Friday, 25 June 2021

When a country cancelled half its citizens

Five years have now passed since the Referendum, so for once I’m not going to provide the usual analysis of the week’s developments (perhaps the most important being that it looks as if the EU will agree to extend the grace period for chilled meats going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland). Nor am I going to give a summary what has happened during those years. There have been plenty of those already, including my own in Prospect magazine. Anyway, to do it properly would take at least a book - and for those who are interested I have written just such a book. It is called Brexit Unfolded: How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) and was published by Biteback this week.

Instead, I’m going to focus on an important but remarkably little discussed aspect of the impact Brexit has had since 2016, and one which in the long-run I think may be amongst the most significant. As a point of departure, consider these lines in a speech that David Frost gave last Friday to the Konigswinter conference. There was much in the speech which was deeply questionable, or worse, but the particular lines are these:

“…there is no longer any serious debate on the subject [of Brexit] in Britain. No major political party advocates EU membership, and, while a proportion of the public may still regret Brexit, there is no energy behind a rejoin movement. Overwhelmingly we are now looking forward.”

Of course these are just the passing words of one (unelected) politician. But they come from the man who negotiated both the eventual Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, and who is now in charge of the entirety of the UK’s post-Brexit policy. And I imagine that he expresses something that many pro-Brexit politicians (for Frost is, although wasn’t always, that) believe, or would like to believe. Yet what he said is manifestly untrue, and reveals a quite extraordinary complacency about what Brexit has done to this country.

Frost is right that there is no vibrant movement for the UK to rejoin the EU, though he ignores the way that Brexit has put new energy into the campaign for Scottish independence, with Scotland re-joining the EU a key part of that. He may also be right to imply that even those most opposed to Brexit have recognized the undeniable fact that Britain has left the EU. In that sense, the Brexiters have won. But what has winning entailed?

A nation divided – by design

Brexiters often present leaving the EU as a ‘national liberation’, and some even, quite insanely, compare it to independence from colonialism (insane not least because Britain freely joined and, as Brexit showed, was free to leave). But that has always had two obvious problems. One is that about half the country at the time of the vote, and more for the most of the period since, did not want it and were forced into it. So what sort of ‘liberation’ is that?

The other problem is that, quite as much as the EU, the target of the Brexiters’ ire always was, and still is, those of their compatriots they consider to be ‘the liberal metropolitan elite’ or ‘the establishment’ (categories made so elastic as to be meaningless), in contrast to the “ordinary, decent people” who voted to leave. Even in celebrating the fifth anniversary of “Independence Day”, Nigel Farage framed it in terms of ‘the people rejecting the establishment’, whilst Andrew Bridgen, one of the ERG ‘Spartans’, wrote of defending “the people’s Brexit against establishment sabotage”. Thus ‘owning the libs’ has been as much of a motivation as ‘liberation’ from the EU. The consequence is that it’s not just that the nation is divided over Brexit, but that Brexit, as a project, is deliberately divisive of the nation in treating only its supporters as the ‘people’.

A nation divided – in half

But what does it do to a country when roughly half of its population is turned upon in this way? And what might the particular implications be of doing so when that half is, in general terms, the more educated (57% of graduates voted remain, rising to 64% of those with a higher degree), more youthful (73% of 18-24s voted remain) and more economically-active (52% of those in work voted remain) part of the population? [Source of all figures: Lord Ashcroft Polls, 24 June 2016.]

From the very start, these people’s concerns were ignored or dismissed. They were told to ‘suck it up’, insulted as cry-babies, stereotyped as only interested in their Tuscan holiday homes and cheap Bulgarian nannies, demonised as ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘saboteurs’, and traduced as traitors. Yet, also from the start, there was a huge irony. Precisely because of the educational and social demographic of the vote (e.g. 57% of social classes AB voted remain), it was statistically likely that those who actually had to take responsibility for enacting Brexit were in many cases part of this demonised group. In any case, few Brexiters actually had the technical knowledge to do it: in general, people who understood what Brexit actually involved didn’t support it.

So although some Brexiters like to think of themselves as having initiated a revolution, it was an unusual one in requiring those who did not want it to do the hard work of enacting it. Some amongst the civil service no doubt accepted that as part of their professional duty – whilst all the time being belaboured for supposedly not doing so – or even actively embraced it despite their previous views, as seems to have happened with Frost himself. Others, including those in business and civil society organizations, have had no choice but to make what adjustments were necessary to deal with it.

With, no doubt, some exceptions, none of this amounts to acceptance that Brexit is a good idea, and why should it? Would Brexiters, had they lost the vote, have accepted that EU membership was a good idea? Certainly not, and, because remaining in the EU wouldn’t have needed any ‘enactment’, they would not have been called upon to do anything to make it happen. What would almost certainly have been the case, and we can be sure of this because it was what was happening before, is that no UK government would have pushed for more extensive integration with the EU, for example by joining the Euro or Schengen. Instead, and even more had there been a close vote to remain, it would have been recognized that this would be to disrespect and ignore the strong vein of anti-EU sentiment within the population. (This, by the way, is the reason why I think that, in such scenario, the UK would still have exercised its right to have an independent vaccine policy.)

Brexiters’ lack of magnanimity

The Brexiters in victory showed no such magnanimity. Instead, they pushed for the hardest of Brexits, not just making no concession to remainers but making no attempt to persuade, reassure, or even involve them. On the contrary, they sought to install Brexiters into key positions and hounded those they suspected of being remainers out of office. This is the real ‘cancel culture’ of recent years. They bemoaned the lack of buy-in, but made no attempt to secure it. Had they done so, we would very likely now see much less division, and perhaps a greater degree of support for Brexit. Instead, ‘the 17.4 million’ was used as a battering ram in order to treat 16.2 million like dirt. And now that Brexit has happened, the same treatment is still being meted out through the endless culture war against those stigmatised as ‘woke’ and unpatriotic in what Maheen Behrana aptly calls “the weaponisation of the metropolitan bogeyman”.

Of course, some of this is not new. For as long as I can remember there has been a noisy strand in politics and journalism lambasting ‘political correctness’, the ‘human rights brigade’ and the ‘bleeding heart liberals’. What changed with Brexit, though, was to enfold into one despised category the large and broad constituency of remainers. It is not even true that a distinction was drawn between remain voters who ‘accepted’ the result and ‘remoaners’ who didn’t. For as Theresa May, to take the most high-profile example, found, even embracing hard Brexit did not stop her being tagged ‘Theresa the remainer’.

The degradation of everyday life

What also changed with Brexit was not just to insult ‘the liberal metropolitan elite’ with words but with a policy which completely transformed almost every aspect of national economic and geo-political strategy.  That is not just an abstraction. Although somewhat masked by, and partly intertwined with, the effects of the pandemic, we increasingly see our everyday lives degraded and made more miserable and restricted by Brexit. Purchases from EU companies delayed, suspended or surcharged. Shortages of staff in so many areas of the economy as lockdown restrictions lift. Shortages of fresh produce in shops. The massive collapse of food and drink exports to the EU. The minor hassle of making customs declarations on packages posted to the EU, and what will be the extra hassles of holidaying there. The non-trivial loss of the Erasmus scheme for the young, the reduction of work opportunities and of easy continental retirement for older people. The shaming treatment, and often the loss, of our EU friends, colleagues and neighbours. The debilitating blight on families created by, and with plans predicated upon, free movement rights.

To complain of such things itself invites the jeering ridicule of some Brexiters. For so widely have they drawn the definition of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ that they treat things which in a relatively wealthy country are fairly routine expectations for a great many people as being marks of hugely entitled privilege. Thus they talk as if no ‘ordinary, decent’ person studies, works, holidays or retires abroad, or even orders goods from overseas. Perhaps even more extraordinarily, given the fact that most politicians of most political persuasions recognize the individual and national benefits of education, is the way the Brexiters sneer at education, and especially university education, as if it were something shameful.

All this is the more ludicrous since leading Brexiters from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Julia Hartley-Brewer are hardly short of money, lacking in privilege or, indeed, lacking university education or likely to deny it to their children. Nor, for that matter, is it true that leave voters in general were the under-privileged left behind – as the UK in a Changing Europe’s research shows, many were ‘comfortable leavers’.

Humiliating remainers has consequences

My point here is not so much to rehearse these now-familiar issues as to say that it is inevitable that they have had, and will continue to have, profound consequences. Both history and personal experience tell us that if you humiliate people then you will reap a harvest of resentment, anger and many other complex and destructive emotions. The fact that these, certainly for now, do not coalesce into a political movement to re-join the EU is irrelevant. Most erstwhile remainers recognize that this isn’t in prospect for the time being.

The important question is how this will now play out. The answer is bound to be complex, if only precisely because such a large and heterogenous group of people as remainers have been subsumed within the general categories of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ and the ‘enemies of the people’. It also bears saying that plenty of people who voted remain, like plenty who voted leave, didn’t and don’t feel very strongly about Brexit either way. But there are plenty who do.

It’s possible that last week’s Chesham and Amersham by-election result is an indication of the consequences, as Guardian journalist John Harris suggests. Remainers may have been a minority of Tory voters, but they were a very large minority: of those who voted Tory in the 2015 election, 42% voted remain in 2016. As political data analyst Christabel Cooper argues that whereas there has been much discussion of ‘Labour leavers’ these ‘Tory remainers’ have been rather ignored.

And it is not just that many Tory voters were remainers, it is that many of them do not approve of or subscribe to Johnson’s crude cultural attacks or his generally dishonest politics. Politicians like Dominic Grieve are (or were) representatives of a kind of Tory voter that still exists, and is most certainly conservative, but they, too, have been cancelled by Brexit. For that matter, it very likely that this group includes some Tory voters who supported Brexit.

It’s obviously foolish to draw many conclusions from a single by-election, and it’s worth recalling that many people, including me, thought that the LibDem victory in the December 2016 Richmond by-election might be a sign of things to come, which it wasn’t. That was partly because, as Cooper remarks, in the subsequent general elections Tory remainers’ hostility to Jeremy Corbyn was greater than their commitment to remain. That factor has now disappeared. Moreover, now, it is not just the Chesham and Amersham result but those of the recent local and Mayoral elections which arguably point to underlying shifts in voting patterns as a fall out from Brexit.

It’s not just about voting

In any case, there is more at stake here than how people vote. I’m not aware of any systematic research on this but my own experience and intuition suggest that there are other ways in which the demonization of remainers is playing out. One is the withdrawal of some from political engagement and comment, resigned to having lost the biggest battle of their generation. Instead, local and personal activities are prioritised.

Another, related, response is a rather bitter rejection of what, at least for progressives, used to be the social contract. Thus when some now hear of job losses in leave-voting areas the reaction is not one of solidarity with those affected. Instead, it is that they got what they voted for and will have to take the consequences. That may be rather graceless, and it ignores the fact that many in such areas, and many of those adversely affected, voted remain: Brexit is not a laser-guided missile the effects of which only target its supporters. But, like it or not, it is one consequence of all the jibes at remainers to ‘suck it up’.

Additionally, not least because many remainers are educated and have marketable skills, some of them are more actively opting-out of Brexit by emigrating. Again I’m only going by my own limited experience, although there is some evidence of an emerging ‘brain drain’, but I hear of more and more people who have, or are considering, leaving. Many are EU citizens, but many are British people who have skills which are in demand abroad, whether in EU countries or elsewhere. This is both a response to Brexit but also, of course, one of the costs of Brexit, adding to the problems of labour and skill shortages caused partly by the end of freedom of movement of people.

Clearly some Brexiters would respond ‘good riddance’, just as they defiantly speak of boycotting companies which re-locate, boycotting Spain, boycotting German goods, and, generally, boycotting ‘European muck’. That is all of a piece with the more general narrowing of Britain, and the meanness of its political discourse. But, be that is it may, leave voters as much as anyone else need goods and services and, especially given Britain’s ageing demographics, the coming years look likely to see real skill shortages, including in health and social care for the elderly. Any emigration of disaffected remainers is going to make that worse.

To reiterate, that disaffection is not simply sour grapes for having lost the 2016 vote, it is because of the way they have been treated since and the morphing of Brexit into a wider ‘Brexitification’ of politics that daily insults and belittles them, sometimes threatens them with violence, including threats which reference the murder of Jo Cox by a far-right terrorist, and advocates their trial for treason.

Anger, not acceptance

I am sure that what I have said here does not exhaust the ways that remainers are responding to what has been done to them. It may also be that, in time, a vibrant rejoin movement emerges. But my point is that its absence is not, as Frost seems to think, a sign that Brexit has been accepted. An opinion poll this week shows that precisely 0% of remain voters think Brexit is going ‘very well’, and just 8% that it is going ‘fairly well’ (interestingly a mere 10% even of leave voters think it is going ‘very well’, although a more substantial 35% think it is going ‘fairly well’ – still, hardly a great endorsement).

Meanwhile, another poll shows very little shift in the numbers who would still vote remain (or for that matter leave) if these were still options, an important caveat being that this is a poll of those who voted in 2016 (polling of those who did not vote or were too young to vote then shows a clear preference for remain, whilst of course those who have since died cannot by definition be surveyed).

So this is not ‘acceptance’ in any sense other than the truism that people know that, as a matter of fact, Brexit has happened. And, beneath the surface, there is far more going on than, as Frost has it, some “regret” about Brexit. Indeed, although I appreciate that Twitter is not representative and can be an echo chamber, the numerous responses to my tweet about Frost’s comment suggest that there is very considerable anger. At the very least, the polling evidence shows that the country remains as divided as ever.

An unprovoked attack on half the country

And how could there not be anger and division? Not just because of Brexit but all that the Brexiters have done since. That wasn’t automatically entailed by Brexit. It wasn’t necessary in order to honour the 2016 vote. It was a choice, motivated by the hatred of some and the opportunism of others.

Remainers did very little to provoke it. Yes, some insulted leave voters (just as some leave voters insulted them), although so far as I know they did not issue any death threats against pro-Brexit MPs. Yes, many expressed their outrage and opposition to Brexit (just as Brexiters did to EU membership). And, yes, many campaigned for another referendum to be held once the withdrawal terms were known (but, had it happened, nothing would have stopped people again voting to leave if they wanted).

None of that remotely justifies how they were treated after 2016, still less since Britain left the EU. It is not that they were bad losers, but that Brexiters were bad winners. It is what they have done with their victory, whilst always wallowing in a sense of their self-righteous victimhood, which has so divided and scarred the country. In effect, they have sought to cancel the half of the country that doesn’t agree with them. It would be very foolish indeed to imagine that this is not having consequences – profound and far-reaching, albeit unpredictable – on politics and society which will continue for years.

David Frost said something else this week. When asked what a successful Brexit would look like in ten years’ time he replied “I would say it’s a situation where nobody is seriously questioning Brexit - where it was self-evidently the right thing to do and the country feels comfortable with it”. Given the last five years, it‘s highly unlikely that this test will be met in the next ten, if indeed the country survives that long. Partly because of the flawed nature of Brexit, but no less because Brexiters have done all they can to ensure no such comfort is possible.

Friday, 18 June 2021

Johnson and, um, integrity

In my previous post, I argued that I did not think that Joe Biden’s intervention, for all that it was reported to be diplomatically forceful, would make much difference to Boris Johnson’s conduct. In brief, my suggestion was that, by talking in terms of a pragmatic negotiated solution between the UK and the EU to the problems over the Northern Ireland Protocol which did not imperil the Good Friday Agreement, Biden was framing the issue in a way that Johnson could claim as being precisely what he was trying to achieve.

Events since then seem to have confirmed that view. Within hours of the Biden-Johnson meeting, first Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and then Johnson himself were continuing to talk in the same uncompromising terms as before about the supposedly unacceptable nature of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). In fact, the terms became even more uncompromising. Last week, the ubiquitous complaint was about the “legal purism” with which the EU was enforcing the NIP. Now, perhaps recognizing that this sounded like a rather lame bleat, the language has changed to the much more ominous phrase that the NIP violates the “territorial integrity” of the United Kingdom.

It has a horribly war-like sound to it. That is all the more disturbing if imagined in the ears of “Ulster’s men of violence” who Neil Mackay wrote about in a chilling article this week in The Herald. He warns that “the threat of murder hangs in the air thanks to Johnson’s Brexit”. Yet as Rafael Behr suggested this week (in an article with many other important points): “Johnson’s calculation doesn’t prioritise peace in Northern Ireland … [if it] … is on fire, any insistence from Brussels on maximum implementation of rules on sausage imports will look callous and disproportionate”. 

It need hardly be said – not least as I did so at length last week – that Johnson and his government are being grotesquely dishonest. They are also being deeply irresponsible. The ongoing weaponization of the EU’s brief and aborted proposal to invoke Article 16 in order to legitimate, if not exacerbate, loyalist anger is a prime example. But the latest formulation of insisting that the NIP undermines the UK as a “single territory” is especially odious because, in agreeing the NIP, Johnson agreed that the UK was no longer a single customs and regulatory territory. On the other hand, as the NIP states, and as David Frost confirmed in an appearance before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) this week, it is not true that it affects the territorial integrity of Northern Ireland in the sense of changing its constitutional status. So there is a double dishonesty in both understating what was agreed and overstating, in the most inflammatory way, what that agreement meant.

What explains the Johnson-Frost approach?

It may seem puzzling that Johnson is so cavalier as to defy US diplomatic and EU economic pressure. But I think that most of the explanation for that is quite easy. He and Frost genuinely believe that their ‘hardball’ tactics pay dividends with the EU and have very little political downside. They believe that they, unlike Theresa May, ‘stood up to’ the EU and that is why the ‘hated backstop’ was removed, even though the EU had said the Withdrawal Agreement was closed. It might be remarked that all they achieved by this was to get the NIP which they now say is unacceptable. But it is clearer than ever that from the outset they saw it as something they could get out of, as they are now trying to do. I am sure that they also believe that it was the threat of the illegal clauses in the Internal Market Bill that served to push the Trade and Cooperation Agreement over the line. And they undoubtedly believe that the unilateral extension of grace periods has shown the EU that the UK will ‘stand up for itself’ whilst attracting limited and slow retaliation from the EU.

Of course all of these beliefs are, at the very least, questionable and some of them are demonstrably absurd* But that doesn’t stop them being genuinely held. In a sense, they represent only the extension of the tactics which the Brexit Ultras used so successfully in the domestic pursuit of their aims: to keep pushing in a harder and harder direction, to refuse to compromise, to bank any compromise offered by others, and then to push for more. In those terms, the EU might currently be seen as caught in the same situation as, back in the day, those moderate Tories who thought that rational compromise was possible with the ERG, and who neither realised the ruthlessness of the Ultras nor were able to match it. It remains to be seen whether the same continues to be true of the EU, so that it, too, will continue to try to find flexibilities and compromises as, indeed, many urge. Or whether it will conclude that enough is enough and start taking a much tougher line.

For Johnson, it hardly matters as this is a win-win situation as regards his domestic political base, which as Behr and many others observe is far more important to him than his, or Britain’s, plummeting international reputation. If he keeps pushing hard and the EU ‘gives in’, or can be represented as doing so, then he claims victory and receives the glowing adoration of his base. If the EU were to push back hard then he claims the heroic status of standing up to ‘foreign aggression’ and also receives the glowing adoration of his base. In the Brexiters’ ever-present vocabulary of the Second World War, for Johnson the first scenario is VE Day, the second Dunkirk. Those of us who do worry about what this does to Britain’s reputation are probably not Johnson’s supporters anyway, whilst those who support him are not so much indifferent to, as unaware of, that reputational damage.

Biden’s limited impact

And what of Biden? For all his manifest sympathies with – and commitments to – the EU and Ireland, his public statements so far are not hugely unhelpful to Johnson and not hugely helpful to the EU. In inviting ‘both sides’ to negotiate, the US pushes the EU as well as the UK and, at least subtly, implies that it is not just a matter of implementing the NIP ‘as agreed’ but seeking an interpretation of it. As Gideon Rachman acutely wrote (£) this week, the Biden administration’s “overriding concern is that the dispute should be settled, not the terms of the settlement”.

There is an important rider to that: the one thing that Biden will clearly not tolerate is a land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. So simply ripping up the NIP, as the DUP and some Brexiters want, is a non-starter and, notably, Johnson has made no suggestion that he will do so. Instead, the approach is clearly going to be one of pushing to dilute and dismember its substance, pretending all the time that this is just ‘pragmatic implementation’ of what was agreed rather than reneging. And Biden doesn’t seem as if he is going to put much weight behind, for particular example, the EU’s stance on sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) regulatory alignment as against the UK’s demand for regulatory equivalence. Add the threat, and increasingly possible reality, of Loyalist violence into that mix and the UK’s attempts to depict the NIP as undermining the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement may gain traction.

In other words, despite the increasingly ‘Orbanized’ flavour of Johnson’s regime that Gerhard Schnyder has rightly identified, he isn’t going to risk becoming a genuine international pariah. As I implied in my last post, this actually makes the UK harder to deal with from an EU perspective, since Johnson is dishonest and belligerent without being completely beyond the pale of international relations.

Moreover, leaving all of this to one side, Johnson’s government may well have concluded that, precisely because of Biden’s manifest sympathies, Britain isn’t likely to get many favours (£) from the current administration anyway. So, unless Biden were to decide to put real pressure on, there’s not much to be lost by playing hardball with the EU.

What happens now?

It’s clear from Frost’s NIAC appearance that this will indeed take the form of, in particular, continuing to push for an equivalence agreement on SPS standards. The irony is that one of the biggest obstacles to the EU agreeing to that is because it requires investing a lot of trust in the UK, and it is the UK’s own conduct which makes that an obstacle.

Some of that goes back years – perhaps a defining moment* was in December 2016 when David Davis back-peddled on the phase 1 agreement of the Article 50 talks within days of it being made, saying it was just a ‘statement of intent’. Strikingly, this was the original version of the Irish Sea border solution, subsequently abandoned in favour of the backstop before being, effectively, revived as Johnson’s great new deal. There are also parallels between what Davis said then and the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis’s highly dishonest suggestion this week that the NIP is “a policy document as much as anything else” when in fact it is a binding treaty. More generally, the lack of trust has become far worse under Johnson and it is getting worse all the time, precisely because the EU’s concession of allowing a third country to manage the border of the single market is being abused.

In the immediate term, the UK yesterday made a formal request for a three-month extension to the chilled meats grace period. The EU is assessing this but if it doesn’t agree then, very likely, the UK will unilaterally extend, daring the EU to respond, and, in relation to the more general situation will continue to threaten to invoke Article 16 (£) and possibly even do so. Actually, that isn’t the panacea Frost and Johnson appear to believe, at least not for the problems of Northern Ireland, but that wouldn’t be the motivation. Rather, it would enable them to continue to ‘up the ante’ with the EU, citing the rejection of the chilled meats extension as just cause.

My guess is that the EU will agree the extension. This would ‘kick the can down the road’ until October when, in any case, the other grace periods (i.e. those which the UK has unilaterally extended) expire. Obviously that would resolve nothing, but the rationale would be to avoid an immediate crisis during the Northern Ireland marching season. But, sooner or later, a crisis seems inevitable, if only because of the UK’s approach, outlined earlier. Johnson and Frost would read EU acceptance of the chilled meats extension as a victory for their threat to do so unilaterally, and continue to push for an SPS equivalence regime. If that were to be granted then, as per the approach outlined above, Frost would push for something else.

Imperial preference

The other main Brexit-related story this week was the agreement in principle of a UK-Australia trade deal. As discussed in many previous posts the value of this is purely symbolic – for example, what it means for cheaper prices for UK consumers looks likely to amount to 1p per person per week. However, the costs to British farmers may turn out to be considerable. Or perhaps, in practice, it will make little difference to anything. But it is surely telling that, in Australia, it is being reported in terms of the UK’s desperation to sign, and Dmitry Grozoubinski, a former Australian trade negotiator, describes it as an “unprecedented result” for Australia. No ‘hardball’ negotiating strategy from the UK in these talks, it seems, but why would there be when all you want is a deal, any deal, as quickly as possible? (For discussion of the agreement, and links to even more discussion, see Sam Lowe’s latest Most Favoured Nation newsletter).

I think the best way of understanding the symbolism of the deal is to compare it to another story this week, headlined in the Express as “Pounds, inches and pints set for comeback in Brexit freedom overhaul”. There is even the obligatory reference to Churchill, this time in relation to his preference for pint bottles of champagne. This may seem a rather niche issue, but it has always been a live one to a certain segment of Brexiters, going back to the (admittedly absurd) ‘Metric Martyrs’ cases which some even claim led ultimately to Brexit itself. It is an issue which still, as the report shows, burns bright for the rather peculiar Tory MP Philip Davies.

Yet, despite what the headline might be taken to imply, there are in fact no plans to scrap metric measures. What there is – although it was published after the Express story – is a proposal (17.1) in the TIGRR report to allow traders to use imperial measures without the equivalent metric measurement if they wish. How many will do so, and how many customers they will have, is another question. Very few, I would imagine.

Although the Australia story is far more prominent, it is of the same type in that the realities beneath the bold headlines are trivial. It is interesting that for years remainers have been accused of patronising leave voters and insulting their intelligence, yet the Brexiters’ strategy of symbolism over substance in claims of Brexit gains is as patronising and insulting to such voters as could possibly be imagined.

As for the TIGRR (Task Force on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform) report more generally, it is a hodge-podge of platitudes about technology, things which didn’t require Brexit, and things which do but may prove rather foolish if implemented. It is the product of the group chaired by Iain Duncan Smith to identify post-Brexit opportunities (some might say the time to do that was before the referendum) and it has already apparently been superseded by the announcement of a new unit to do the same thing. It seems as if, along with all the extra customs bureaucracy, Brexit is now generating a new form of red tape in the proliferation of bodies charged to identify how Brexit can get rid of red tape. I don’t see much point in reviewing the report’s contents until we see which, if any, of its recommendations actually get adopted (but there has been an initial take from Joe Marshall of the Institute for Government).

A date with Boris Johnson

For understandable reasons, most media attention this week has not been on Brexit but on the slippage of the 21 June date for ending Covid restrictions. But the two are linked, in various ways. In particular, so much of what has driven both his Brexit and Covid policies has been Johnson’s stubborn insistence on setting artificial dates without regard for the consequences. Again, Rafael Behr’s column this week has much of interest to say on this theme, including a particularly acute observation about the Withdrawal Agreement (of which the NIP was of course a part). He says that for Johnson “it was a single-use tool for levering himself out of a tight spot. For Brussels it is the chamber into which Britain levered itself”.

But actions have consequences. Whatever Johnson’s motivations, his actions created a legally-binding treaty with obligations. This cannot just be laid at the door of his pathologically immoral character, because what he agreed was voted for in Parliament by all his party’s MPs (and, let it not be forgotten, by Brexit Party MEPs in the European Parliament). And, unlike his private peccadilloes, the wreckage and pain of now pretending that what was agreed was not agreed will affect us all.

 

*The link here is to the relevant segment of an interview, conducted by the UK in a Changing Europe centre and published this week, with Stefaan De Rynck, a senior member of Michel Barnier’s Brexit Task Force. The full interview is here.

Friday, 11 June 2021

Britain's Brexit shame

As pre-figured in my previous post, UK-EU relations are now entering a crunch period which started with Wednesday’s meeting of both the Partnership Council and the Joint Committee (the former overseeing the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the latter the Withdrawal Agreement). It took place at a time when, in the apt title of Tony Connelly of RTE’s latest blog (which also gives a fantastic summary of the issues at stake) “bad faith and brinksmanship” meant the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) was “on the edge”.

It remains there, since no significant progress was made and, notably, there was no joint statement made, just separate UK (PC, JC) and EU (PC, JC)  statements. At the last Joint Committee meeting there had been a joint statement (there has never been a meeting of the Partnership Council before), so this was in itself a sign of acrimony and perhaps of the difference in approach (£) between David Frost and Michael Gove, the previous chair.

In the run up to the meeting there were some bellicose noises from Frost and other government ministers, as well as widespread reports that the EU is running out of patience and liable to take retaliatory action for the UK’s failure to fully implement the NIP*. Lurking in the background were sinister images of balaclava-clad loyalist marchers in Northern Ireland, protesting against the Protocol.

As long-term readers of the blog, or anyone who has followed Brexit with any attention, knows, these latest events have been years in the making. They go right back to the false pre-referendum assurances, given by Boris Johnson and others, that Brexit would make no difference to Northern Ireland’s borders. That wasn’t just the beginning of the story but, in some ways, the whole of the story because, fundamentally, right up to the present time, neither Johnson nor the Brexit Ultras generally have truly accepted that Brexit requires a border somewhere. Even when the Irish Sea border came into force, they denied it existed. To the extent that it is undeniable that it does now exist, they have misrepresented this as being due to EU – and sometimes Irish – intransigence.

Lies

There’s no point in finessing a basic fact: Brexiters have consistently lied about Northern Ireland (and much else besides) and the consequences are now coming back to haunt them, and all of us. They lied about what Brexit meant for Northern Ireland, and they lied about what they agreed for Northern Ireland. Johnson is the most obvious culprit, but it goes much wider than him: they almost all lied or at least misled.

For example, on the specific issue of the movement of sausages across the sea border – much in the news this week, and discussed further below – Michael Gove stated categorically in a TV interview that it had been agreed that this could continue. Anyone listening would take that to mean that it would go on forever, as he didn’t mention that what had actually been agreed was a six month grace period that is now about to expire.

That was nested within the bigger lie that the Withdrawal Agreement, including the NIP, would ‘get Brexit done’ when in fact it marked the beginning of an ongoing process. It also goes much deeper than Northern Ireland, because it is fundamentally about what departure from the single market and customs union meant for the UK in general and they lied about that, too.

Again – and apologies for this, but it is hard not to keep repeating points as events keep bearing them out – I’ve written endlessly on this blog about how Brexiters seemed to treat Brexit as being, somehow, symbolic rather than having concrete legal, economic and political effects. The corollary of this was denouncing those who warned of these effects as ‘remainer saboteurs’ and, as the warnings come true, treating it as the fault of the EU. It’s a mindset that has been in evidence again this week in George Eustice’s complaints that rules about third country products, such as sausages, are “a peculiar quirk of EU law”, and in the now ubiquitous moan from the government that insisting on such rules is “legal purism”.

Illogic

The latter phrase is a telling one in that it reflects the ‘we’ve left but we shouldn’t be treated as if we’ve left’ mentality: it’s the law, but only ‘purists’ would actually enforce it. It also has echoes of the earlier proposal to break international law but only in “a very specific and limited way”. It isn’t, to say the least, a defence to rely on in court. It is also, in its own way, revealing. For it implicitly concedes that the EU is perfectly within its rights to expect the UK to comply with what was agreed.

The ‘sausages’ rule example (actually just one part of a broader set of regulations for chilled meat products, but focusing on ‘the great British banger’ is better for Brussels-bashing headlines) is also part of the wider dishonesty of Brexiter (il)logic, which again goes back years. Its basic form, familiar from the ‘Project Fear’ rebuttal line, is to reduce any argument against Brexit to an easily dismissed absurdity. Thus warnings that it would reduce trade were rendered as claims that all trade would cease; or suggestions that the EU had kept peace amongst its members were rendered as claims that leaving would lead to World War Three.

The more developed form we are seeing now is to sneer that regulations about something so banal as sausages are a sign of EU pettiness, thus ignoring the many and substantive issues of public health that food regulations are needed to deal with. At its deepest level, this is part of the ‘anti-ruleism’ that permeates Brexiter thinking.

Childishness

This isn’t just dishonest, it’s also profoundly childish. Indeed, it’s not always clear that Brexiters consciously lie in the claims they make. Just as often, it seems as if they are like toddlers, oblivious to the constraints of cause and effect but having tantrums when those constraints become manifest. A prime example is the superbly deranged rant this week from Allister Heath in the Telegraph (£), wailing that the Protocol “was imposed on the UK by the EU at our moment of greatest weakness” (although, almost needless to say, at the time Heath extolled its virtues). No mention here of “holding all the cards”, of a “great oven-ready deal” or even of being “sovereign equals”. It might best be summarized in the words of every red-faced, bawling infant ‘it’s not fair’.

Just about every sentence in David Frost’s article in the Financial Times (£) this week - which clearly set out his approach to the subsequent meeting - can be read in the same way. I won’t provide the line-by-line rebuttal that I did for a previous, similar, article, although almost every line within it is again either untrue or a distortion of the truth. Its central feature as regards the details of NIP implementation, including the issue of chilled meat products, is the argument that the UK has come up with a reasonable proposal in the form of an ‘equivalence’ agreement on standards.

But this is simply to restate the main ongoing bone of contention, in that what is needed is an ‘alignment’ agreement, not an ‘equivalence’ agreement (see my post of 7 May for more detail on this important distinction). It’s dishonest to pretend that this is a viable solution: it’s been clear not just for months but since at least December 2017 (!) that it would not fly**.

Dishonesty

More fundamentally, the core proposition within Frost’s article, that the experience of operating the Protocol has shown its unexpected problems, is a flat out lie. We know this for a fact, because civil service briefings at the time that it was agreed show that ministers were told of the problems that would occur, something underlined this week by the former DExEU Permanent Secretary. On the narrow issue of chilled meats, we know that the government already knew the ban was in prospect in the absence of regulatory alignment. We also know that within days of the NIP coming into effect Johnson was threatening to suspend it, and that soon after he explicitly tasked civil servants to find ways around its provisions (£).

It has also long been obvious, and given new weight by Gavin Barwell’s comments this week, that Johnson’s government agreed and signed up to the NIP whilst always intending, as Barwell puts it, “to wriggle out of it” later. That was done for domestic political reasons – to be able to campaign in an election on the ‘oven-ready deal’ platform (not, be it noted, a ‘this is a terrible deal but we were forced to sign it’ platform) – but doing so marked a crucial new moment in the Brexit saga, and one which was deeply dangerous and irresponsible. Before, what was at stake was a horribly dishonest domestic debate about Brexit. Afterwards, that horrible dishonesty got written into an international treaty.

In other words, it was the moment when Brexiters shifted from lying to electors (and perhaps to themselves) to lying to the outside world.

The EU’s dilemma

This presents the EU with an almost insoluble dilemma, not simply over the chilled meats issue but over the multiple ways in which the NIP isn’t being implemented by the UK. How do you deal with a country that continually lies and cheats in a way unlike a normal state, yet is not a rogue state either?  With a country that keeps saying it wants only to be a friend, but keeps behaving like an enemy?

If the EU does nothing then, bit by bit, the NIP will be undermined and, ultimately, there will be a gaping hole in the border of the single market and customs union. The UK will, indeed, have wriggled out of the commitments it made in bad faith and growing ultimately from Brexiters' refusal to accept the need for a border.

On the other hand, the dispute resolution systems and retaliations open to the EU under the Withdrawal Agreement are rather slow and fairly limited, and invoking them will inevitably provoke UK accusations of ‘bullying’ and ‘punishment’. It may be that the days are long gone when anyone in the EU cared much about bad headlines in the UK press. But the fact that Frost and others are using the UK media so extensively to make their case suggests to me that they are preparing the ground, domestically, to claim that their ‘reasonable efforts to be cooperative’ have been rebuffed by the EU and that, combined with the putative EU retaliation, will be used to justify something much more confrontational.  Most obviously, that might include triggering Article 16, something the British government has repeatedly threatened almost from day one, Edwin Poots is urging, and Frost has refused to rule out.

This would then create an even more difficult situation for the EU and presumably that is why, for now, all it is doing is giving warnings of retaliation if the UK undertakes any more unilateral violations of the Protocol. At the same time, Ursula von der Leyen has signaled that the EU will seek to influence Johnson by ‘discussions in the margins’ of the current G7 meeting which, interestingly, Frost is also attending.

What happens now?

No doubt the EU will also continue to seek support from the US to pressurize Britain into complying with the NIP or, better still, taking the obvious route of agreeing to sanitary and phyto-sanitary regulatory alignment, as offered by the EU. For the most ludicrous feature of the whole situation is that a relatively easy solution exists were it not for Johnson and Frost’s insistence on a dogmatic idea of ‘sovereignty’. The Biden administration has even suggested this week that alignment would not imperil a trade deal with the US.

Things will come to a head soon. Presumably the desire for good optics for the G7 summit is at least one reason why, despite his bellicose newspaper articles, Frost didn’t escalate the dispute with the EU this week. But time is running out. As I mentioned earlier, the grace period which was agreed with the EU last December allowing movement of chilled meats and meat preparations (including sausages) across the sea border ends on 30 June.

If there is no negotiated agreement to extend it there will be significant disruption. If the UK unilaterally extends it – as it did for some of the other grace periods earlier this year, the subject of ongoing legal dispute – which Frost also refuses to rule out, then the EU has indicated that this will be the point at which it will take firm retaliatory action, regardless of what that may then provoke from the UK. It is hard to see how it could not do so: at some point a line has to be drawn unless the EU is going to accept that the NIP isn’t going to be implemented.

Some reports this week have suggested that the EU could fall back on an emergency plan that would place some border checks between Ireland and the rest of the EU. Personally, I think that is unlikely to happen. It would certainly mark a radical departure from the solidarity with Ireland that the EU has shown throughout the Brexit process. And even if adopted on a supposedly temporary basis it would surely morph into a permanent situation if the UK simply sat back and did nothing, as it surely would. If the implication is that the EU will do all it can to prevent an escalation of conflict with the UK then I would think that agreeing a temporary extension to the chilled meats grace period to be more likely. It won’t resolve anything, but would buy a little time in which something might turn up. Not a great strategy but maybe better than the alternatives.

Biden’s intervention

The hope might be that the already quite strong intervention from the Biden administration this week will concentrate Johnson’s mind. I am not sure it will. This isn’t, as yet anyway, like the Suez moment, when the US brought naked diplomatic, political and financial pressure to bear upon the UK. For now, the US is pressing for a “negotiated settlement” that does not “imperil or undermine the Good Friday Agreement”.

That may well be code for calling on the UK to honour the NIP, but it doesn’t say that in terms. The UK government argues, no matter how mendaciously, that it is indeed seeking a negotiated settlement that upholds the Good Friday Agreement “in all its dimensions” (which is also code, implying that the NIP as it stands tilts against the unionist community).

Moreover the government’s statement that Johnson and Biden had agreed that the EU and the UK should find “pragmatic solutions to allow unencumbered trade between Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland”, if accurate, is, in its reference to mutual pragmatism, exactly the line that Frost is taking, and is bizarre anyway since there is no way that trade can be unencumbered now. As for the official joint statement, it didn’t explicitly mention the NIP at all.

Tellingly, Johnson shrugged off the idea that there were any differences with Biden over the NIP, claiming he’d simply agreed on the need to “get it sorted out”. So, in private if not in public, the US may need to take a much harder line than it has thus far to have an impact.

Shame

I don’t write much about my personal feelings on this blog, but I don’t think I can be alone in feeling a deep sense of shame at the blatant dishonesty of Johnson’s, Frost’s, and the British government’s behaviour over the NIP. Brexit was bad enough in itself, but this continuing and continuous lying and cheating is truly disgraceful. It demeans Britain and even those of us who bear no responsibility for it are in turn demeaned.

That links directly to the childishness I referred to earlier, which is in turns infantile and adolescent. There’s something profoundly mortifying about seeing serious politicians and officials in the EU having to put up with the mewling self-pity, the broken promises and the endless aggressive insults of Brexit Britain. And there’s something sphincter-tighteningly embarrassing about the ‘wait till your father gets home’ sense of having to look to Biden to inject some discipline into proceedings.

It is grimly ironic that this goes on at the same time as, reflecting the never-ending Brexiter obsession with World War Two, Johnson crows about ‘renewing the Atlantic Charter’ against the backdrop of an aircraft carrier. Grimly ironic, too, that his government goes on endlessly about pride in being British and showcases its “GREAT Britain and Northern Ireland” campaign whilst doing so much to shame and sully Britain’s reputation.

 

Footnotes

*The Brexit saga has gone on for so long, and become so convoluted, that it can be hard to remember what some of these things mean, but for a detailed explanation of what implementing the NIP involves there is an excellent report from the Institute for Government.

**The article linked to at this point actually needs some further explanation because, confusingly, it has David Davis talking about ‘regulatory alignment’ as a solution but further down it becomes clear that what he actually means is, indeed, ‘regulatory equivalence’. Nested within the article is a link to an Institute for Government explainer which helps to show why equivalence isn’t a solution: in brief because it does not bring with it a commitment to stayed aligned, so is a form of ‘cakeism’. Frost is currently going round the same old loop, albeit in circumstances where the exit deal has already been signed, rather than those in which it was still under negotiation.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Brexit means Brexit and we're making a mess of it*

The entire Brexit process has been depressingly repetitious in all kinds of ways, none more so than the endless complaints over the last five years that the EU is ‘bullying’ or ‘punishing’ the UK for having left. So there’s some small pleasure in identifying what might be called a new variant of the Brexiters’ self-pity virus in a piece this week in their house journal the Express. On display there was the original strain (the EU has to punish the UK to deter further ‘defections’), along with the more recent Frost mutation (the EU has yet to ‘adjust’ to the UK being sovereign). But nested inside was the slightly different version that the EU’s ‘belligerence’ is in fact “an early sign that our split will be a resounding success”. So what was originally proposed to be an attempt to stop Brexit being a success is now reconfigured as a round of applause for it.

Only in the strange world of Brexiter logic could such a leap be made and, though of only passing interest in itself, it is a development which has a wider significance. It is part of the way that despite having achieved their dream of legal detachment, and on far more distant terms than most of them actually dreamt of, Brexiters remain not just psychologically attached to the EU but obsessed with it. The counterpart of that is an imagination that the EU remains similarly obsessed with Brexit whereas, as Georgina Wright of Institut Montaigne commented in relation to the Express article, UK-EU relations are now very low on the list of EU priorities. In short, the EU has moved on, but the UK is stuck.

A parallel universe

But Brexiters are not only still obsessed with the EU, they are also still fixated on what they see as domestic appeasement and betrayal. Thus in the heartlands of Brexiter discussion, such as on the Conservative Woman website this week, along with all the usual stuff about EU “bullying” and “blackmail”, the “theological (sic) lecturer and Anglican clergyman” Timothy Bradshaw declares that “we all know that Brexit remains in the balance as the Remainer establishment of Whitehall and Westminster continues their [sic] so-far-successful campaign to keep the umbilical cord uncut from Brussels”. Within this article’s extraordinary parallel universe, replete with countless misrepresentations or misunderstandings, especially about the Northern Ireland Protocol, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Brandon Lewis are supposedly “scared witless by the EU”, Dominic Raab is denounced as “a latter-day Europhile” (yes, really), whilst David Frost is suspected of deploying “combative rhetoric … for public consumption only”.

Such sentiments were always going to prevail amongst the most committed Brexiters because, to reprise a longstanding theme of this blog, any actual delivery of Brexit would be seen by them as a betrayal. Plus, in a grim irony, Johnson, with his hardline approach to Brexit, is finding what all his predecessors have found, and what he himself used to come to power, namely that no approach will ever be hard enough to satisfy these committed Brexiters, including many on his own backbenches. But it would be quite wrong to dismiss this as the pitiable rantings of a few obscure or fringe figures. Rather, it is part of a much wider and ongoing battle to shape the narrative of what Brexit means and what it has done to our country.

Thus the relentless claims of external bullying by the EU and internal betrayal by remainers, apart from being the standard tropes of Ur-fascism, provide cover for the already obvious negative economic consequences of hard Brexit. There are almost daily reports of businesses and whole sectors damaged, of labour shortages (£), price rises and, beyond economics, of the damage to UK global standing and influence. Since the supposed ‘national liberation’ has so patently not led to any ‘sunny uplands’, it is necessary to claim that ‘true’ liberation has yet to be achieved. This also explains why the Brexiters cling so desperately to the false claim that Brexit enabled the UK to have an independent vaccines delivery programme. For, false as it is, it is about the only thing that has stuck in public discourse as a practical benefit of Brexit. Hence, too, the ongoing though much less successful attempt to present trade deals as such a benefit. And hence the gesture politics of, for example, deploying an aircraft carrier to the Indian Ocean or building a new Royal Yacht (£).

Northern Ireland: still the central issue

Nowhere are the claims about EU punishment more evident, or more dangerous (in a literal, physical, sense), than in relation to the Northern lreland Protocol (NIP). Again, whilst the tirades of bloggers like Bradshaw might easily be dismissed, such claims matter when they come from figures like the new DUP leader Edwin Poots. Poots, who wants the NIP scrapped in its entirety, accuses the EU of using Northern Ireland like “a plaything” and of not caring about the peace process, and blames the Protocol for rising violence. In fact, as many commentators and politicians within Northern Ireland pointed out in response, the NIP (unlike Brexit itself) enjoys widespread support amongst the people of Northern Ireland.

Obviously Poots objects to the NIP because of the Irish Sea border, because, correctly, he sees it as undermining the union. But the line about it undermining the peace process and the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement (GFA) is the opportunistic one which, earlier this year, Brexiters like Dominic Raab belatedly tried to mobilise in the belief that it would have more cut through with the US (and, perhaps, the EU). I assume that the thinking is that because this argument was the reason an Irish land border was rejected then it will also lead to the Irish Sea border being rejected.

But even without assessing the merits of that thinking in its own terms, it has two very obvious problems. One is the same as has existed ever since the UK decided in 2017 that Brexit meant hard Brexit: were it to be accepted then where would the border go? The Brexiters still have no answer to this question except to fantasise that a border is unnecessary anywhere. Even their old stand-by that the answer is ‘technological solutions’ is no longer available as an argument against the NIP since if it were true such solutions existed then why can’t they be deployed at the sea border?

The other problem is that it is too late. The NIP isn’t, in its substance, any longer a matter for negotiation. It forms part of an international treaty agreed and signed by the UK government. The time for the UK to decide it violated the GFA was before doing so. Certainly neither the EU nor the US are now suddenly going to say that it does so. Rather, both are insisting that to preserve stability in Northern Ireland the NIP must be implemented, not re-negotiated.

For some weeks now there have been intense technical talks about NIP implementation, and a crunch point is likely to come with the expected ‘stock-taking’ meeting of the Joint Committee next Wednesday. This (at least this period, if not necessarily this single meeting) has the potential to be another watershed for what Brexit means and for what sort of country post-Brexit Britain is going to be. Just as happened after the vote to leave the EU, again after leaving the EU, and once again after the end of the transition period, there is a choice as to whether to persist with a sour, resentful hostility towards the EU, as if Brexit were something done ‘to’ Britain rather than by Britain or, even, that the EU had forced Britain to leave.

That perverse inversion of the truth is now pervasive with, for example, Matthew Lynn writing in the Spectator this week that the UK “has been frozen out of the single market” by the EU, as if leaving it had not been the UK’s choice. It is also evident in the amnesia that allows the government to forget not just that it agreed the NIP but that it pronounced it a triumph, and so to pretend that it was imposed upon the UK. And it is evident in the now almost daily moans about Britons being ‘denied’ freedom of movement rights to, in particular, Spain. In short, there is still a widespread refusal amongst Brexiters to accept that Brexit means Brexit.

Britain faces another choice

On the NIP specifically, there are reported to be solutions in sight to many of the operational difficulties and, on the biggest of them, an offer from the EU of a veterinary agreement, potentially on a temporary basis. Such a ‘Swiss-style’ arrangement is generally understood to mean that about 80% of the border checks would be abolished. Poots, in familiar ‘Ulster says no’ mode, is adamantly opposed to the latter (because, of course, it would be about making the Irish Sea border work more smoothly, whereas the DUP don’t want it to work, they want it dropped entirely).

The question, then, is whether Johnson and Frost are also going to ‘say no’ to these facilitations which would largely solve the implementation problems? Might they even, as they keep threatening, seek to suspend the NIP using Article 16? If the former, then the same rows rumble on with, coming up fast, the end of the grace periods for the NIP and, more generally, UK import controls still to come. If the latter, the rows intensify into a crisis.

Factors in these decisions include the extent to which Johnson and Frost genuinely have a blind ideological commitment to their peculiar concept of sovereignty, the extent to which they see advantage for their electoral base in maintaining permanently antagonistic relations with the EU, and, relatedly, the extent of the pressure from Brexit Ultras within and outside the Tory Party to do so. Also potentially relevant is what pressure comes from Joe Biden (£), who will meet Johnson a few hours after the Joint Committee meeting, to accept the EU’s offer of solutions.

So it remains to be seen what will happen but, as things stand, reports suggest that so far the technical talks have yielded only limited agreement. This isn’t surprising, because the scope for technical agreement is ultimately a political issue. Frost continues to say that the NIP is “unsustainable”, whilst the EU’s Ambassador to the UK says that there is no alternative to it, and points out that the UK has failed to suggest a viable alternative. What Frost continues to propose, and claims to be a “pragmatic” solution, is not viable because what it means, in effect, is for the border not to be fully enforced.

In short, once again, Frost’s idea is that Brexit shouldn’t mean Brexit. More specifically, he is effectively saying that the NIP (which he negotiated) shouldn’t mean the NIP. And testimony this week from Sir Jonathan Jones (the former head of the Government Legal Service who resigned over the illegal clauses in the Internal Market Bill) confirms what had long been suspected: even as it agreed the NIP the government did not really accept, and always wanted to find ways round, what it had signed up to. It is important to keep recalling that this dishonesty and irresponsibility is what lies at the heart of the current problems.

All this seems to suggest that no agreement on how to implement the NIP is in prospect, and a reliable (i.e. Tony Connelly) report this morning says that the EU is both pessimistic about the prospects and rapidly running out of patience. If so, and the UK’s decision is, again, to wallow in resentment and anger then it will mean remaining in the cul-de-sac where post-Brexit Britain is, effectively, stuck as Brexit Britain – that is, unable to move on from all the debates and battles of 2016. This would mean that relations with the EU continue to be viewed entirely through the now dead question of whether or not Britain should leave the EU. In turn, that will mean being stuck in the performative gesture politics of ‘Global Britain’ grandstanding. Meanwhile, if Connelly’s report that the EU may take retaliatory measures over the failure to implement the NIP proves correct, then, under the new variant of Brexit logic, Brexiters will treat this as sign of success.

It doesn’t have to be like this

There are alternatives, which would focus not so much on gestures as concrete practicalities. For example, the Institute for Government this week produced a report urging a strategic and joined-up approach to managing regulatory divergence. Meanwhile, there are some suggestions of enhanced defence and security agreements between the UK and individual member states of the EU. There could also be an immediate and serious correction of the unfolding scandal of how EU nationals are treated at UK borders.

I’ve argued may times in the past that had Brexiters been both more competent and more confident they would have approached the entire Brexit process in a spirit of generosity and cooperation, rather than in the dog-in-a-manger way they chose. It’s still not entirely too late to change this. But of course the obstacles are formidable, most especially because of the dogged attachment of the most extreme Brexiters to continued hostilities. Ironically, another, though smaller, obstacle is that some erstwhile remainers scoff at the possibility of the kinds of limited ‘de-escalations’ just mentioned, and certainly it’s true that none of them is going to recreate EU membership or compensate for Brexit. So one pole insists that cooperation with the EU is pointless as it renders Brexit a failure, whilst the other insists that Brexit is a failure which renders cooperation with the EU pointless.

Be that as it may, the key issue in the immediate term – meaning, even, the next couple of weeks as regards the NIP situation – is the current government’s stance. The completion this week of the first annual deal with the EU on fishing rights (£), as well as the recent decision to recognize the EU Ambassador, might be taken as small signs that this stance is becoming more conciliatory, but are negated by Frost’s continuing bullishness about the NIP. In a sense the government has hamstrung itself by the fact that this hardline approach to the Protocol makes good relations with the EU impossible whilst still being insufficiently hardline to satisfy the insatiable Brexit Ultras, including the DUP, who want to scrap it altogether.

Certainly at some point in the future a UK government needs to become both more conciliatory and, simply, more realistic about UK-EU relations (this, I think, should be the core of Labour’s future European policy). The longer that takes, the more difficult it will become as the already eviscerated goodwill will become harder to rebuild with each month and year that goes by in the present mode.

It is that which, at least in part, explains the Brexit Ultras’ dogmatic insistence on depicting the EU as malign, illustrated in microcosm by immediate reactions to the announcement of the fishing rights deal. No agreements on anything, ever, with the EU will satisfy them. They want to create a relationship so damaged as to be beyond future repair, believing that if the earth is not completely scorched then the ‘remainer establishment’ will find some way to plant the seeds that might, even, lead eventually to re-joining. The deepest irony is that, for all their accusations against remainers, it is this dogmatism that also prevents any possibility of ‘making a success of Brexit’. That is why they are making such a mess of it.

 

*The saga has been going on for so long that some may have forgotten that the full version of Theresa May’s early line was “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it”.

 

Update on email alerts: as explained in my ‘extra post’ last week, I am now using follow.it to provide the email alert system for this blog. Everyone who was subscribed under the old Feedburner system should by now have received an email from follow.it asking for permission to send email alerts from now on – you will need to ‘confirm’ in order to set it up. I have now deleted the Feedburner account and you should no longer receive any email alerts from it. Anyone who was not previously signed-up for email alerts but now wishes to be can subscribe using the form at the top of the right-hand column of this site. Apologies for all this, and thanks for your patience.

My book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) will be published by Biteback on 23 June 2021. It can be pre-ordered from Biteback, or via other online platforms, as a paperback or e-book.

Friday, 28 May 2021

Email alerts: update

Readers who subscribe by email may have noticed that in recent weeks I have been flagging up that the existing Feedburner email alert service is coming to an end in July.

I’m pleased to say that I have now found a viable solution, and email alerts will from now on be sent by follow.it

You do not need to re-subscribe to continue to get alerts but, if you want, you can make use of the much greater functionality that follow.it has compared with Feedburner, for example in terms of tailoring your delivery channels or applying filters. I think that the ways to do this will be clear in the email alerts you receive from now on, and there is also a link here. You will not receive any spam emails from follow.it and of course you can unsubscribe from receiving alerts at any time.

It’s just possible that during the handover you may receive alerts from both systems for this post and possibly also for the main post made this morning. If so, apologies, but it should be only a temporary hitch, which will be resolved by the time of next Friday’s post.

If there are further updates about this, I will include them as footnotes to future posts.

Apologies for any inconvenience, and many thanks to those of you who are signed up. I must admit that until the issue of Feedburner’s demise came up I had no idea that thousands of people were accessing the blog that way!

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A normal week in crazy Brexit Britain

It has been a pretty standard week for directly Brexit-related news – I put it that way because in many ways almost everything the government does, from demanding that the BBC project ‘British values', to badging the new rail system as ‘Great British Railways’, to giving British people the borders they ‘deserve' can be seen as framed by Brexiter sensibilities. And, of course, this week’s Dominic Cummings show grows organically out of the politics of Brexit, not least because but for Brexit neither he nor, possibly, Boris Johnson would ever have been in power. It can also be seen as the (final?) implosion of the elevation of the Vote Leave cabal to the centre of government in 2019.

More of Cummings below, but, these wider issues aside, what has been going on with Brexit this week is mainly a continuation of the issues discussed in my previous post, namely the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) and the nature of Britain’s post-Brexit trading relationships.

The NIP: the calm before the next storm?

As regards the NIP, RTE’s Tony Connelly provided his usual excellent commentary of the current situation in his blog post last Saturday. It gives a wealth of detail on the issues at stake, which I won’t repeat. Nor will I repeat the points I made last week about the deeper roots of this current situation in Northern Ireland.

However, there is one aspect of those roots which I didn’t mention but which is an important part of what is happening now. From the beginning, it was an article of faith amongst Brexiters that a trade deal with the EU would be easy because the UK was already aligned with EU rules. This was stated by numerous leading Brexiters before the referendum, was the substantive rationale for Liam Fox’s much-mocked ‘easiest deal in history’ claim, and was re-stated in David Davis’s preface to the first Brexit White Paper in 2017:

“We approach these negotiations from a unique position. As things stand, we have the exact same rules, regulations and standards as the rest of the EU. Unlike most negotiations, these talks will not be about bringing together two divergent systems but about managing the continued cooperation of the UK and the EU.”

As I and many others pointed out whenever such claims were made, they were nonsense, precisely because this was a unique situation in which the aim was not to move towards alignment (in which case, of course, existing alignment would make that process effortless) but to move away from it; not to bring two divergent systems together, but to make two aligned systems diverge. This became all the more true under Boris Johnson and David Frost’s approach to Brexit, which made freedom to diverge from EU regulations the acid test of ‘sovereignty’.

The same basic confusion is now being played out in the NIP rows, especially with respect to sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) rules and checks. Frost repeatedly, for example at last week’s Select Committee, makes the point that the EU should operate a lighter, ‘risk-based’ approach for the UK because of “the fact that we both operate the high food standards which are, in most areas, extremely similar”. Yet at the same time he is adamant that dynamic alignment with EU rules is unacceptable.  So he wants the benefit of being aligned … without making any commitment to being aligned. It is a specific version of the more general Brexiter proposition, discussed in last week’s post, that the UK has left but shouldn’t be treated as if it has left.

It is this which creates what Connelly describes as the current “dangerous stand-off” between the UK and the EU, and although there is seemingly a lull in hostilities at the moment it seems highly likely that there will be a further outbreak in the next few weeks. The European Commission President, at the EU leaders’ meeting this week, made it clear that the NIP must be fully implemented, whereas the UK continues to seek “common sense” solutions (translation: don’t hold us to what we agreed), and wants these in place in time for the mid-June ‘marching season’ in Northern Ireland.

Some believe that Frost will quietly cave in, via some face-saving formula, and that is quite possible. But my sense remains (for reasons discussed in detail in my post a couple of months ago) that he and the government are convinced that the ‘hardball’ tactics of flouting the NIP pay dividends. If so, then after this period of resumed negotiations there will be another explosion. That diagnosis is given extra weight by calls this week from International Trade Secretary Liz Truss to scrap Irish Sea border controls altogether.

Strange days indeed

In this, Truss is presumably burnishing her credentials with the party membership as a possible successor to Johnson (as, no doubt, with her hardline anti-immigration stance, is Priti Patel), in which she is aided by the Brexit tabloids’ adoration of her for delivering the UK’s new trade deals – or deal, really, since the only substantively new trade deal she has (almost) done is that with Australia. Yet the Brexiters’ reactions to that deal have been mixed. Some are breathlessly enthusiastic, such as Dominic Lawson (in a Sunday Times article demolished almost line-by-line by the NFU’s Director of Trade and Business Strategy). Others, notably the ‘journalist’ Isabel Oakeshott, are appalled that it marks “the death knell of the traditional British farm” (an outburst for which she was roundly mocked).

Certainly there is something strange in the Tory Party choosing to alienate what has always been a central part of its political constituency but, then, as its treatment of the City shows, the Brexit Tory Party is a very different beast to that of bygone years. That said, trade expert Sam Lowe argues that, in practice, the deal with Australia is unlikely to have a huge impact, whether that be on farmers or consumers, to the extent of it being “almost unobservable”. That is because, in brief, tariff abolition is no longer the central issue in terms of trade liberalization, and because nothing will change the fact that the UK and Australia are geographically remote – and, as the Brexiters never seem to understand, distance is a key determinant of trade volumes.

Nevertheless, the strangeness of the situation can be seen by imagining what would have happened if, whilst a member of the EU, the EU had struck a deal with Australia on similar terms (something highly unlikely precisely because of the possible effects on farmers). Almost certainly the Brexit press would be denouncing it as a ‘Brussels Betrayal of British Beef’ and, again almost certainly, the UK government would have vetoed any such deal. Yet when made by Britain, it is hailed as a triumph. (It’s worth noting that this point was raised by Emily Thornberry, Labour’s Shadow Trade Secretary this week, a further welcome sign that Labour are now becoming bolder in challenging the government’s post-Brexit policy).

Nor does the strangeness end there. Within the Brexiters’ central argument that what was crucial was the restoration of the sovereignty of the British parliament, a specific sub-theme was that with Britain making its own trade deals, these would be subject to debate and scrutiny by the British people’s elected representatives. Yet, in fact, as the Department for International Trade oxymoronically stated this week “we have always been clear parliament will be able to scrutinise Free Trade Agreements following signature rather than at the stage where agreement in principle is reached”. It need hardly be said that this renders scrutiny totally meaningless and represents, in microcosm, the ‘war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength’ doublethink of Brexit as a whole.

An incoherent strategy …

What lies behind all this is, as James Kane of the Institute for Government explains, the lack of a coherent post-Brexit trade strategy. To the extent that there is any strategy at all it seems to simply be that ‘signing trade deals’ is a good thing because, as a member of the EU, Britain was not able to do so. Supposedly, the ‘big prize’ now in sight is accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Barely mentioned, if at all, prior to the Referendum, this emerged under Liam Fox as being a key post-Brexit aspiration. It has become all the more so since the prospects of a UK-US trade deal have receded, and to some extent it is seen as a substitute for such a deal (if the US were to revert to the pre-Trump aspiration of also joining what is now CPTPP, which is not clear).

Thus Truss, and the government, are explicitly claiming that the US-Australia deal paves the way for CPTPP membership. This is not, as they sometimes imply, because it is a pre-requisite of membership but because it arguably smooths the way to it since what would have been Australia’s key ask during CPTPP negotiations (tariff-free access for, especially, agricultural products) will already have been satisfied. The interplay between the UK’s CPTPP accession negotiations and those with Australia (and the same, presumably, applies to New Zealand other CPTPP members) is a fascinating issue, as a discussion last week between trade experts Dmitry Grozoubinski, Sam Lowe and Anna Isaacs showed.

The general takeaway from that discussion might be that international trade negotiations comprise a series of complex interrelated trade-offs between multiple parties. For example, the most important practical consequence of what the UK has agreed with Australia about beef tariffs may be what that leads to in terms of what is demanded of it by the US or Brazil. These complexities require a strategy which goes beyond simply assuming that any deal is a good deal and the more deals the better. Or, at least, it does if the aim is maximizing the UK’s economic interest rather than the performative one of generating good headlines for domestic political reasons.

… derived from an incoherent project …

However, that brings us back to the basic incoherence of Brexit as an economic project. Since distance does matter so much, fiddling around making trade deals with remote countries is fairly pointless. Given that Brexit has happened, it’s worth doing, so far as it goes, but it isn’t a benefit, still less a triumph, for Brexit; it’s just some fairly minor damage limitation.

A new ONS trade report is a sharp reminder of this. To try (although it’s not completely possible) to disentangle Brexit and Covid effects they compare the first quarter of 2021 with the first quarter of 2018, and report that trade with the EU decreased by 23.1% (whereas trade with non-EU countries decreased by just 0.8%, suggesting that the Brexit negotiating process and its outcome, rather than the pandemic, was a key driver). The report also shows that, since the end of the transition, post-Brexit trade arrangements have become a far bigger challenge for businesses than the pandemic. The nature of those challenges, especially for small businesses, was spelt out in minute detail in testimony given to the UK Trade and Business Commission yesterday. It is also clear from a new survey showing that 56% of UK businesses think Brexit has had a negative effect on them and just 5% that it has been positive.

Given that, prior to Brexit, the EU-27 accounted for about 50% of UK trade, it’s obvious that to compensate for such massive decreases in trade with the EU, that with non-EU countries would have to be revolutionised and the constraints of distance make that virtually impossible, no matter how many, or even how good, the trade deals the UK strikes. In short, far from the promise that “Brexit will cement our status as a great trading nation” (£), it is causing Britain to become a less great trading nation. No doubt Brexiters and the government will try to spin these latest figures as showing that the UK is ‘re-balancing’ away from its dependence on the EU for trade to being a ‘truly Global Britain’, because of course it (already) means that trade with the EU is less than 50% of UK trade. But it will be nonsense – it just means that the trade pie as a whole has shrunk.

In a related development, and following from the recent failure of the UK and Norway to reach a deal on fishing, it now seems likely that the UK-Norway trade deal will collapse. This was a temporary rollover deal, agreed last December, to be superseded by a permanent and possibly more extensive agreement. But Norwegian politicians are concerned about the impact on their farmers of tariff-free British beef and cheese imports. Note that although Australia’s economy (USD 1.4 trillion, 2019) is much larger than Norway’s (USD 403 billion, 2019), Norway is a more significant trading partner for the UK (£27,436 million, 2019) than is Australia (£16,041 million, 2019).

It’s instructive to see the reactions of leave voters to the news that the Norway deal may fall through. These included rage that this is punishment for leaving the EU (apparently oblivious to the fact that Norway isn’t in the EU) and suggestions that Norway should realise that, being the smaller economy, it needs a deal more than the UK (a strange inversion of what they used to say about the UK-EU negotiations). As always, bellicose victimhood is the guiding theme.

… rooted in an inherent contradiction

The issue of protecting farmers, whether Norwegian or British, goes to the heart of the trade dilemmas Brexit poses for the UK. Whilst Brexiters deride the EU as a ‘protectionist racket’ (an accusation based more on a bad pun than a serious analysis), the protection of agriculture is, globally, almost invariably the most contentious of trade policy issues. In part, as Brexiters should appreciate, that is because of the complex interactions of national identity, soil, and foodstuffs. As regards Brexit, it is also because of the peculiar contradiction of nationalism and globalism. Many who voted leave believed that it would mean not just good news for farmers but the restoration of the heavy industries which have declined in the years since Britain joined the EEC (though of course that wasn’t the cause).

Those votes were immediately taken by the Brexit global free traders as permission to pursue their own agenda – most notably in Fox’s ‘Manchester speech’, made in September 2016 before the hard Brexit of leaving the single market and customs union had even been announced. And, as the deal with Australia suggests, the UK is going to concede tariff-free access to British markets whilst getting almost nothing in return. The gamble Johnson’s government is making is that leave voters will swallow this on politically nationalistic grounds (‘Britain is a global trading nation once more’) and ignore, or be unaware of, its consequences for economic nationalism.

In this gamble, the government may be assisted by one of the strangest features of the way that Brexiters are framing post-Brexit trade deals, and trade more generally. Rather than thinking of these issues in terms of economic rationality or the economics of competitive advantage, they seem to imagine them in terms of ‘cultural affinity’. That imagination (which is what it is, since it involves a hopelessly outdated and sentimental apprehension) is most obvious in the still thriving CANZUK fantasy, but also applies to an Australia-only deal.

The politics of “gormlessness”

It is a gamble that is quite likely to succeed. And everyone knows why, even though it is deemed unsayable in what in 2017 I called the new political correctness of Brexit: the coalition of voters which chose Brexit and which now supports Johnson’s government is largely ignorant of the realities of contemporary trade, business, and international relations. It’s this which unites the Home Counties golf club bore, pontificating about how he ran his import-export business just fine before the EEC, with the coastal town pensioner lamenting that ‘I just want my country back’. Despite the overlap between leading Brexiters and free speech union libertarians that obvious fact – far more than anything proscribed by ‘woke’ activists – is something that cannot be said because to do so is, supposedly, ‘elitist’.

It is this electoral base which chose to endorse what, as Cummings has so eloquently told us, is the “completely crazy” situation of him and Boris Johnson being in positions of power. Almost all attention has focussed, understandably, on what Cummings’ testimony revealed about the dysfunctional government and woefully inadequate leadership during the coronavirus crisis. But it is crucial to remember that at the same time this same government and this same leadership were engaged in the highly complex trade and cooperation negotiations with the EU.

More specifically, it was in this period that Johnson refused to extend the transition, despite the chaos that was going on. It was in this period that he – apparently with the support of both Cummings and Frost – threatened to break international law with the Internal Market Bill. It was throughout this period that he was constantly threatening to end the transition with no trade deal in place and claiming that the UK was fully prepared to cope with the disruption that would have ensued. And it was from the decisions taken in this period that many of the present consequences of Brexit arise.

Not only that but, whilst Cummings may have gone, Johnson and his Brexit government remain in place. And just as, vaccines notwithstanding, the government continues to bodge the management of the pandemic so too does it continue, as Fintan O’Toole put it this week (£), to “strategise gormlessness” in its approach to Brexit, especially in continuing to ascribe its malign effects to others. It remains to be seen whether the Cummings revelations about coronavirus policy dent Johnson’s support within his electoral base, but it’s unlikely that his ‘gormless’ Brexit strategy will do so. After all, it is a strategy designed precisely to appeal to that base.