Friday 12 January 2018

The week that Brexit plumbed new depths of absurdity

Any expectation that the New Year would concentrate Brexiters’ minds on the pragmatic realities of Brexit has been abundantly dashed this week, with a string of absurdities. Yet, absurdities though they be, each of them is revealing of some of the deep and recurring flaws within Brexit.

So, first, came the news that David Davis had consulted lawyers as to possible legal action against the EU for producing documents outlining the consequences of Britain becoming a third country to the EU after Brexit (see, for example, this one on the consequences for road transport). The legal advice, predictably, was that there was no basis for such an action but even to entertain the idea is extraordinary (and to which court would the case be taken? The despised ECJ presumably). For it is an ineluctable consequence of Brexit that, in March 2019, Britain will become a third country, and a real possibility – actually welcomed by some Brexiters – is that there will be no deal. It was even rumoured this week, although nothing came of it, that Britain would create a Minister charged with planning for a no deal scenario. Thus it is bizarre that Davis would think it illegitimate for the EU to plan for this. Equally bizarre was his claim that the EU was not giving sufficient credence to a transition (or, in Brexit-speak, implementation) period since – apart from the fact that this is by no means assured – the EU documents in question did, precisely, identify this as a possibility that could mitigate or defer the full consequences of being a third country.

This piece of nonsense was elegantly taken apart by Jonathan Lis in the latest of his string of excellent, excoriating articles on the government’s approach to Brexit. But in addition to the points he makes I think this episode is a fresh illustration of something I have written about before on this blog (in fact, it is by a long way the most read post), namely that Brexiters constantly talk as if Britain is being expelled from the EU rather than choosing to leave. So the consequences are treated as if they are a punishment for, rather than being entailed by, that choice.

The notion of punishment also formed the backdrop to the ‘charm offensive’ visit to Germany by Davis and Philip Hammond this week. Speaking to a business audience, Hammond argued that it would be crazy to ‘punish’ Britain for Brexit by creating new barriers to trade between Britain and Germany (and the EU generally) since, currently, none exist. Well, quite. But of course that is what the government’s policy of (hard) Brexit does.

In making these arguments, and to this audience, Hammond was channelling some recurrent themes in Brexiter mythology going back to before the Referendum. First, that it would be possible to get round the EU-27 by dealing directly with individual member states, especially Germany. The Brexiters in government have repeatedly tried this ploy and repeatedly failed. Second, that German businesses are going to come to the rescue of Brexit and force Germany and in turn the EU to drop its defence of the integrity of the single market. They haven’t and they won’t (because they also care about the integrity of the single market); and moreover they can’t (because they don’t make German, still less EU, trade policy). And, third, that existing regulatory convergence makes a Brexit trade deal easy. It doesn’t, because the deal is going to be about divergence, not convergence.

And then the final absurdity, Nigel Farage’s suggestion that he was warming to the idea of a second referendum - not on the final terms, but a re-run of the in/out choice – in the expectation of a more emphatic vote to leave to scarify the ‘remoaners’ once and for all. As many commentators have pointed out, this is most obviously understood in terms of Farage’s desire to be back in the limelight and to reprise what no doubt he considers his finest hour.

But I think there is something deeper here than Farage’s ego. There is a significant strand of Brexiter thinking, exemplified by Farage, which is besotted with a self-pitying sense of victimhood. For these people, winning the Referendum was actually a catastrophe, taking away their victim status and requiring them to do something quite hateful to them: to take responsibility for delivering what they said they wanted and which they claimed would be easy. It is that which accounts for the way that since the Referendum they have continually acted as if they were still fighting it. And, more profoundly, it directly feeds into talking about Brexit as if Britain were being forced out of the EU on ‘punitive’ terms, thus perpetuating a sense of victimhood. In this way, there is a seamless weave between Farage’s desire to re-live his moment in the sun, Davis’s attempt to blame the EU for the consequences of Brexit, and Hammond’s talk of post-Brexit trade on anything other than near identical terms to EU membership being punitive.

Until the Referendum – or at least until the Article 50 letter – Britain could keep going round these endless loops of brassy, breezy optimism (‘they need us more than we need them’ and variants thereof) and sullen, lachrymose victimhood (‘ordinary folk done down by the EUSSR and the establishment’). That won’t do now that Brexit is happening, and happening very soon. Brexiters love to say that the refusal of ‘remoaners’ to accept Brexit is undermining the country in the EU negotiations but the reality is that what makes Britain ridiculous – and incomprehensible – to the EU is, precisely, the deep-rooted inability of Brexiters to accept Brexit.

For Brexiters are no longer – if they ever were – the insurgents. Now, they drive government policy and are in the key positions of authority to deliver Brexit. And that has exposed both their completely inadequate grasp of the practicalities of what Brexit means and their psychological aversion to taking responsibility for it. Farage apparently believes that a second referendum would deliver an overwhelming mandate for Brexit but I suspect that in his heart of hearts he – and many other Brexiters – would prefer to lose such a Referendum. Then, not only would all the boring practicalities of responsibility to deliver an impossible policy be avoided but also Brexiters could return to their comfort zone of victimhood.

And if that analysis is right, then the absurdity of Britain leaving the EU becomes truly enormous: for it means that we are doing so against the wishes not just of remainers but of leavers too.  

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