Friday, 1 February 2019

Brexiters are finally being forced to face reality

For at least three years – and in some cases much longer – Brexiters have peddled fantasies, half-truths and outright lies about what Brexit would mean and how it could be done. Ever since the 2016 referendum more and more of these have been exposed or debunked, as many of the posts and links on this blog testify.

But however often this happens these falsehoods live on, zombie-like, endlessly repeated by Brexit leaders and regurgitated by their legions of followers. The critics are ignored or dismissed as ‘remoaners’ or worse, even though much of the criticism comes from expert or well-informed quarters. That cuts no ice with those Brexiters for whom belief trumps evidence, and who accept expertise only when it comes from those who are almost invariably the minority fringe of their profession be that law, economics, business or trade policy.

False claims meet reality

The underlying significance of the current Brexit impasse - with the UK government seeking to re-open negotiations and the EU saying that the negotiations are over - is that all that denial, bluster, falsity and misinformation has unequivocally hit the brick wall of reality. That has happened from time to time throughout the negotiations, but now the crunch has come. The particular issue (it might have been others) is, of course, that of the Northern Irish border.

Before the referendum, John Major and Tony Blair jointly gave explicit warnings that Brexit would make the border the external frontier of the EU, meaning the re-introduction of controls, and that this would pose problems for the Good Friday Agreement. Naturally, this was dismissed as Project Fear. Instead, Brexiters including Boris Johnson and Theresa Villiers, then Northern Ireland Secretary, insisted Brexit would leave the border “absolutely unchanged”.

Major and Blair were right, and Johnson and Villiers were wrong. To re-cap a now familiar story, there is currently no border infrastructure because the institutions of the single market and the customs union make it unnecessary. The UK has decided to exit those institutions so as to be able to set its own tariffs and regulations. That makes physical infrastructure necessary, which for political reasons including the Good Friday Agreement is not acceptable to either the UK or the EU. The Northern Ireland backstop therefore bends the shape of the institutions a little in order to accommodate Brexit (indeed, it is under-remarked upon the degree to which the EU have flexed those institutions to do so) in the absence of any other way of avoiding such infrastructure.

Once it became impossible to deny that Brexit created an issue for the Irish border, the Brexiters embarked on new falsehood. It was that there are technological, administrative or just undefined ‘alternatives’ to those institutions. As with so many of their other false claims it rests on the claims of a few mavericks, or cherry-picked quotations from experts, or semi-understood and misrepresented facts. The reality is that, at least as yet and possibly never, there is no example anywhere in the world of these technologies delivering the very particular requirements of the Irish border of no physical infrastructure whatsoever.

The crucial difference now is that no matter how much Brexiters shout they cannot make the EU accept as true a claim that is untrue. This is not a matter of being ‘inflexible’ or refusing to give ‘concessions’, as so much of the media reporting in the UK would suggest. It is simply not in the gift of the EU to agree to something when what they are being asked to agree to is the pretence that something which does not exist does exist. The very most it can do – and has already done in the present Withdrawal Agreement – is accept that if at some point in the future these technological or other alternatives come to exist then the backstop would be rendered obsolete.

The EU is doing what the UK has failed to do

In this sense the EU is doing what the UK collectively – its politics and media, more particularly – has signally failed to do: insist that however much Brexiters dislike them facts are facts and will not yield to any amount of rhetoric or be changed by any amount of ‘true faith’. Instead, Brexiters have been pandered to by a media that either trumpets their lies or fails to challenge them, sometimes by treating them as ‘equivalent’ to any other beliefs.

With the referendum result, all of the falsehoods took on a new and dominant place in political life, as the much declaimed ‘will of the people’. But that, too, is not enough. The people may will the moon to be made of blue cheese, and we can call their will sacred, and those who disagree traitors. But, still, the moon is not made of blue cheese.

Within the Tory Party, the Brexiters have been endlessly accommodated by successive leaders including – except, partially, in the period between the Chequers Proposal and this week’s parliamentary votes – Theresa May. Indeed, at May’s behest, parliament has now voted to endorse their falsehood about the border, tasking her to supposedly re-open negotiations.

Yet, apart from the fact that there are no substantive concessions that the EU could make on this issue it may well have occurred to people in Brussels what Tory leaders seem never to have grasped: that whatever the Brexiters are given it will never be enough and they will always want more. Thus even if there were concessions to be made it would only lead to more being demanded. In that sense, again, the EU is now doing what the UK has failed to do: calling a stop to trying to sate the insatiable.

Brexiters are Britain’s problem, not the EU’s

In any case, appeasing Brexit Ultras is not the guiding theme of EU politics. It was, perhaps, one thing to try to do so whilst the UK remained a member, quite another to do so now it is leaving. I heard a peculiar interview by the normally excellent Matt Frei with Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld on Channel 4 News recently in which he asked a question along the lines of how could the EU help Theresa May to bring the Brexiters in her party on board? The response – in tones which mixed slight irritation with incredulity – was to the effect that this wasn’t the EU’s problem or concern. It is for the UK to deal with its own political divisions. The British government has agreed the terms of Brexit and now it is up to that government to deliver it.

In that, too, the EU is in a certain sense doing the UK a service. Brexiters seem oblivious to it, but the UK’s reputation for trustworthy negotiation is being trashed by their antics – not just with the EU but with the wider world looking on. Indeed, one of the roots of the current EU determination to have a legally watertight backstop agreement is the cavalier way that the then Brexit Secretary David Davis, at the conclusion of phase one of the talks, immediately declared that what had been agreed (including the first version of the backstop) was not binding.

I’m not sure that, even now, Brexiters realise how much damage was done to the UK’s reputation just by that one remark. Taken together with persistent mutterings from Boris Johnson and others about not really accepting the financial settlement either, and from some that even the Good Friday Agreement could be reneged upon, a picture of a country that is not a reliable negotiating partner has been presented to the world.

The story of Brexit could be seen as a series of breached firewalls: what was once a fringe preoccupation spread to shape Tory politics, and what shaped Tory politics spread, via, the referendum to shape national politics. What the EU has now done – after showing a considerable amount of patience with the ditherings, delays and insults during the negotiations – is to say ‘enough is enough’: it is not going to shape the politics of Europe.

Be that as it may, it is too late for the UK. Brexit is going to poison our politics for years to come – the more so as the Brexiters scream blue murder about the EU not giving in to their demands. For the fact that Brexiters are being forced to face reality does not mean that they will accept it as such. But that is no longer the EU’s problem. It’s ours.

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