Wednesday 16 August 2017

What the position papers tell us about the Brexit position

The publication this week of government position papers on customs and on the Irish border has been widely reported and discussed (see, for example, here and here). Stepping back a little from that discussion, four things stand out. The first is just how complex and interlocked different aspects of Brexit are. The single market, customs union, customs cooperation, commercial policy, freedom of movement, open borders (both Schengen and the UK-Ireland Common Travel Area) - amongst many other things - are all conceptually and in some cases institutionally distinct. But they interact with each other in a myriad of ways and they developed via a variety of routes over different timescales and through an assortment of legal instruments. Thus Brexit is not a single event but a multiplicity of interlocking processes.

In that respect, the sequencing (exit terms first, then future terms) required by the EU is problematic, even though it was clear from before the Referendum that this would be the approach, so Brexiters have nothing to complain about. The reason the UK published its customs paper first and then the Irish border paper seems to have been an attempt to get the EU to recognize that it makes little sense to regard the Irish border as being within the exit terms to be settled before the customs issue is discussed as part of the future terms. The two are so intimately interlinked that this is not really possible. That is about the only point where I have some sympathy with how the government are approaching the negotiations.

However, whilst interlinked, some aspects are a matter of how Brexit is interpreted. Thus, as has been widely pointed out, it is a matter of interpretation that it means leaving the single market. On the other hand, although much less widely pointed out, it is not a matter of interpretation but inevitability that Brexit means leaving the customs union albeit that we could seek some kind of customs treaty with the EU (as Turkey does, although the form of that agreement would be highly disadvantageous to the UK). It bears saying that the Leave campaign and Michael Gove in particular claimed that, on Brexit, Britain would be part of a “free trade zone that spreads from Iceland to Turkey”. That was a highly misleading formulation, but its only conceivable meaning was that Britain would be in the single market (like Iceland) and would have a customs treaty (like Turkey).

The second thing that stands out is that (partly as a result of this complexity and the very tight timescales resulting both from the Article 50 period and the domestic pressure from Brexiters in the UK for a quick resolution) the government are really engaged in nothing more than a damage limitation exercise. For whilst the Brexiters claimed before the Referendum, and the ultras continue to claim, that there is no possibility of damage from Brexit the stakes are very high indeed. If things go wrong, then Britain will effectively cease to be a functioning economy with the possibility of major social breakdown. Thus the government plans on the customs union and the Irish border are in no way like normal government policies which at least claim to be trying to make some aspect of life better. Instead all that is being attempted is to recreate all, or as much as possible, of the status quo so as to avoid the terrible consequences of it falling apart; and through transitional arrangements to buy time to undertake this recreation of the status quo.

Thus there is no sense that all that the highly complex and expensive new customs arrangements (even if they prove workable, which many doubt, not least as the details are vague and much relies upon wild claims of untested technological fixes) will actually improve anything for anyone. In fact it is openly admitted that they will entail additional bureaucratic costs for businesses (the idea that Brexit means less ‘red tape’ seems to have gone to heaven along with the £350M a week). The only exception is the idea that because exiting the customs union will also enable exiting the commercial policy (these are separate but, again, interrelated things) Britain can make its own trade deals. That is touted as if it were some great prize, but no serious person thinks that these trade deals can compensate for the cumulative costs of Brexit including, but not limited to, lost trade. So there is no economic benefit in this, just the psychological or theological one that it somehow gives Britain ‘more control’ or ‘sovereignty’. For Brexiters that is apparently both meaningful and desirable in its own right, whatever the cost, but they should at least admit that rather than pretending that there is an economic rationale for it by implying it will unlock new vistas of international trade.

The third thing, of course, is that all of this remains an almost wholly UK focussed discussion. And it remains ‘cakeist’ in the sense of trying to retain all those aspects of EU membership which are seen as desirable by Brexiters whilst avoiding all those they dislike. As such it is unclear – and also unlikely – that the EU will go along with any of the ideas in the position papers. For the Brexiters this is a matter of EU malice or punishment – proving that the EU are not a nice lot, and in itself justifying Brexit. That is childish. It is Britain’s choice to leave the EU – and to do so in the form it is doing – and that has consequences. International relations, whether with the EU or anyone else, are a matter of realpolitik, pragmatism and power. Brexit means that Britain is choosing to change its relationship with the EU from member to third party country. This is really so obvious it need hardly be said. If Brexiters don’t like the consequences of that, tough. They own them.

To understand what becoming a third party country means, Brexiters should undertake the thought experiment of imagining that it was not Britain leaving the EU but another country – Greece, say, or perhaps more appositely Ireland. Would Brexiters then be willing to make all kinds of accommodations – including incurring financial (say, new customs facilities) and political (say, Irish peace process) costs? I think not. They would be saying to that country: the problems created are your problems, not ours, and the only things we will do are those things that protect our interests, not yours. Would that be malice or punishment? Only in some kind of boy scout view of international relations.

Even the realpolitik of negotiating with the EU would not be so difficult were it not for the relentless pressure of the vociferous and ever-present Brexit ultras inside and outside the Tory party. They are so detached from reality and so implacable in their demands that even the government’s attempts to negotiate hard Brexit are regarded as a betrayal. Since they do not have to take any responsibility at all for the consequences they are free to oppose transitional periods, exit bills, or any kind of deal at all (see John Redwood here, for example). If May thought that she had bought their loyalty by rejecting the obvious, pragmatic, compromise of soft (single market) Brexit then she failed to understand that as with every concession made to them before it just produces an even wilder new demand.

The obvious conclusion from the complexity of Brexit and from the fact that the best the government can hope for is to expend massive amounts of time and money to recreate something as close as possible to the pre-Brexit situation is to ask: why bother? Why not, at the least, backtrack to the soft Brexit that would both honour the Referendum result, be in line with what many said and believed a vote for Brexit meant, and do the least amount of damage? If the only answer to that is the wrath of the ultra Brexiters, then their very implacability negates that objection. Since they will in all events scream betrayal we might as well face up to that whilst doing ourselves minimal damage since we will also have to face up to it even whilst doing ourselves great damage. The answer to that, of course, is that the ‘we’ and the ‘us’ in this is not the country, it is the Tory Party and May’s overriding desire to prevent it imploding. And that is the fourth point that stands out: these position papers are less about the customs union and the Irish border than they are about the position of the Tory Party.

Update: For withering assessments of the position papers, see Ian Dunt on customs and on the Irish border. On the customs paper including the issue of customs union membership being inseparable from EU membership, see Oliver Norgrove’s blog.

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