Saturday, 15 December 2018

As Brexit realities bite, Brexiter fantasies grow

I’m not sure if they still exist – I haven’t noticed any recently – but many butchers and greengrocers used to have large electrical insect killers on the walls of their shops. Every so often there would be a slightly gruesome crackling buzz as some hapless fly or wasp was zapped.

In a similar way, throughout the last couple of years there has periodically been the crunching sound of this or that Brexit fantasy encountering the lethal force of reality. Examples include the realisation that the EU wasn’t going to ‘go whistle’ for the financial settlement, that sequencing wasn’t going to be ‘row of the summer’ of 2017, and the (apparent) acceptance of an Irish border backstop as part of the phase 1 agreement – and of course there are many others.

Reality bites

We are hearing the sound more frequently now, as the Article 50 timeframe inexorably shrinks. It happened on Monday, when Theresa May was forced to accept that she had no hope of getting her deal through the House of Commons, and on Wednesday when the ERG were forced to accept they did not have the strength to oust her. Since then, it has happened again when the Prime Minister went to Brussels to seek ‘concessions’ on the backstop provision.

That trip was bound to end in failure because what was being sought was not a concession but something that by definition couldn’t happen: to make the backstop in some way (for example through a time limit) conditional. But the only way a backstop can function as a backstop is to be unconditional in the sense that it is the solution to keeping the Irish border fully open if no other way of doing so is found.

Tony Connelly, RTE’s Europe Editor, and consistently one of the shrewdest and best-informed writers on Brexit, has provided a detailed explanation of the twists and turns of what happened in Brussels, from which one conclusion might be that May mishandled the discussions. But even had she been the most consummate of diplomats the end result would have been much the same. Aside from the fact that she was seeking the impossible, nested inside this latest misstep are two persistent misapprehensions.

Persistent misapprehensions

The first is that since the outset the government has approached the negotiations as if it is for the EU to come up with ways of delivering what the UK wants. The long months in which Britain failed to table proposals is evidence of this, and of something even more problematic: that the UK couldn’t, and still cannot, agree what it wants. Instead, all Britain has really done is stated the things it doesn’t want and left it to the EU to fashion a deal consistent with that – May’s deal - which is now being rejected as it is not what Britain wants!

At this week’s summit, Jean-Claude Juncker complained that “there is an impression in the UK that it is for the EU to propose solutions. But it is the UK leaving the EU”. It is a complaint that echoes reports from last January that in private meetings with Angela Merkel the Prime Minister repeatedly asked to be “made an offer”, to which Merkel replied “but you’re leaving, we don’t have to make you an offer. Come on, what do you want?” with May responding by simply saying again “make me an offer”.

The same approach was evident at the Salzburg summit, when the PM called on the EU to come up with a form of Brexit acceptable to Britain. This is not just, or even primarily, about Theresa May. Rather, it grows out of the underlying way that Brexiters continually talk and act as if Britain is being forced to leave the EU rather than choosing to do so.

The second misapprehension is that the Brexit negotiations are akin to those over, for example, the various treaties which the UK has taken part in as a continuing member state. Thus, it is often said, negotiations will go the wire with last minute concessions made and deals done and so it will be with Brexit. But the dynamics of the Brexit talks are nothing like this at all. They are not a horse trade amongst 28 countries, with the possibility of alliances between different groupings, and with some flexibility on one issue being traded for acceptance of another, in order to get an overall settlement that all want.

Instead, they are a fairly brutal power play between one very large bloc of 27 countries with a fairly united stance on this issue, and a single country with relatively little (not none, but not that much) leverage because it will suffer economically far more than most of the 27 (with, perhaps, the exception of Ireland and to an extent Holland) if no deal is done. If Brexiters think that this means the EU is ‘being nasty’, all that can be said is: welcome to the real world, and get ready for those ‘independent trade policy’ talks with the US, China and India, as well as fighting your corner in the WTO. This is what taking back control looks like. As Ireland has found, there is, to coin a phrase, power in a union.

New fantasies for old

It might be expected that as reality bites in these and other ways, Brexiters would gradually modify or abandon their fantasies. Indeed, to an extent, this is what Theresa May – having initially embraced those fantasies – has done. But, of course, they do not. Instead, we are now seeing a doubling down on ever more absurd positions. This can be seen in the spate of interventions over the last few days from advocates of ‘a better deal’ or of a ‘managed no deal’.

The fatuity of these ideas cannot be over-stated. Although they appear in different versions, they all circle around the same basic proposition, which is that the Irish backstop is unnecessary and that the £39 billion financial settlement should be reduced and/or made conditional upon completing a future trade deal. They also persistently assume that even with no deal there would be deals on, for example, aviation and customs arrangements – the gaping logical hole in which hardly needs to be spelt out – and of course invariably rest on the canard that ‘trading on WTO terms’ is fine, and the norm for how countries trade (for a comprehensive demolition of this persistent falsity, see Richard Barfield’s magisterial briefing).

Regarding the backstop, the proposals have been comprehensively dismantled by Dr Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast, a leading expert on the Irish border. At their core is that hardy perennial of ‘technological solutions’ but this makes no sense. If those solutions exist, or come to exist, then even within the present Withdrawal Agreement they can obviate the use of the backstop. It is because they do not currently exist, and in case they never materialise, that the backstop exists.

Equally nonsensical is the argument in the ‘better deal’ proposal that there is no need for a backstop because “London, Dublin and Brussels have all ruled out a hard border in any circumstances”. The whole point is: what are the institutional arrangements to make sure this desire is realised once Britain has left the institutions that currently allow it? And even more absurd is the implicit claim being wheeled out by various ERG members that when Iain Duncan Smith and others met with Michel Barnier last October he somehow accepted that a backstop wasn’t needed.

As for the idea of withholding payment of the financial settlement as a condition for a future trade deal, this repeats the failure of Brexiters from the outset to understand the basic fact that it’s a payment to settle past obligations, not a booking fee for future benefits. It really is just going round and round in circles, imagining that, eventually, the circle will turn into a square. Related, and equally unrealistic, is that a managed no deal would see the EU agree to a transition period and/or continued unfettered membership of the single market. In brief, as Tim Durrant of the Institute for Government puts it, there is no such thing as a managed no deal.

Effectively all of these ideas are variants of the claim that there could be a deal (which isn’t a deal) allowing the UK to have the benefits of being an EU member (without being an EU member). It is almost invariably put forward by people who a couple of years ago were saying that a good, quick deal would be easily achieved and now - with no apparent shame - say that no deal will be that good, quick easy deal. It is, unequivocally, pure hokum and, unequivocally, will never and could never be put into practice.

Why bother with this nonsense?

All this is so ridiculous that it would not be worth discussing, but for three reasons. One is that it is still conceivable that the British government will end up trying to adopt such a policy – apparently, it is to be proposed by Penny Mordaunt, the International Development Secretary, in the coming days, and finds favour with Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid. In the febrile atmosphere of UK politics, it is just possible that this crazy idea will be attempted and if it is it will unquestionably lead to disaster. It is a one-way street to no deal, packaged up as a way of avoiding no deal. However, it is unlikely to happen given that Parliament would surely not endorse so reckless a policy.

But that brings us to the second reason for giving any attention to these ideas. Given that they are unlikely to be adopted then, whatever happens instead, they will be invoked for years as ‘proof’ that there was a perfectly viable way of doing Brexit if only it had not been betrayed. This will feed a potentially very dangerous ‘stab in the back’ myth.

And thirdly, if there were to be another referendum, and if by some act of supreme folly the ballot paper were to include, as some have suggested, a ‘no deal’ option, we would see all these lies and misunderstandings presented as if they were well-founded. That, allied with the fact that some polls show that many people interpret ‘no deal’ to mean ‘no change’ could lead to the catastrophe of a vote endorsing a no deal Brexit without knowing the truth of what it means.

So it really is vital to keep exposing these ludicrous fantasies to the ‘insect zapper’ of reality. It is a never ending task, because as each one crashes and burns it is resurrected in identical or slightly revised form. An excellent resource for doing so – and if only every MP were to read it – is the most recent of Sir Ivan Rogers’ devastating evaluations. Had he been listened to, rather than hounded from office, by Brexiters then it is conceivable that they might have fashioned a workable Brexit.

Indeed, it is a rich irony that the stubborn refusal of Brexiters to engage seriously with the realities of Brexit may just end up with its being reversed.

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