Saturday 22 July 2017

The myth of 'pragmatic' Brexit

It seems highly unlikely that any cabinet ministers read this blog or were they to do so that they would find much to agree with. Nevertheless, developments over the last 48 hours might suggest that ministers are alert to the situation I outlined in my last post. There, I said that the more inflexible and extreme a stance Brexiters took the more danger (from their point of view, or hope, from a remainer point of view) there was that voters would turn against them.

It is this, as well as pressure from businesses, that seems to have driven the new soundbite of Brexit ‘pragmatism’ from Michael Gove and other ministers. Substantively, this amounts to an acceptance of some form of transitional or – the government’s preferred term – implementation period to follow the end of the Article 50 period and the formal end of EU membership in March 2019. What this means in practice is not clear in terms of, for example, single market and customs union membership. Gove has suggested that it would mean continued free movement of labour which in turn seems to imply both of those things and, therefore, ECJ jurisdiction. Nor is it clear what timeframe is envisaged. Periods of two to four years are mentioned, but if the transition in question is to the completion of a free trade agreement with the EU it could be much longer than that.

As the howls of outrage from kamikaze Brexiters such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Peter Bone suggest, this represents a victory for the more ‘economics-focussed’ Brexit of Philip Hammond. But as noted in my previous post it is vital to realise that this is not soft Brexit as normally understood (single market and, perhaps, customs union membership). It remains a hard Brexit and although it is not quite as ruinous as the ‘no deal’ or ‘cliff edge' variants of the kamikaze Brexiters it is only judged against that lunatic yardstick that it can be called pragmatic. Such pragmatism as is on display comes not, alas, from the government but from the decisions now being reported on a daily basis of individuals and companies to leave the UK. Whatever happens now, the Brexit ‘patriots’ have already done long-term damage to the country.

As for the politics of a transition period, once again the Brexiters are having an inward-looking, parochial discussion. It is by no means automatic that the EU will agree to such an arrangement. Although it would have the advantage of being more orderly and less disruptive for the EU-27, the prospect of the UK sitting half-in and half-out for a long period of time is unlikely to be appealing. That is especially so since Britain continues to act in the oppositional, awkward way that has long characterised our membership, even as we are in the process of leaving. For example, the government are currently fighting EU energy efficiency proposals, even though these would not come into effect until after we have left, and in May blocked a proposal for an EU military unit.

This, along with the bigger irritation of Britain’s failure to engage seriously in the Brexit negotiations, is hardly conducive to accommodating a transitional deal to mitigate the most catastrophic self-inflicted effects of Brexit. But there is another factor, too. So unstable and flaky has Britain’s reputation become – something commented on again this week in both the American and Irish media – that this latest cobbled together stance cannot be relied upon. Why should the EU invest in this newly forged ‘pragmatism’ when within a week or a month it may have unwound and the kamikaze tendency are back in control? It’s hardly unthinkable that, say, Boris Johnson – who has not yet publicly endorsed a transitional period – might pop up shouting ‘betrayal’ and the whole British approach gets thrown up in to the air again.

As for the politics of remainers, this mythical pragmatism can be read in two ways. One is that – as per my previous post – it is unhelpful in that it appears ‘moderate’ compared with kamikaze Brexit. From that point of view it is important to constantly challenge the idea that it is moderate or pragmatic. The other reading is that it represents the possibility (as, clearly, the extreme Brexiters fear) that Brexit gets endlessly deferred, and Britain remains in an ever-extended transition. However I, and I would imagine most remainers, do not want to be in an ever-extended transition. I want Britain to be in the EU or, at worst, to be in a settled position within the EEA. From that point of view the only positive is that a transition might be a staging post to the abandonment of Brexit and that the longer it goes on the greater the hope that public sentiment moves in favour of such an abandonment.

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