Friday 2 March 2018

Four speeches and a wake-up call

Speeches have been as plentiful as snow this week and like our snow-blocked roads they lead us precisely nowhere. That was made brutally clear by the publication of the EU’s draft text of the Withdrawal Agreement and the predictably absurd reactions it engendered.

Liam Fox’s is easily dealt with. It was a vapid restatement of claims about the value of an independent trade policy which the government’s own analysis show to be minimal and which his own former Permanent Secretary had earlier the same day analytically trashed.

Jeremy Corbyn’s had a greater political significance in that by opening up a different policy on a comprehensive customs treaty he also created a route for parliamentary defeats of the government and, with that, unpredictable but potentially major implications. How that plays out now will depend on the extent to which Tory remainers are willing to take the opportunity. But, that said, a customs union alone will not solve the Irish border issue nor will it mitigate very much of the economic damage of Brexit. For that, Labour need to shift on the single market, too – and that seems to be their most likely, though still very far from assured, direction of travel.

John Major’s speech was a reminder of the virtue of common sense, which seems to have all but deserted the British polity, and made logical, detailed, and well-informed arguments (although he, too, appears to think that a customs union will solve the Irish border). Beneath the tone of statesmanlike sagacity I thought I detected an almost pleading note to the country and to his party to get real before it is too late. Predictably, it was immediately denounced by the Ultra Brexiters as treachery. There may well still be voters who listen to and are swayed by Major, but alas for him and for us all, a large swathe of the backbenchers in his party have moved beyond common sense, logic and detailed well-informed argument.

And finally the Prime Minister’s capstone of the ‘road to Brexit’ series. At the core of it lay a statement of the ‘three baskets’ or ‘ambitious managed divergence’ approach agreed at Chequers last week. For the reasons I discussed in some detail in my previous post, this is a non-starter. After all these months, she still refuses to understand that although there are different ways of being in or being out of the single market, there is no way of being both in and out. The most depressing aspect of it, as with the Florence speech, was the sub-text that it would be better for Britain not to leave the EU at all or, at least, to do so whilst staying within the EEA. It is a terrible, tragic failure of political leadership that a British PM is enacting a policy which is not only harmful to Britain but which she clearly realises is harmful to Britain. And it’s an insult to the people of Britain to demand that we ‘come together’ to support a Brexit that almost half who voted did not want, and in a form that more than half of them certainly don’t want.

Overall, it seems clear that there is going to be no change of course by the government, unless it is forced on them by parliament, and thus they will have to accept the consequences of having chosen that course. Which bring us to the wake-up call of the EU draft Withdrawal Agreement. There was nothing in it that should really have been a surprise to anyone since it is the legal reflection of what was agreed in the phase 1 talks in December. Those talks agreed that, barring a trade arrangement (option A) or a technological arrangement (option B) that obviated the need for a hard border, then option C would be continuing complete harmonization (in effect, continued single market and customs union operations) across the border. Whether or not that extends to the whole of the UK or just Northern Ireland would be a matter for the British government. There is no ‘annexation’ going on here.

The howls of outrage from the Brexiters were entirely bogus. They arise solely because as the Article 50 period continues it is exposing all of the lies, fantasies and misunderstandings in which they have indulged and which they have conned many voters into believing. As reality bites back, this ceases to be a matter of theoretical argument or political rhetoric but begins to take on a tangible, legal and institutional form. This is what they wanted, but they act as if it is being forced upon them.

In particular, as regards the Irish border, what is being rammed home is that both a customs union and a single market entail, for a different reasons, a border. That cannot be negotiated away because it doesn’t lie within either the EU’s or the UK’s power to do so. A customs union is a particular kind of construct within those WTO rules that Brexiters often say they like so much, but even if that were not so as soon as there are different tariff levels within different territories there has to be a border, or else there is no way of enforcing the tariff. Similarly, with market standards and regulation. Brexiters say they want freedom for regulatory divergence, even, we are told, to set higher standards than the EU. Suppose this happens, perhaps on animal welfare standards: how then will the Brexiters prevent lower-standard EU produce entering the UK without a border? The same goes for every regulatory divergence or tariff divergence, whether upwards or downwards, between the EU and the UK – indeed, ironically, were it not so those independent free trade deals that Brexiters are obsessed with would be impossible. The technical details are fiendishly complicated; the basic principles could be understood by a child.

So if you leave the single market and any customs union you have to have a border. The only question is where. It can’t be on the Irish land mass if the GFA is to survive. It can’t be in the Irish Sea if the United Kingdom is to survive. So the government have to decide which of these mutually incompatible choices they wish to ditch. Howling that it isn’t fair will change nothing.

Of course the government’s position is, still, that these choices can be avoided, either by a free trade agreement so comprehensive that the need for a border is obviated (option A) or by means of a technological solution which makes the border virtual (option B). So far as the first of these is concerned it rests on the pervasive failure of Brexiters to understand the difference between a single market and a free trade agreement (FTA). No FTA, no matter how ‘deep and special’ or ‘bespoke’, can be the same as single market membership. I suppose it is just about conceivable that an agreement could be devised which amounted in all but name to membership but if so the obvious question would be: so why leave? In any case, such an outcome would be completely at odds with the government’s current ‘managed divergence’ plan, and with its existing red lines, as May’s speech made clear.

The idea of a technological fix for the Irish border has gained new impetus in the last few weeks in Brexiter circles because they have latched on to a research paper produced for the European Parliament on this topic. As is their habitual modus operandi, they leap on to things that they half-understand (‘WTO rules’ and ‘Most Favoured Nation’ being other examples) in order to proclaim that there is, after all, an answer to the incompatible demands they make. In the present case, like the devil quoting scripture, the fact that it is a report to (not, as many of them claim, by) an EU body adds to their glee.

However, that glee is quite misplaced. The document in question outlines a series of new and still-emergent technologies which could be used in a combination that has never been tried before and to that extent is highly speculative. But, crucially, even if it could be put into practice (and in any kind of feasible timescale) it would not remove the need for any physical infrastructure at the border and does not claim to do so. Moreover, it would not avoid the need for human interventions at the border, for example to check vehicles which intelligence operations had identified as suspicious.

This latter point was made by Dr Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast, who has conducted detailed research on Brexit and the Irish border issue, in an interview on Radio 4’s The World Tonight last Tuesday. Yet the very next edition of the same programme had former Tory leader Michael Howard re-stating that the ‘EU’ paper proved that the border issue could be solved by technology. He was being interviewed by the same person as had interviewed Hayward the day before, yet her points were not put to him. This, in microcosm, is one reason why so little progress is made in debate with Brexiters: they set off false hares that leave everyone chasing around in circles until the next one starts. It was, don’t forget, only a few weeks ago that they were proclaiming with equal confidence and equal inaccuracy that the Sweden-Norway and USA-Canada borders were frictionless.

In the absence of a viable form for options A and B, the EU draft text only provided details of option C, whilst being clear that this would be rendered irrelevant if the UK did, indeed, come up with a practical alternative. Apart from the ridiculous reaction of the Brexiters (including Mrs May’s peculiar response that no British PM could agree to option C when she did exactly that, at least as a potential, in December) some sensible and well-informed commentators suggested that the EU had been undiplomatic and provocative in drafting the document this way.

I strongly disagree with that. The whole sorry mess that Britain has got itself into arises from the inability or refusal to stand up to the Brexit Ultras in politics and the press. For years now, like domestic tyrants whose families try to avoid enraging them, they have been tiptoed around. Cameron did so, May does so and actually, more broadly, pro-EU politicians did so. One of the reasons the Referendum went the way it did was that for decades very few pro-Europeans were willing to make a full-on case for membership – rather than a grudging, transactional case - so that by the time of the campaign it was too late. Instead, the Brexiter narrative was allowed to take hold as established fact rather than being firmly dismissed from the outset as nonsense. As usual with the politics of appeasement, it failed.

There’s no reason at all why the EU should now show any respect for the sensibilities of the Brexit Ultras. During the years of Britain’s membership, endless accommodations were made to those sensibilities (hence the numerous opt outs, including from the Euro and Schengen) but, of course, they could not satisfy the Ultras because, as we now clearly see, they cannot be satisfied. Now that we are leaving, the EU-27 are understandably unwilling to continue trying to work around them. But even if that were not so, the circumstances of Brexit make it impossible for them to do so. What the Brexiters want is fantasy because it contains so many mutually exclusive things and there’s just no way that the EU can pander to this by pretending it is not so or by ignoring it. Britain is still refusing to get real about Brexit, as the speeches by May, Fox and Corbyn, and the reaction to that by Major, showed: that does not mean that the EU will or can do the same. Britain, and the Brexit government in particular, needs to wake up to that.

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