Friday, 17 January 2020

As costs mount, Brexit goes round the same old circles

A report from Bloomberg Economics this week estimates the cost of Brexit since the Referendum result to be £130 billion, with a further £70 billion predicted by the scheduled end of the transition period. £200 billion is a colossal sum and in any other political context you’d expect it receive far more attention than it has. Of course it is only one estimate, but it comes from a credible source (and it is consistent with others) and, again of course, it is a cost compared with what would have happened and, in that sense, one which does not present a bill to be paid nor something directly felt in people’s pockets. Still, it does make the raging debates over who should pay for the cost of the Sussex’s security seem rather trivial.

Perhaps there’s a sense, now, that we all know Brexit is going to be hugely expensive and so it’s not worth discussing it anymore. Not that committed Brexiters necessarily accept this. Just as the predictions of economic costs were dismissed on the grounds that ‘you can’t predict what is going to happen in the future, anything might happen’, so, now the costs are racking up, they are dismissed on the grounds that ‘you can’t know what caused past events to occur, they might have occurred anyway’.

It is a hermetically sealed logic that cannot be reasoned with. And even to try provokes the second, though contradictory, line of defence, where we are invited to believe that Brexit was chosen as the result of an earnest political science seminar about theories of sovereignty, and was nothing to do with economics at all (this, presumably, is why the slogan chosen for the bus was a claim about … the supposed economic benefits of Brexit).

As for what the economic costs of Brexit will eventually end up being, that will to some degree depend on what kind of trade deal gets done and here confusion continues to reign. The EU have produced two detailed briefing packs (here and here) which, so far as I know, have no counterpart on the UK side, at least in the public domain. There is a sense that we are heading towards a re-run of what was symbolised by the famous picture of the opening of the withdrawal talks, where the EU side sat with bulging files whilst the UK relied upon David Davis’s vacuous grin.

The recurrent dynamics of Brexit

If so, there are good reasons for that and they go back to the three unchanged underlying dynamics of Brexit which I outlined after the election result. In brief, these are lack of realistic definition of what Brexit means or how to do it; the insatiable demands of the Brexit Ultras; and the general political imperative of all governments to avoid economic and social breakdown. These are contextualised by a fourth factor, namely (largely self-inflicted) time pressure.

As regards the first of these, the UK government is still to a degree in thrall to the Brexiter fantasies of a quick and easy deal in which the complexities and trade-offs are seen as just a ploy by the EU that will be overcome by determined negotiation by a ‘true Brexit’ administration. So, at times, the government is still talking as if a comprehensive, deep trade agreement, perhaps with a substantial services element (£), can be achieved by the end of the year whilst at other times the implication is that it will be much more limited, but that that is fine. As from the outset, the Brexiters – who are now firmly in control of the government – have no agreed, realistic idea of what they want.

In consequence, there are other ways in which the start of the trade negotiations is likely to be analogous to that of the Article 50 talks. It is already written into the Political Declaration that the highly technically complex and politically contentious issue of fisheries will be amongst the first matters to be discussed. It may well play the part of the financial settlement, which the UK first tried to deny the EU had any right to. But with EU briefings suggesting that they will insist (£) on a more or less status quo deal on fishing as a prerequisite for any progress on other issues, it may also be the subject for a re-run of the 2017 ‘row of the summer’ over sequencing.

This brings into play the second of the recurrent dynamics. There are clear signs that Brexit Ultras like John Redwood and Owen Paterson are squaring up to make fisheries, which have always been totemic to Brexiters despite being a tiny part of the UK economy, a defining issue. With some suggesting that the UK might accept that EU proposal in return for a better deal on financial services there is a good chance that this will prove to be an early flashpoint between the government and its hard line MPs. Their position will be not just that the UK should not accept the EU proposal, but should not make any agreement on fisheries until the entire deal is done or, simply, walk away from the talks without a trade deal at all.

If so, that will add impetus to the established pattern in which the Brexit Ultras always push for a harder or ‘purer’ form of Brexit. That saw the shift from their advocacy of soft (single market/ Norway) to hard (FTA/ Canada) Brexit. It has reappeared now in the demand that the UK should, in parallel with or even as a priority over negotiating an EU trade deal do so with the US, as argued by ERG leader Steve Baker this week (£).

As with the fisheries issue, there is no economic logic to this at all. The geographic closeness of the EU and the volume of UK trade that results from that, as well as from decades of EU membership, makes a EU trade deal massively more important than any Free Trade Agreement with the US could ever be. Moreover, to some extent, the two deals are mutually exclusive in that they entail alignment with different regulatory orbits.

But the issue here is not economic logic, even though its advocates present it as if it were by, for example, their irrelevant talk of the size of the US economy. Rather, having belatedly understood that the trade deal they for so long championed will entail some regulatory alignment with the EU – and the deeper the deal, the greater that alignment – the Ultras find even that hard Brexit to be unbearable.

For some that may be informed by an ideological belief in low regulation, small state politics – the Singapore-on-Thames delusion – and, to that extent, there’s an obvious reason why it will preclude a deal with the EU. However, I believe that the more fundamental reason is a pathological loathing of the EU in every manifestation, and indeed of non-EU European institutions such as the European Court/ Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). They want to expunge every last trace of the EU’s presence in the UK. It is much closer to a religious mania than an ideological axiom, and, as for economic cost, that is irrelevant. No cost is too high to pay. If they were to gain the next concession, and get a US trade deal ahead or instead of an EU deal then they would certainly then make leaving the ECHR their next demand.

It is that ‘Brexit at any cost’ fixation which comes into conflict with the third dynamic that for any government, even one fixated by Brexit, the basic political pressure to avoid economic meltdown means that reality sometimes has to intrude. That could include recognizing the economic case for sacrificing fishing for financial services. More generally, to the extent that it is understood that there is only time for a minimal deal, if that, it may also be understood by government that, for many sectors of British business, such a deal would be little or no different to there being no deal at all [£]. It may also be sinking in that, trade deal aside, there is little prospect of the new arrangements for Northern Ireland being ready in time.

That, presumably, is what lies behind Boris Johnson implicitly recognizing, for the first time, that it may not be possible to do a deal in time (£). This may be the precursor to accepting that there will be an extension to the transition period. Time will tell on that, but as was shown by the ease with which he dropped his ‘die in a ditch’ pledge, such a volte face is well within his range.

Businesses and Brexit

Whether or not he extends (though especially if he does not) what is in prospect is the gradual leaching away of business from the UK, ratcheting up the costs of Brexit. This may well attract as little attention as the Bloomberg report and of course – as with all the examples so far – Brexiters will deny the cause. In this, they will be aided by the fact that few companies which relocate or (which is even more below the radar) decide to make new investments elsewhere will publicly attribute this to Brexit.

For it is important to understand that now that Brexit is unavoidable the relationship between business and the remain cause has fundamentally changed. Before, business lobbying against Brexit was consistent with, and part of, the remain campaign. But businesses rarely lobby on the basis of political principle rather than their own self-interest. With the remain cause lost, they will now make decisions based on that self-interest but will have no motivation to denounce Brexit policy as they do so.

On the contrary, especially to the extent that many will want to go on doing some business in the UK they will have no interest in alienating many customers and the government. An individual remainer might – for example – seek to publicise their decision to emigrate and to take their skills and taxes elsewhere in order make the political point that this is what Brexit has done. Few if any businesses will do anything like that. So it will be a slow and quiet economic puncture, not a noisy blow-out.

This scenario is made all the more likely because whatever economic realism derives from the third dynamic, it is in conflict with the lack of realism of the first and second. This can be seen in the report this week that Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom has substantially reduced contact with business groups (£) such as the CBI because she is irritated by them raising concerns about Brexit.

Here, again, there is a recurrent pattern in which those – in business, or the civil service, or elsewhere – who know the realities and complexities are sidelined for their lack of ‘true belief’. In ways that would have been astonishing to the traditional Tory Party, the CBI have long been regarded with scorn by Brexiters and, more generally, there were many reports during May’s administration of businesses being excluded by DExEU if they voiced scepticism about Brexit.

The paradox of Brexit

It is one of the biggest paradoxes of Brexit, because most of those who understand what it entails at a practical level do not support it, whilst most of those who support it strongly do not understand what it entails at a practical level. That is evident in microcosm even in the current row about Big Ben chiming on ‘Brexit Day’, with those who know the costs and technicalities involved advising against it, whilst the Brexit ‘bongers’ insist this is just remainer negativity and that a can-do attitude will overcome any obstacles if, indeed, they really exist.

At the wider level, this paradox presents any Brexit government with a massive problem. Either it ignores those with the knowledge and flounders around trying to square the impossible circle of ‘true Brexit’ with no adverse consequences, or it listens to those with knowledge and has to compromise on at least aspects of ‘true Brexit’.

Whilst that has been true throughout the Brexit process, it is now an acute issue with the trade negotiations starting and the timescale tightening. A key part of any trade negotiation process – and one reason they take a long time – is that governments need to engage and consult with the business and other groups which will be affected by whatever is agreed. If government as a whole persists with the Leadsom line then the incentives for businesses to stay and invest in Britain sharply diminish, as they see that the government does not have – and, worse, does not want to have - a serious grasp of the issues involved. With time running out, the business decisions will need to be taken before realism intrudes, if, indeed, it ever does. And businesses will make those decisions.

However, if the government does start to engage seriously with business (and other experts and stakeholders) then the paradox asserts itself in a new way, with this realism conflicting with the first two dynamics. This is exactly what we saw with the May government. Having delighted the Ultras by embracing hard Brexit, and accepted the lack of realism of the Brexit promise by imagining that, even so, there could be ‘frictionless trade’ for goods and services, there came a point in 2018 when May understood how damaging this would be. That was what led to the Chequers Proposal which – flawed as it was – began to recognize some of the complexities and trade-offs. Cue Johnson and Davis resigning and the government falling into the disarray from which it never recovered.

It is true that Johnson’s majority makes him far more secure than May. On the other hand, the time pressures Johnson has created for himself are all the greater, and his negotiating position with the EU is also much weaker than May’s at the time of Chequers. May had the possibility of extending Article 50, as she did, and, until the Withdrawal Agreement was completed, the core EU concerns around the financial settlement, Irish Border, and Citizens’ Rights remained unresolved. Now, Johnson could only extend the transition period with difficulty, both because of domestic politics and because, on the EU side, transition extension is less assured than it was for Article 50 extension. Meanwhile, the EU’s core withdrawal demands have been met. And, in any case, the votes of the ERG are more than enough to defeat Johnson, despite his majority.

Thus the conflict between economic realism and political exigency continues to be unresolved and resolution is unlikely to occur via a single decision taken at a single moment. Rather, we can expect an ongoing process of tacking this way and that as the negotiations with the EU progress and the internal fights of the Tory Party continue. The consequence is that neither economic realism nor political exigency will definitively win out. Instead, so many concessions will be made to the Ultras as to ensure considerable economic damage, whilst so many concessions will be demanded of them that they will always regard Brexit as having been betrayed.

Thus, as has been clear for a long time, we will end up a country made much poorer in order to please the Brexiters whilst having to endure their perpetual displeasure with what has been done. It is as perfect a lose-lose scenario as can be envisaged, and the Bloomberg report has put a figure on just the first instalment of just the economic aspect of that loss. There is much, much more to come.

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