Friday 13 July 2018

This White Paper should be put out of its misery

The new Brexit White Paper has now been published, filling out the three page summary of the Chequers proposal and, in doing so, has both confirmed and amplified the obvious flaws of that proposal, discussed in a previous post.

As commentators including Chris Giles, Economics Editor of the Financial Times and Piet Eeckhout, Professor of EU Law at University College London quickly pointed out, the White Paper is cakeism or cherry-picking writ large. Or, as Ian Dunt more colourfully put it in a detailed and damning assessment, “they have a cake, they have eaten it, some of it is still magically on the plate, and the rest is being vomited up on the floor”. I don’t think he meant it in a good way, either.

The central problems, as pre-figured by Chequers, are the idea of separating the single market in goods from that in services, an ambiguous role for the ECJ, a customs arrangement that is pure hokum, and the rejection of freedom of movement of people. But beneath that there are a myriad of ways, relating to trade and non-trade matters, where the proposal is to continue to participate in EU institutions – for example those relating to aviation safety, medicines and policing – as if Britain were still a member state.

There is even a proposal that – as pointed out by Ed Conway, Economics Editor of Sky News - the EU would re-write its existing and future trade agreements with other countries so as to count UK components as if they were of EU origin. Not so much ‘I’ll have my cake and eat it’ as ‘I’ll have my cake, eat it, and eat yours as well’.

The government is clearly aware that what is being proposed is completely at odds with what being a third country to the EU means, and say as much (p.7). Specifically, the idea is that the agreement “should reflect the UK’s and the EU’s deep history, close ties, and unique starting point”. This I think lies at the absolute heart of the problems of the White Paper and, indeed, the government’s entire approach to Brexit since the Referendum. It is based on the notion that there is a kind of alumnus status which is different both to membership and to non-membership.

It is a fantasy. No such status exists, and the EU have been clear both before and since the vote that it can’t exist. Either Britain wants to leave, or it doesn’t: it can’t both leave and not leave in what some have called ‘Schrodinger’s Brexit’. At the very best, the White Paper is the basis – far too late in the day – to begin a negotiation. Yet some are suggesting that, far from being negotiable, it should all be accepted by the EU because it is as far as the government can go given the domestic political constraints imposed by the Ultras.

But that is to view matters entirely through the prism of Tory party infighting. That’s unrealistic. Although as a continuing member Britain was able to extract numerous special concessions in part because other countries recognized those domestic issues, it has far less traction coming from a departing member. For the EU-27, Britain’s political problems are its own and are recognized only to the extent that the EU will (and are) making polite noises about the proposal rather than rejecting it immediately. But reject it they surely will. And if the response to that is to say that ‘no deal’ would be bad for everyone, consider that it is Britain, not the EU-27, which is drawing up plans to stockpile food, medical supplies and portable generators.

As for that Tory infighting, it is becoming more intense. The Brexit Ultras are back in their comfort zone of protest and victimhood – there is a real spring in their step now that they can drop any pretence of having to take any responsibility for this mess. A few weeks ago they were decrying the Tory ‘rebels’ for having the temerity to seek amendments that would ‘bind the Prime Minister’s hands in the negotiations’. To do so, they fulminated, was to sabotage the will of the people. Now, suddenly, tabling amendments to Brexit legislation is back in fashion with them.

In this context, Labour’s stance becomes more important – and the extent to which Labour MPs back it. For the time being, the official position remains as absurd as the government’s, albeit in a different way. No single market, but something ‘as good as it’, and a customs union. But, listening to Emily Thornberry at this week’s PMQs, it does not seem that Labour even understand the difference between a single market and a customs union anyway. And whilst they are, rightly, talking about the damaging effect of the government’s (lack of a) plan for services they are committed to leaving the single market for goods as well as services. So in some respects, the Labour position on Brexit is now slightly ‘harder’ than the government’s. But it hardly matters, as neither is remotely realistic. What does matter is that the parliamentary arithmetic is now so peculiar that it’s possible that no one Brexit policy would command a majority. That makes a General Election or another Referendum more likely.

As all this grinds on, it’s impossible not to be struck by the sheer pointlessness of it all. What is being gained? An independent trade policy? That is effectively precluded by the White Paper but even if it were not it is no prize at all in economic terms. If it is supposed to be a symbol of sovereignty, it’s illusory (all trade agreements entail diminished sovereignty in the Brexiter sense). Is it sovereignty to exit all the EU agencies just to rejoin them and pay with no say? Was it the will of the people, when these agencies were scarcely mentioned in the Referendum? As for freedom from the ECJ, virtually everyone I talked to before the vote who was concerned with this issue confused the ECJ with the ECHR.

Of course, in the new political correctness of Brexit we are not allowed to suggest that the people did not know what they were voting for, for fear of being labelled elitist by some billionaire, ex-public schoolboy, or tax exile (or all three). But it’s plainly true that they did not, and for that matter that they could not. That is easily demonstrated by the fact that it is only now, over two years after the result, that the government has produced any detailed plan for what leaving means.

It’s no good Brexiters saying that people voted for a different plan: there was no plan at all on offer at the time. And it’s no good them saying that all would be well if their hard Brexit plan had been followed. This is exactly what May’s government has tried to do and, finding it unworkable in practice, it has morphed into the hopeless effort that was produced yesterday. Hopeless because it certainly won’t be accepted by the EU, is already not accepted by the Brexiters, and probably won’t be accepted by Parliament. If it were a horse, then it would be put out of its misery as an act of kindness.

But, then, the same could be said of Brexit itself.

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