Thursday, 18 April 2019

A quiet week reminded us of some Brexit realities

It has been a mercifully quiet Brexit week, with a palpable sense of exhausted relief all round. True, there have been the opening salvos in the European Parliament election campaign. I’m not going to write much about those now, though, in anticipation that the election – if it goes ahead – will surely be the subject of future posts.

My only initial thoughts are that the remain parties really do need to develop some kind of pact or co-ordinating agreement (to the extent this is allowable under electoral rules), and that the initial Farage Brexit Party bounce may not prove very durable. After all, newly launched parties often achieve spectacular opinion poll results (witness the 18% recorded for TIG a week after launch in February). The Brexit Party faces a particular challenge in presenting itself as ‘new’ precisely because Farage, although their greatest electoral asset, is hardly a fresh face. He has an appeal to those who already find him appealing, and appals those who already find him appalling, but is unlikely to galvanise a whole new following.

The Pelosi delegation

Leaving all that aside for now, there’s been one (relatively) ignored event which served as a reminder of several Brexit realities. A delegation of senior US politicians led by Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, has been visiting the UK and Ireland, including the border between the two countries. The message they have brought is that any damage done to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and the peace process would undermine the prospects of a future US-UK trade agreement.

There are various strands to this which are worth unpicking. One, which is important to remember, is just how heavily the US was involved in, and is invested in, the peace process. It was one of President Clinton’s major foreign policy initiatives, and his Special Envoy, Senator George Mitchell, played a key role in brokering the agreement. That commitment and active involvement continued under the Bush and Obama presidencies. And although it is true that Trump has been much less engaged, Pelosi’s comment this week that the GFA is a “beacon to the world” is a reminder that Northern Ireland still matters to the US.

By extension, this is also a reminder that leaving the EU is not just a matter of renegotiating that relationship. It has knock on effects in terms of re-calibrating all of the relationships, both economic and geo-political, that the UK has with the wider world. Brexit affects all of those – from Japan, to India, to Russia – in a variety of ways, adding multiple layers of complexity to what is already a complex process. Brexit is Brexit, to coin a phrase - but it is not just Brexit.

Brexit and a UK-US trade agreement

A second strand is the role that the idea of a US-UK trade agreement has played, and continues to play, in the Brexit debate. Obama’s warning during the referendum campaign that Britain would be at “the back of the queue” for such a deal was greeted with fury by Brexiters, whilst Trump’s subsequent enthusiasm for one has delighted them.

In fact, the economic reality is that a UK-US deal would be of negligible value – in the range of 0.1% and 0.3% of GDP, in the long-term according to government modelling (see p.14 of link). To put that figure into context, Brexit has already led to UK GDP being an estimated 2.5% smaller than it would have been had the vote gone the other way.

But, as with the more general Brexiter infatuation with an ‘independent trade policy’, economics is not really the issue. There’s never been any realistic suggestion that the UK will achieve better trade agreements on its own than as part of the EU. The issue is the political symbolism of it being an ‘independent’ policy, not that it is a better ‘trade’ policy.

That, actually, is not so unusual. Many aspects of the trade policy of many countries have little to do with trade and economics. Rather, they are also bound up with domestic political interests, geo-political strategy, and diplomatic and military relationships. Indeed, it is precisely Pelosi’s message that political factors would be relevant to whether or not there would be a UK-US agreement. For that matter, the EU stance on a future trade deal with the UK will in part be political rather than economic. That is why, for particular example, the Brexiter ‘Malthouse Plan B’, in which the Withdrawal Agreement is torn up, but a trade deal negotiated anyway, is a fantasy.

Just as a UK-US trade deal has a symbolic – even totemic – appeal to Brexiters, so too does it play an important role in critiques of Brexit. In particular, the spectre of ‘chlorinated chicken’ stands as an example of, and as a symbol of, the danger of an erosion of regulatory standards post-Brexit. The wider concern it references is a recognition that Britain would be too weak – and, no doubt, too eager for a deal – to maintain these standards. Moreover, for at least some Brexiters, the erosion of regulatory standards (including those for workers’ rights and environmental protection) would be not just something forced upon Britain but something to be actively welcomed.

In any case, whether standards were weaker or stronger, the key issue coming back to the Irish border is simply the possibility of their being different to those in the EU. It is this regulatory divergence from the single market – more than leaving the customs union – which goes to heart of why hard Brexit entails a hard border. This fact, more than any other, is what has given the lie to the pre-referendum Brexiter claim that there would be no implications for the Irish border.

Pelosi, the ERG, and the Irish border

This, then, is the third strand of the significance of Pelosi’s visit. During the London leg, her delegation had lunch with leading members of the ERG – Rees-Mogg, Francois, Jenkin and Baker. Reportedly, this led to Pelosi delivering a sharp rebuke to Mark Francois for being condescending (this would have been something to witness, since Pelosi is a talented, serious and heavyweight politician whereas Francois is, let’s say, less obviously impressive in his endowments). The hapless Francois apparently “turned from already red to even brighter red”. The point of contention was the now familiar Brexiter conspiracy theory that the Irish border issue has been ‘concocted’ by the EU and Dublin in order to derail Brexit.

That claim matters hugely, because it is central to the Brexiter belief that Theresa May unnecessarily agreed to the backstop and, therefore, has ‘betrayed’ Brexit. It seems certain to play a central role in the race to succeed her as Tory Party leader. The idea that the border issue is either non-existent or, at least, readily solved through ‘technological and administrative solutions’ – solutions which do not currently exist anywhere in the world, be it noted – has moved from the ERG fringe to become part of the Tory mainstream. The pivotal moments in this shift came with the government endorsement of the ‘Brady Amendment’ and with the development of the ‘Malthouse Compromise’.

The key to understanding why the latter was pivotal is the word ‘compromise’, because what it referred to was the endorsement of both ERG members and hitherto pragmatic Tory MPs like Damian Green and Nicky Morgan. In other words, like so much of what has characterised the Brexit debate, it is not about the realities of Brexit itself but about the internal dynamics of the Tory Party. Hence we now see potential contestants for the leadership endorsing it (£) in order to burnish their credentials. But as Peter Foster, the extremely well-informed Europe Editor of the Daily Telegraph, pithily put it “the point is, this stuff is – frankly – garbage” (the whole thread of which this tweet forms a part is well worth reading).

Pelosi is just the latest figure – albeit one of the most important – to try to explain to Brexiters why their attempt to pretend the Irish border is a non-issue is, indeed, garbage. It is unlikely to have an effect, though, and they will continue, no doubt, to refer to cherry-picked quotes from Varadkar, Barnier and others to pretend otherwise. I’m not sure that it is even a lie, anymore anyway, for most of them. It seems more to be a matter of group think in which what they want to be true must be true because they all agree it is true. Be that as it may, it is plainly false and if the next Prime Minister comes to office on the basis of a promise to implement it* then the prospects for the future Brexit negotiations are very poor. Indeed, if we get that far, it virtually guarantees that the ultimate outcome would be no future terms deal and the implementation of the backstop.


*Note: for the avoidance of confusion, the ‘it’ here is some version of Malthouse Plan A (i.e. the scenario I am envisaging is a Withdrawal Agreement being agreed by Parliament and ratified, May resigning, and her replacement then undertaking the future terms negotiations). It is of course a nonsensical scenario in that Malthouse Plan A entails revising the Withdrawal Agreement, which in this scenario would already have been passed. But anyone who thinks that nonsensical scenarios can be ruled out hasn’t been paying attention to the politics ofBrexit. In fact, it is doubly nonsensical because if the alternative arrangements envisaged by Malthouse A were ever proved to exist then their implementation is catered for in the Withdrawal Agreement. Thus, if Brexiters believe they are, or will be, developed then their objection to the backstop is redundant anyway. On reflection, perhaps this footnote only adds to rather than avoids confusion.

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