Wednesday 28 March 2018

A year into Article 50, unreality permeates Brexit

A year ago I wrote about the bleak and bitter day for our country when the Article 50 process was initiated. A year on, most of what I wrote in that post still holds true but of course there have also been some momentous developments including the bizarre Brexit election that didn’t discuss Brexit and its outcome, the phase 1 agreement and, most recently, the draft transition agreement. Now, half-way through the Article 50 period, we might expect the story to be one of Brexit becoming ever more real. Instead, a strange air of unreality predominates.

Brexiters themselves seem to have all but given up on claiming that there is any great value in or reason for doing it. On the odd occasions that they attempt it, as with Boris Johnson’s ‘road to Brexit’ speech, it quickly descends into bathos. More often, the message now is just that it won’t be the awful disaster that critics claim. That in itself seems to be overly optimistic but, even so, hardly inspiring. Of course, they continue to claim that this is because Brexit has been ‘watered down’ by conniving remainers but that is nonsense. The government are enacting precisely the hard Brexit that the Ultras called for, and are finding out just how impractical it is. As I wrote when it was sent, the Article 50 letter marked “the moment from which Brexiters are responsible for what happens to this country. There can be no equivocation about this. Brexiters campaigned for years to leave the EU, they won the referendum and they now control the process of leaving”.

As for Theresa May, she, like most politicians of both main parties, appears to be of the view that Brexit is an outright mistake and yet, somehow, must be done anyway. The semi-respectable reason for that was respecting the result of the Referendum – but only semi-respectable since it was an advisory referendum, explicitly not requiring a super-majority because of that status, and since it certainly didn’t mandate Brexit in the form it is taking. In any case, that semi-respectability is now entirely threadbare. It may never be possible to prove exactly what difference it made, or exactly what happened, but the revelations about the conduct of the Leave campaign now mean that a miasma of illegitimacy hangs over the very marginal victory they secured.

All of that might not have much traction if the Brexit government had developed an even halfway workable approach to their central policy. They have not, and, again, it is false to attribute this to remainer opposition (£). On the contrary, that opposition continues to flourish in part because it is transparently obvious that no workable policy is in place. If there were, many would remain unreconciled to Brexit, of course, but the edge of the opposition would have been blunted, if not discredited.

That no such policy exists is because the government are seeking to operationalise the pretence, or fantasy, or lie, of the Leave campaign that something approximating to EU membership can be obtained but without being a member of the EU or even of the EEA. From that fantasy flow all of the well-rehearsed problems of the Irish border and the perhaps less well-rehearsed problems of participating in EU programmes and agencies (see, for example, this analysis of the European Space Agency by Sophia Besch of CER). It is a fantasy which, as the ever-acute Jonathan Lis of Open Britain explains, will inevitably be exposed in the phase 2 talks.

Until then, the domestic debates about Brexit continue to go round and round in circles, with the only progress occurring when the government accepts the precepts laid down by the EU, as has happened with the phase 1 agreement and, hence, the draft withdrawal agreement and ‘transition’ arrangements. That isn’t, at least not primarily, because of the EU’s stronger bargaining position, it is because if the UK doesn’t itself put forward a workable policy then, by default, what happens is that the EU’s policy becomes the only game in town.

Whilst this is most obviously a failure of the government – since they are, indeed, the government – it is equally true of the Labour opposition. They had the possibility of taking a perfectly respectable and coherent position of arguing for soft Brexit. That would have made intellectual and political sense, and would have enabled any half-way competent opposition to eviscerate a government so adrift from practicalities, so internally riven, and in such a precarious parliamentary position. Instead, Labour moved slowly and belatedly to a position on a customs union that, in itself, does not resolve the Irish border issue nor anything much else; and are hamstrung not simply by having a leader who is probably by conviction in favour of Brexit but one who seems uninterested in and ignorant about it. How else to explain the fact that he rarely raises this defining issue of the day at PMQs and that he repeatedly takes the patently untrue line that single market membership is precluded by leaving the EU?

What hangs above all of this is the inexorable passage of time. It is increasingly obvious that the decision to trigger Article 50 at the time she did was perhaps the worst miscalculation of any British Prime Minister in modern times (far worse in its long-term effects than Suez; the only other contender for the title would be Cameron’s various missteps that led to the Referendum and its result). It was a purely symbolic gesture to the Brexit Ultras in her party and, in conjunction with the extraordinary follow-up of calling an election with the result it had and the thoughtless red lines she established, has created an effectively impossible policy. Every day that goes by makes it clearer – as, in relation to customs arrangements, May herself admitted the other day – that even with the transition period there is insufficient time to do all that needs to be done to avoid chaos.

The one rational solution to this, apart from abandoning Brexit altogether which would almost certainly require another referendum, would be to apply to the EU to extend the Article 50 period but this is precluded by, yet again, the Ultras in her own party, even assuming that the EU-27 would unanimously, as would be required, agree to it. The lesson that May still has not learned is that whatever she does the Ultras will accuse her of betrayal, so she might as well take that hit and at least commit to something workable – meaning not simply an A50 extension but, in the process a belated embrace of the EEA.

So we have a policy that at least half the country, and most parliamentarians, think is a mistake or worse being prosecuted with a level of ineptitude without parallel in modern British political history. It is regarded with incredulity by our friends and allies, and with glee by our enemies. Its main and most vociferous advocates scarcely bother to defend it anymore, and it is based upon a narrow majority that is increasingly looking to have been secured by a deeply flawed process. In the meantime, probably irreparable damage is being done to the economy, to our geo-political standing, to the civility of our political discourse and, the greatest human cost, to the lives of the millions of EU-27 nationals living in Britain and British nationals in the EU-27. Having predicated their lives, livelihoods and relationships, entirely reasonably, on freedom of movement and all that goes with it they remain in an agonizing limbo.

As to what will happen in the next year, who would care to predict? In a previous post I suggested that the agreement of a transition period makes it more likely that we drift to Brexit with no political or economic crisis until it becomes a fait accompli and we have left, albeit on unknown terms. I am not so sure of that since the new allegations about the Vote Leave campaign. There is probably not quite enough, yet, to decisively shift events but it won’t take many more revelations to do so. What happens then is difficult to anticipate, but the momentum to Brexit is egg-shell thin and the slightest crack could be enough to embolden our still cowed parliamentarians and to transform public opinion.

Ironically, the most encouraging event as this first year of Article 50 ends was a speech by Jacob Rees-Mogg (these are not words I ever expected to write), in which he expressed his outrage at the possibility that Brexit might not happen. That Rees-Mogg is outraged is not of any great note (the ‘man bites dog’ story would be if he were ever to be anything else). What is remarkable is that, half-way through the Brexit process, he recognizes that it may yet be abandoned. His fears are, for those of us who are opposed to Brexit, our hopes. But he is right to say that if they are realised there will be an almighty political car crash, and if it happens the outcome won’t be a return to the day before the Referendum or before the Article 50 letter. Whatever happens now none of us, whether leaver or remainer, is going to ‘get our country back’.

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