Friday 19 October 2018

Transitioning to incomprehensibility

Following the twists and turns of Brexit has often been a complex matter but in the last few days, for I think the first time, I have really struggled to understand what is going on and why. The idea of an extended transition period was floated by Michel Barnier, apparently as a concession to the UK. Which in a way it is, to the extent that originally Britain had sought a longer transition; two years rather than the 21 months envisaged in the phase 1 agreement. It got pared back to December 2020 in order to fit in with the EU budget cycle.

Yet Barnier’s suggestion was greeted by Theresa May as a new EU demand to which she might, with concessions, accede. Meanwhile Brexiters reacted with fury, calling it a plot to keep Britain locked into the EU (apparently unaware that the increasingly predominant view in the EU is that the sooner it is rid of Brexiting Britain the better) and remainers seemed unimpressed.

The argument for such an extension appears to be that it would give more time for the future trade terms to be agreed. This in turn would mean that the Irish border backstop would never be needed, and there would be a smooth shift from transition to those new terms. That, in itself, might not be enough to get a deal done on the Withdrawal Agreement, if May sticks rigidly to the recent line that writing in a Northern Ireland only scenario could never be acceptable. But, if she moves on that, it might conceivably be enough to persuade MPs – apart from the DUP, anyway – to agree to such a deal on the basis that it was entirely hypothetical.

However, and this is the really puzzling thing, it is just not clear why an extension would make any difference. One issue is simply time: even with a 33 month transition it seems extremely unlikely that a trade deal will be completed and ratified. The other, more important, one is that it is inconceivable, at least on my understanding, that any trade deal would avoid the border issue re-emerging. The only way that could happen would be if the ultimate trade arrangement was for the whole of the UK to remain in the single market and some form of customs union. Back to Norway (+) which the government has ruled out, but which could, I suppose, come back on to the table in the future, especially if the Political Declaration is sufficiently vague.

Incomprehensibility is now the aim

The puzzle, though, is solved by recognizing that the negotiations have now entered a phase when what is proposed is not meant to be comprehensible. The political imperative now is not to find something that makes sense but to make a deal – any deal – that can get through. That is common enough in diplomacy, and it is especially evident when there is a need to accommodate massively divergent views. Indeed, the Irish peace process is a good example of it, with many of the constructive ambiguities that enabled its success being dependent on the fact of both Ireland and the UK are EU members, hence the threat that Brexit poses for it.

That comparison is a revealing one, because it suggests that the reason the Brexit talks are now in the territory of such diplomacy is that they have become so riven by conflict and irreconcilable positions that increased use of incomprehensibility – to facilitate multiple readings – is necessary. The same thing happened, albeit to a much lesser extent, with the phase 1 agreement. That had a bit of ambiguity in it with the consequences we’ve seen when it got drafted into legal text for the draft Withdrawal Agreement, which removed those ambiguities. The price of getting the final Withdrawal Agreement deal done only by use of much greater ambiguities would be that it would not settle anything in a substantive way, with future interpretations and re-interpretations being made by all sides.

The dangers of incomprehensibility

If so, I see great dangers ahead. First, it will set up years of claim and counter-claim (in what will, of course, be on-going negotiations between the EU and the UK on future trade terms) about what exactly the parameters of those talks are and, ultimately, when and how the backstop will come into play. Second, and relatedly, it will means years in which British domestic politics continues to be divided and entirely dominated by Brexit. Third, and related again, it will mean years in which Britain’s global role and reputation are solely bound up with the pursuit of a project which other countries see as, at best, incomprehensible and at worst reckless.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, it will lead to a gradual, slow-burn economic decline as more and more businesses relocate more and more of their operations; and as individuals, whether British or EU-27 national continue to re-locate themselves, for both economic and cultural reasons. For it shouldn’t be forgotten that in this scenario the possibility of a no deal cliff edge won’t disappear, it will just be postponed. We will have avoided the massive bang of a 2019 no deal and replaced it with an economic depth charge slowly but surely eroding investment, jobs, taxes and public services.

Cobbling together some gloop of backstops and double backstops and potential transition extensions is probably the worst of all worlds, pleasing neither leavers nor remainers. Leavers will see no Brexit dividend, no resurgent Global Britain, and far from taking back control will have abdicated it. Remainers will have lost all hope of EU membership, at least in the short and medium terms.

An unsettled future

Far from the referendum having ‘settled the European issue for a generation’ this will leave it unsettled for a generation. A vote to leave always had that danger, but a practically workable and politically consensual soft Brexit would have minimised it. Instead, the government’s initial embrace of hard Brexit and the subsequent backtracks in the face of its predictable and predicted unworkability have created an intractable mess that dooms us to years of political bitterness and economic limbo. And this, remember, is the scenario even if a deal can be done that gets ratified by all the bodies that need to ratify it.

In such circumstances, it’s not surprising that both sides of the debate are polarising in search of more clear-cut outcomes. That is both a condition for and a consequence of the drive for ambiguity and incomprehensibility. For Brexiters, it means ‘clean Brexit’ which seems to imply a kind of ‘soft no deal’ (i.e. no Withdrawal Agreement but side deals on things like flying rights). For remainers it means a People’s Vote in the hope of a decision to stay in the EU after all.

So I think that that is where we are at the end of this week: Brexiters and remainers are in different ways trying to cut through the Gordian Knot that has been created over the last two years, whilst the British government and the EU, again in different ways, are trying to wrap it over with new and even more fiendish knots. Meanwhile – to mix Greek myth metaphors – the Sword of Damocles hangs over our heads by a thread.

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