exporters face controls which EU exporters to the UK are spared, a disparity not lost on farmers, for example. I’m not sure that this was what Brexiters had in mind when they argued that German car makers would ensure that a good deal was assured, but it is certainly a good deal for them. It will also be handy for those minded to offload substandard or dangerous products into Britain’s welcoming arms. Again, I’m not sure if this is what Brexiters meant by taking back control of our borders.

The legacy of stupidity and arrogance

Why has this happened? The answer is in part, again, because Brexiters didn’t understand or accept what leaving the single market, even with a free trade agreement, would mean. Indeed it was not until February 2020 that any government minster formally and publicly admitted that it would mean border controls on imports. Beneath that lies an astonishing mixture of stupidity and arrogance. Even before Article 50 was triggered, Brexiters were agitating against the idea of any transition period to implement the terms of a future trade deal, and both the principle and the length of a transition were the subject of ongoing rows within the Tory Party throughout the Brexit negotiations.

In November 2016 the then Brexit Secretary, David Davis, of whom it is almost no exaggeration to say that every word he ever uttered about Brexit has been wrong, languidly opined (£) that he “wasn’t really interested” in a transition but might consider one to “be kind” to the EU. By July 2017 he said that the practicalities would be ‘doable’ for the UK without transition but countries like France, Belgium and the Netherlands wouldn’t be ready and would need extra time.

In the event, the original Theresa May exit deal set a transition period that was to have lasted from the then planned Brexit day of March 29 2019 until the end of 2020. Even then, she and other ministers insisted that this was an ‘implementation period’, when in fact there would be nothing to implement until a trade deal was struck (this also reflected persistent failures to understand that the trade deal and the exit deal were separate things). That would have given some twenty-one months to negotiate the deal and ‘implement’ it but of course Brexit day didn’t happen until January 31 2020. Yet the original end of transition date was not changed, and Johnson refused to extend the period, when it was possible to do so, even though the pandemic had already started.

Thus, now that it is exposed that the EU was, in fact, ready in time but the UK was not, the government is reduced to prolonging the one-sided introduction of border controls. Doing so is not a violation of any of the agreements with the EU and although, conceivably, it could violate WTO non-discrimination rules with respect to non-EU countries it is highly unlikely that this will lead to any action against the UK. Apart from anything else, these are still temporary measures and it would take far too long for a dispute to be raised – and in any case the WTO dispute settlement process is still in chaos.

The drive to ditch the Northern Ireland Protocol

What is much more serious is violating the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) by unilaterally extending the ‘grace periods’. This led to the EU this week beginning legal action against the UK for breaching the NIP, as well as a political letter complaining of bad faith. In normal times this would be a big news story, and perhaps a scandal. The combination of Covid, Brexit fatigue, and a lack of political opposition and public interest means that, now, it hardly registers - but the damage being done to the UK’s international standing is considerable. That damage is not just to relations with the EU but, potentially, the US.

It has been suggested by one influential Conservative commentator this week (£) that the politics of US involvement might move things in the direction of the EU accepting much softer arrangements for the Irish Sea border than those entailed by the NIP. The rationale for this argument is the claim, long made by unionists but now being adopted by the British government, that the NIP is itself a violation of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement (GFA). Since the Biden administration is committed to upholding that agreement then, the idea goes, it will support the UK against the EU in flexing or even dropping the NIP.

This argument was tested in a speech in the US this week by Dominic Raab, and explains his bizarre claim that the EU is erecting an Irish Sea border (when in fact this is what the UK and the EU agreed). He then sought to present this, or at the very least the way that it is being implemented, as a violation of the GFA. Presumably the same argument is being made by the senior official the UK has sent to Washington. Meanwhile, the EU and Ireland have recently made representations to Biden about the need to uphold the Protocol, with the St Patrick’s Day (virtual) meeting between the US President and the Irish Taoiseach providing a potently symbolic focus.

It is already clear that Biden’s administration is not going to accept the UK’s line. To his existing statements of support for the GFA, this week he went further in articulating his support for the NIP and, by clear implication, for the Irish Sea border which it sets in place. The most obvious issue in all this is, indeed, the fact the UK signed up to the NIP, and Johnson hailed it as a great triumph of his negotiation to have ‘ditched the backstop’ that had been in Theresa May’s deal. The government did so knowing full well what its effects would be, yet from the outset has pretended otherwise. Thus having, like Boris Johnson, denied that it meant an Irish Sea border, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is now engaged in a new pretence, which is being echoed in the wider phalanx of Brexiter ideologues.

This pretence has two prongs. One is to suggest that the whole thing is just a triviality, almost a joke. So Lewis talks lightly of just wanting “the great British banger” to be enjoyed in Northern Ireland, as if checks on processed and chilled meats did not have a serious purpose. Lower down the Brexiter food chain the same dismissive sentiment is found, for example in  suggestions that the EU is prioritizing “the inspection of lettuce before peace in Northern Ireland”.

The other prong, which also relates to the claims about the GFA, is that the NIP was, somehow, provisional and a step towards, as Lewis calls it, a “permanent solution”. Down the food chain that appears in the false claim from Iain Duncan Smith (£) that the Protocol “was originally not intended to be permanent … the Withdrawal Agreement was very clear that the Protocol would be ‘superseded’”. In fact, the Protocol allows for the possibility that it (or parts of it) may be superseded by subsequent agreement, not that it “would be”. That could happen were the UK to align with EU SPS rules, for example, but not simply by ignoring them. (Smith also, wrongly, says that “the EU still hasn’t ratified” the Protocol which is, at best, a misunderstanding: it has, it’s the TCA which hasn’t yet been ratified.)

Whether Biden’s slowly hardening stance will make a difference remains to be seen, but as things stand it is clear that the UK is toying with the idea of not just violating the NIP but of trying to completely revise or even abandon it. That may only be the beginning, if the Brexit Ultras get their way. Already some are agitating (£) for the UK to renege on the financial settlement payments. It is easy to dismiss such calls as coming from fringe and peculiar figures – and few merit that description better than Mark ‘World War Two’ Francois, the culprit in this case – but the Brexit process has showed over and over again that what starts with such figures ends up being government policy.

Global Britain?

The irony that this should be happening even as the government trumpets its commitment to leadership in shaping global rules could hardly be more glaring. This commitment was part of this week’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy which ostensibly sets the strategic direction for Britain’s international role for years to come or, perhaps more candidly, articulates an overblown version of that role to appeal to voters’ nationalism and Johnson’s predilection for boosterish phrase-making. In effect, it reverses the British decision in the 1960s to retreat from ‘East of Suez’. Some argue that there is a logic to that, but political historian Professor Robert Saunders points out that the strategic and financial reasons for the 1960s decision still exist, and to an even greater extent.

This isn’t the place to discuss the review in detail, but from a Brexit perspective three things stand out. One is just that Brexit is what frames it – both because this is what Britain’s post-Brexit place in the world is meant to be and also because of the central emphasis placed on the Brexiters’ buzz word of sovereignty. The second thing is that, whatever its merits or otherwise, there is very little in it which could not have been done without Brexit and much in it that would have been done had Brexit not happened. The third is that it says relatively little about the EU, as opposed to bi-lateral relations with some EU members, as if to suggest that ‘Global Britain’ is above such parochialism.

That was certainly the implication of Johnson’s dismissive reference, when presenting the review to the House of Commons, to “the cramped horizons of a regional foreign policy”. But it makes little sense. On the one hand, the UK’s foreign policy has never been constrained by, or limited to, the EU. On the other, in relation to many of its objectives the review will entail collaboration with the EU, for example over climate change, or would benefit from closer and more harmonious relations with the EU, for example over security. An ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ is all very well if you like that sort of thing – though whether Britain has the money and resources to make it more than tilting at windmills seems questionable – but, as the Brexiters used to say, we are leaving the EU, not leaving Europe. So Johnson’s words might best be interpreted as showing a preference for grand gestures over mundane practicalities (indeed that also characterises his entire approach to politics, including Brexit), as well as an attempt to cock a snook at the EU.

Yet, in fact, the UK’s most pressing foreign policy and security need is to regularise its relations with the EU, not least as this is a prerequisite for improving relations with the US which, as the review affirms, remain the cornerstone of UK policy. Lurking beneath this is the recurring Brexiter idea that defence and security are primarily, or even solely, linked to NATO with the EU a near irrelevance. This is, at best, deeply out-dated, as the recent statement by NATO shows, and in relation to some of the cutting edge issues of cyber-security simply false. It is also hard not to raise an eyebrow at the recognition that Russia is the most acute threat to UK security, given that it is not necessary to posit Russian interference in the 2016 Referendum to recognize that Brexit was a huge gift to Putin.

The ingrained antagonism towards the EU is vividly illustrated by this week’s absurd accusations (in the headlines, even if the stories don’t sustain them) that it is suspending use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as some kind of anti-Brexit statement. Everything about that is nonsense. The EU is not suspending the vaccines use – and the EMA, the EU’s medicines regulator, has and continues to approve its use – but rather some individual states, not all of them even EU members. It may very well be that these suspensions are unnecessary, and it seems that many of them will be lifted very soon, but the idea that national regulators are animated by, or even remotely interested in, Brexit is preposterous. If this story shows anything about the EU it is that its individual members have, and can exercise, sovereignty in the same way as non-members. But, absurd as it is, it has taken root in the fertile soil of post-Brexit bellicosity in which, as per my last post, Brexiters remain obsessed with the EU and assume that the EU and all its members are obsessed with Brexit, so that in the UK the entire vaccine mess is seen through the lens of Brexit.

At first sight these two things - the vaccine rows and the Integrated Review - may seem very different, but they come from the same mentality, which is also evident in relation to trade. At the end of my previous post, I used the metaphor of a stroppy teenager storming out of the family home and it applies here, because that mentality licences both an imagination of the EU as malevolently tyrannical and a fantasy that ‘we don’t need them anyway’. The crucial link is that both responses are supposedly assertions of independence but remain bound by, and defined through, that from which independence is sought. If Global Britain is supposed to be a mature, self-confident, sovereign state exercising international leadership – though that is hardly how post-Brexit Britain appears to the bemused world - then Brexiters need first to lose that adolescent mentality.

Bodged Brexit

As these various post-Brexit realities play out, it’s worth separating out those things which arose inevitably as a consequence of Brexit, or of hard Brexit, such as the introduction of non-tariff barriers, from those which have arisen from the incompetent and dogmatic way in which (hard) Brexit has been undertaken. The timescale and preparedness issues are undoubtedly of the latter sort, as is the relentless antagonism towards the EU. Given that Brexit was, on any account, a major change in national strategy and, on the Brexiters’ account, a vital one, then it was entirely unnecessary to do it with such haste and with such ill-grace. That happened partly because the Brexiters didn’t know what they were doing but, more, because their hatred of the EU and, perhaps, the political calculations of the Conservatives about the threat from Farage led them to do a rushed, botched, bodged job of both the Withdrawal Agreement, including the NIP, and the TCA.

The consequences of that bodge job are becoming more and more evident with every day that passes. But just as their lies, ignorance and incompetence brought us to this situation so do the Brexiters now seek to address it with more lies, ignorance and incompetence. Almost everything that is happening now was warned of. The Brexiters were told over and over again what the consequences would be for trade, for Northern Ireland, for international relations. Every single time they did not just ignore the warnings but ridiculed them, and traduced those who gave them as misguided at best and treacherous at worst.

Now everything that they promised is coming unstitched but there is no contrition, and not even any recognition. Just more lies, and new lies about the lies they told before. No amount of grandstanding about Global Britain can conceal the squalid mess Johnson and his cronies have made back at home.