Friday 11 May 2018

The customs row reveals the fundamental paradox of Brexit politics

For weeks now, and with intensifying fury, the government have been bitterly split between two versions of what will succeed Britain’s membership of the Customs Union. It is a row that is beyond satire. Both versions (‘customs partnership’ and ‘maximum facilitation’) are impossible, resting upon technologies that do not currently exist and which could not be delivered in the necessary time frame even if they did. Both versions are markedly inferior to what they would replace. Both versions have already been rejected by the EU. Neither of them, even if they could be made to work and even if they could be agreed with the EU, would completely solve one of the main things they are supposed to solve – an Irish border with no physical infrastructure. And this, which is in any case but one aspect of a far larger set of issues that need to be resolved, is occurring almost two years since Britain voted to leave the EU, well over a year since Britain began the process of doing so, and less than six months before the terms of withdrawal need to be ready for ratification.

To call this situation absurd would be excessively generous. It is demented. But, strangely, in the perverse politics of Brexit it makes complete sense. To understand why, it’s necessary to understand the fundamental structural paradox built into those politics. It consists of two, irreconcilable, imperatives.

The first imperative is that Brexit, and specifically hard Brexit, must be done because it is the ‘Will of the People’ as interpreted by the high priests of the ERG and accepted as her duty by Theresa May. The second imperative is that which bears down upon all governments: they will be destroyed if they pursue policies which significantly damage the economic well-being of the country.

If it were really true, as many of the Ultras claim, that it is the Will of the People to leave the EU regardless of any economic consequences, then there would be no problem at all for the government. It could do as the Ultras urge, and leave with no deal or the most minimal of deals. The ‘People’ would applaud them for doing their will. In any case, contradictorily, the Ultras claim that those economic consequences are only Project Fear anyway.

But no serious evaluation – including that of the government itself - of what such a Brexit would mean is so sanguine. The Prime Minister certainly isn’t, warning during the General Election campaign that getting Brexit terms ‘wrong’ would be a disaster. No responsible, or just self-interested, government could do it. If that is true, the logic is obvious: those who voted for Brexit simply didn’t understand the consequences of doing so and must be told so. But that is unsayable in the new political correctness that Brexit has ushered in: it would be elitist disdain for the ‘People’.

Caught between these two irreconcilable imperatives – that hard Brexit must be done, but it must not have any adverse consequences – May’s government has, ever since the Brexit White Paper, tried to find a way of reconciling them. This is what I have called in a previous post the Mobius Strip of Brexiter madness - trying to keep almost all the features of being in the EU, whilst leaving the EU. The government is trying to do so over issues as diverse as data protection and Euratom, it remains the hope of what the future ‘trade deal’ will be, and, right now, it is what the debate (if it can be graced with that name) over future customs arrangements is about: an attempt to be ‘in and yet not in’ or ‘out and yet not out’.

Given that the imperatives are irreconcilable, it’s inevitable that the attempt to do so will fail. But what the customs issue is revealing is something different and even worse. By trying to satisfy both imperatives the Prime Minister is trying to pursue a course which can satisfy neither: a customs partnership which is both unacceptable to the Ultras (because it is not really ‘out’) and yet also does not avoid the damage (because it is not really ‘in’). There can be no middle way between mutually exclusive alternatives, and the pretence that there is could only be sustained if Brexit were just a matter of domestic political debate. It hasn’t been that since the Article 50 process was, by the choice of the British government, begun; the now rapidly nearing end to that process enforces the question: are you in or out? To which the answer can’t be ‘a bit of both’.

It was entirely predictable that the government’s attempt avoid the structural bind imposed by these two incompatible imperatives would fail. It was less predictable that it would have flared up over the customs union, since the more important issue is the single market. That it has flared up reflects, primarily, the fact that Labour changed their stance on a customs union, thus changing the parliamentary arithmetic.

What happens on customs will almost certainly shape what happens on the single market. Because it is not just the government who are dodging the structural bind, the same basic flaw is present in Labour’s ‘jobs first Brexit’. If Labour get to the point of recognizing that for the nonsense it is, and their position on the single market changes, then that, too, will come up for grabs. The recent vote in the House of Lords carrying the single market amendment the Withdrawal Bill now puts Labour’s stance clearly in the spotlight. So it is becoming at least conceivable that the inbuilt Commons majority for soft rather than hard Brexit will prevail.

And if we get to that point then the question as to why leave the EU at all will become irresistible, for a rather ironic reason. Before the Referendum, many Brexiters argued that all they wanted was a ‘soft Brexit’, and many voted leave accordingly. If they had stuck with that ambition, they would probably have succeeded. Instead, since then, most leading Brexiters have argued that soft Brexit would be no Brexit at all. So if it turns out that soft Brexit is all that can be delivered then they will have little to complain about if that morphs into the proposition that we might as well stay in. Which also explains why we are in the current bizarre situation. For the Ultras know, quite as well as anyone else, where it potentially leads: making the choice that the government have so far ducked between the two incompatible imperatives that frame Brexit.

If that choice is faced up to honestly then, again ironically, the structural bind will disappear. For it is only by virtue of the Ultras’ sleight of hand and May’s poor leadership that the Will of the People imperative translates into hard Brexit. In fact, numerous opinion polls show a clear majority for remaining in the single market. If that policy were pursued, then – whilst it would still be damaging to Britain both economically and in terms of wider geo-politics – the second imperative would also be met. Rather than satisfying neither imperative, the government could satisfy both. Unless or until we get to that point the Brexit debate will continue in its present form, as exemplified by the customs row. That is to say, a situation more ludicrous that even the most audacious political satirist would have dared imagine.

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