Tuesday 1 August 2017

A reply to John Redwood

John Redwood’s blog post (“Brexit policy and how to negotiate”, 1 August 2017) may be taken to represent the views of the more hardline Brexiters about the current situation. Indeed, to the extent that he is regarded by Brexiters as one of their leading intellectual lights it may be taken as representing their strongest case. This post is a reply.

Redwood: “I am glad the PM has made clear we will end freedom of movement and have our own migration policy on exit, as I reminded people here on this blog last week”.

Response: The PM’s position on freedom of movement is not clear, in fact, as Ian Dunt’s analysis (“No. 10 announcement on free movement completely without meaning”, politics.co.uk, 31 July 2017) explains. What is clear is that with her authority diminished by the General Election result, this and other policies are a matter of dispute within the government, with different ministers openly articulating different positions.

Redwood: “She has also clarified the issue of a transitional Agreement. The UK has not asked for one. We still have 19 months left to negotiate a proper Agreement. Negotiating a transitional one would require prior consent to a full Agreement, then allowing discussion of how to transition from the one to the other. It is not intrinsically easier to negotiate a Transitional Agreement than a permanent Agreement, and requires consent to where the two parties are going during transition”.

Response: This is correct both as regards the fact that the UK has not asked for a transitional agreement and as regards the incoherence of the position of those arguing for one without any clear idea of what the end state of the transition would be. However to say that there are 19 months left is to forget that the agreement needs ratification. So there are really more like 14 months left.

Redwood: “There are those in the Opposition, the media and business who seem to want to turn the EU/UK talks into a negotiation amongst ourselves about what we are trying to achieve. This is damaging to the UK’s official negotiating strategy, as it leads some in the EU to think that if they delay and prod the UK will change its mind and offer to carry on with budget contributions, freedom of movement and the other items that so favour the rest of the EU”.

Response: This is misleading in that it is those within the Tory Party and more especially the Cabinet who are conducting this internal negotiation, precisely because there is no agreement amongst them as to what the UK’s strategy should be. In this they have been extraordinarily irresponsible (to an extent without precedent in modern British political history) since they have already chosen of their own volition to trigger Article 50 without having reached such an agreement. What we are seeing, as we have since at least 2015, is the internal divisions of the Tory Party overriding any sense of care about the national interest, as pointed out by former Tory MP Matthew Parris in a recent excoriating article (“The Conservatives are criminally incompetent” The Times 28 July 2017 [£]). What is damaging to the UK’s negotiation from an EU perspective is their dismay that the UK has no clarity or detail. It is true that business groups are trying to open up the possibility of a transitional agreement, and the reason for that is obvious: businesses are well aware that an agreement within the Article 50 period is impossible and that without a transition there will be catastrophic effects for business. That is simply pragmatic business self-interest: what is surprising is that the current Tory Party are so remote from business and so pre-occupied with pursuing an anti-business policy in the form of Brexit.

Redwood: “MPs and others in senior positions in the Labour party keep changing their minds about membership of the single market and customs union, long after Parliament has voted decisively both to send the Article 50 letter and to exit both the single market and Customs Union”.

Response: Correct. The Labour position is completely incoherent.

Redwood: “Let’s have another go at reminding people what the UK has already decided. The people voted to leave the EU. They did so with both official campaigns pointing out this meant leaving the single market and customs Union. They voted leave to take back control, especially of our money, our laws and our borders”.

Response: This is simply untrue. The Leave campaign never clearly specified that voting to leave the EU meant voting to leave the single market and the customs union. Indeed many leading Leave campaigners including Daniel Hannan and Owen Paterson explicitly said that it did not mean leaving the single market. Moreover when the Treasury put out its long-term economic forecasts for Brexit in April 2016 it explicitly identified three variants of Brexit: continued single market membership, a free trade agreement, and WTO trading. There was never any sense given to the electorate that leaving the EU meant any one thing. This is a matter of record and to deny it is simply to lie. Indeed, the whole situation that the government now finds itself in derives from the fact that the Referendum result was a vote against membership of the EU but not a vote for what should happen next. That is absolutely fundamental to any honest discussion of Brexit, as is a recognition that the country was virtually split down the middle by the Referendum and the need, therefore, to find a way forward that reflects this.

Redwood: “Remain supporters then forced legislation and Parliamentary votes to test out the will of the people. Parliament voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. The Commons since the election has voted to leave the single market and customs union as part of that, as was always implied in the previous Parliamentary votes”.

Response: ‘Forced’ is a peculiar way of putting the fact that as a matter of law a Parliamentary vote was required, but the fact of the result of that vote is not in dispute.

Redwood: “Some Remain supporters now want to invent a Transitional Agreement, requiring the UK to go on paying budget contributions, accepting freedom of movement, and continuing to accept new EU laws. This is not government policy, and is clearly against the wishes of the people as expressed in the Referendum”.

Response: The idea of a transitional agreement comes from Cabinet Ministers, such as Philip Hammond, who may have supported remaining in the EU but now accept that the UK is leaving. Whatever its merits, it cannot be said to be either for or against the wishes of the people as expressed in the Referendum, since they were never asked that question.

Redwood: “When asked why they want this, they usually argue that the other EU member states will damage their trade with us and our trade with them if we do not accept continuing features of EU membership. It is a cruel irony that the most pro EU are the most negative about the nature and likely actions of our EU partners”.

Response: This, to be both frank and charitable, is childish. It is the UK which is choosing to leave the EU, not the other way around, and that choice has consequences for the trading relationship. Redwood and Brexiters in general need to have the courage and honesty to take responsibility for that choice. If ‘we do not accept continuing features of EU membership’ then of course we do not continue to trade on the same terms. To coin a phrase, Brexit means Brexit. The issue isn’t about any benevolence or lack of it on the part of the EU, it is just a matter of reality: if the ‘will of the people’ is for the UK to be a third party state then that is what it will be, with all the consequences entailed.

Redwood: “They are also going to be proved wrong on this as on so much else about Brexit. WTO rules work fine, if the rest of the EU really does want to damage its valuable exports of agricultural produce and cars. Their more voluminous exports will attract far more tariff than our sales to them. Under WTO rules and international law the EU cannot stop companies and individuals in its territory buying and selling things with the UK”.

Response: This is a repeat of the usual ultra-Brexiter mantra and exhibits its usual detachment from reality by invoking the car industry (see here for discussion) and the UK trade deficit (supposedly an advantage, and yet we have a services surplus so what of that?) and failing to recognize that a far higher percentage of UK trade is with the EU-27 than EU-27 trade is with the UK. But more fundamentally it ignores the fact that tariffs are not nearly as important as non-tariff barriers and that WTO rules, far from ‘working fine’ would be a catastrophe for the UK as has been repeatedly explained for example in summary by me, but also by trade experts, by businesspeople, by journalists, and by the better-informed Brexiters such as Peter North who concludes: “One can say, unequivocally, that the UK could not survive as a trading nation by relying on the WTO Option. It would be an unmitigated disaster, and no responsible government would allow it”.

Final note: There is a huge irony here. It is precisely the fact that crashing out of the EU on WTO terms would poleaxe the UK that has driven the call for transitional arrangements from those trying pragmatically to salvage something from the year-zero ideologues such as Redwood. But for those of us who want to remain in the EU those ideologues are actually helpful, in that if they are successful in driving Britain to the brink of disaster they will assist our attempts to save our country from going over it, whereas the ‘pragmatists’ because they sound more reasonable are more likely to take us all the way to disaster, albeit more slowly. Of course it would be far better for Britain if we had not been put in the current position at all, and whatever now happens the Brexiters have irrevocably damaged our country, economically, culturally and geo-politically. Still, given that we are where we are, the position taken by Redwood (and his fellow ultra-Brexiters), dishonest and absurd as it is, might just help us to avoid the worst. If the ultras can defeat the pragmatists there’s just a tiny chance that the national catastrophe of Brexit will be averted.

[Updated with minor edits and reformatting, 2 August 2017]

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