Friday 29 May 2020

Not moving on, not going away

The Brexit process is in another of its periodic ‘lull before the storm’ moments. So this will be quite a boring post, but at least it's fairly short. There were no talks scheduled this week but next week, when they resume, will be the last negotiations before a decision on whether to extend the Transition Period (TP) or not will have to made. Nothing of substance has shifted on this.

Nothing has changed

Michael Gove and David Frost appeared before the EU Future Relationship Select Committee and made it clear that no extension remains the government position and, also, that whether or not a deal is done there will be no separate implementation period for businesses to adjust (thus, closing down the idea of a TP extension by the back door). As for the prospects of a deal being done, this again was discussed in terms of the need for the EU to shift its position, and to recognize the ‘precedents’ set in its relationships with Canada, Japan, Norway and so on as applying to the UK. All this was just a reiteration of the UK position since the February ‘Negotiations Approach’ document (as discussed and critiqued in a previous post).

So there was nothing new here and no sense of realism in what was said – at one stage David Frost even suggested that “we are still at a relatively early stage of the negotiations” which seems rather bizarre. Nevertheless, it was recognized that a fisheries deal, meant to be completed by the end of June, may not meet this (soft) deadline which might, at a pinch, suggest some realization that the timeframes overall are unrealistic. On the other hand, Frost reiterated the suggestion that not only would the UK not agree an extension period by the end of June, but that Boris Johnson might even walk out of the talks altogether at that point.

On the EU side, a letter from Michel Barnier to opposition party leaders in the UK Parliament re-iterated an openness to a one or two-year extension. No real news there, either, since it says no more than is contained within the Withdrawal Agreement. But it flagged up an important domestic political issue in that the leaders in question did not include Keir Starmer. This was not an oversight on Barnier’s part – his letter was a reply to those opposition leaders who had written to him, and Starmer was not amongst them.

Starmer’s stance on extension

This reflects the fact that he continues to reject demands to call for an extension, saying instead that the government has promised to negotiate a deal by the end of the year and should be held to account on this. This is smart politics, for now, because it prevents Johnson presenting extension as a Labour demand and a remainer trick – and in the process reactivating the Brexit culture war as a party political divide – rather than a rational response to the force majeure of the coronavirus crisis.

But it is now reaching its limits, for several reasons. First, just as a matter of principle, it would be wrong to treat something as crucial as extension as a taboo topic simply for fear of being dubbed a ‘remainer party’. Second, there is a large constituency, by no means confined to erstwhile remainers, who want extension and whose voice Labour should represent. Third, for this reason there are also political advantages in calling for extension because it will appeal to many voters and, also, could position Labour as more business-friendly than the Tories. At the very least it would consolidate Starmer's credentials as a serious-minded pragmatist. And, finally, because it would set down a marker for the future – if Starmer fails to call for an extension in the coming month he will have made Labour to a degree complicit in the consequences of non-extension in a not dissimilar way to how its support for triggering Article 50 made it complicit in Brexit itself.

So, if Starmer continues to be as sure-footed an opposition leader as he has been so far, there are good reasons of principle and tactics to call for extension soon. He would be aided in this if some loud business and civil society voices prepared the ground by doing the same – providing some juicy quotes for use at PMQs in much the same way as he has so effectively used those from medical experts to puncture Johnson’s coronavirus bluster - just as they would be aided in speaking out were he to do so. There really is very little time to be lost in this, and the ongoing coronavirus crisis should not blind Labour, or anyone else, to the fact that what happens in the next month as regards TP extension is going to shape what happens to Britain for years.

Extension and the Cummings affair

Of course, no matter how vociferously an extension is demanded it looks highly unlikely that the government will budge. I wrote in detail about the wider significance of the Cummings affair in an ‘extra’ post on this blog earlier this week. But on the narrow issue of TP extension it is also important, in quite intricate ways.

One of the arguments with which Cummings’ supporters have tried to close down criticism of him from Tory MPs is to suggest that, were he forced to resign, the Brexit project itself would be under threat, and extension would become more likely. This message has a particular salience given that high profile Brexiter MPs including Steve Baker and Peter Bone have been amongst those calling for Cummings’ resignation.

To the extent that he is reportedly adamantly opposed to extension there might be some truth in this but, overall, it seems like a false hare. Is Brexit policy really dependent on just one advisor? This was presumably the thrust behind Bone’s questioning of David Frost at the Select Committee, as to whether he, Frost, operated under orders from Cummings, and whether Brexit policy would collapse without Cummings. The answer was that he does not and that it would not.

What is more important about the Cummings affair is that whether he stays or goes – which still remains an open question - it has made it even less likely that the UK will seek or accept an extension to the TP. On the one hand, with so much internal dissent already in the Tory Party over Cummings, the chances of Johnson now facing down the ERG Ultras is even smaller than before. On the other hand, the discomfort of the affair, coupled with its wider context of the government’s incompetent handling of coronavirus, makes the comfort and relative safety of  his core ‘get Brexit done’ message all the more appealing to Johnson.

One might, of course, hope that the small matter of the national interest would be a factor here but to do so would be to invest Johnson with qualities he self-evidently lacks. It would in any case entail that he broke with recent history by framing Tory policy on Europe in terms of national, rather than party, interest. After the election, I wrote that the fundamental dynamics of Brexit remained unchanged and that the third of them was that any government was constrained by the need to avoid massive economic dislocation, which put a break on the second of them, namely internal Tory Party politics.

That has changed, partly because I hadn’t anticipated quite how much “f*** business” was to become actual government policy, but mainly because of the impact coronavirus crisis. Amongst Brexiters, this is interpreted to make it even more likely that the EU will ‘blink’ and do a deal on UK terms by the end of the year and to strengthen the UK’s ‘hand’ (£), but also to mean that, if it doesn’t, the economic damage of no deal will be concealed by or subsumed within that of the virus. So with the dynamic of economic realism more muted, the constraints upon a policy framed purely in terms of the internal interests of the Tory Party are even fewer than before.

Moving on

Yet it is this which, going back to Labour, gives Starmer an opening. As suggested in my previous post, the Cummings episode makes a mockery of the populist claim of anti-elitism, and this can be married together with the idea of a government turning its back on the public interest to good effect. Just as ‘we can now see that they only care for themselves when it comes to lockdown’ so, Labour can argue, ‘we can see that they don’t care about damaging your jobs and livelihoods’.

And, yes, no doubt Johnson will try to twist that round to mean ‘you never accepted Brexit’ but, like much else about Brexit, that will be so 2019. Coronavirus has not only reshaped the arguments for TP extension, it is also, and at speed, reshaping the entire political landscape. Johnson and the Brexiters would love to pull things back to the heady ‘will of the people days’ but ‘the people’ have, to coin the phrase du jour, ‘moved on”. There’s a tide there that Starmer can catch to Labour Party advantage but, much more importantly, to the benefit of us all. For the idea that a country, battered by coronavirus, should be led into the calamity of no deal in just six months’ time, or even just to the shocks of moving from single market membership to a limited trade agreement, is plain crazy.

And, please, let’s have no nonsense about this being to do with thwarting Brexit. Not only has Brexit happened, in the precise sense of having left the EU, but absolutely nothing in what the government now envisages is remotely – remotely – like what leave voters were promised in 2016, or indeed for years afterwards, including at the last election (when, in fact, its details were barely discussed). Not only was an economically advantageous deal promised, but it would be negotiated before the formal process to leave was even begun.

The magnitude of these lies still has the power to shock. The idea that they now mandate a Prime Minister who is daily exposed as being completely out of his depth in every respect, heading a government which already looks exhausted and incompetent (£), and acting solely in the interests of a small faction of fanatical nihilists, to drag us into even greater disaster is grotesque. Grotesque in every conceivable way: democratically, intellectually, economically, and morally.

Tuesday 26 May 2020

The Cummings affair

There are numerous obvious connections between Brexit and the Dominic Cummings lockdown affair that has dominated the last few days. For one thing, the very existence of the present government is down to Brexit, its composition is based on the central test of Brexit loyalty, and its advisers, from Cummings downwards, came from the old Vote Leave campaign team.

But in any case both Cummings and his supporters have repeatedly tried to tie the story back to the Brexit divide in order to reframe it in the culture war terms that are their comfort zone. The reason, though, why his behaviour has become so huge an event is because it reveals so many of the paradoxes and flaws within that culture war to the extent that, for perhaps the first time since 2016, the Brexiter vs Remainer battle lines have been transcended.

The paradox of populism

At the core of this is the central paradox of populism. Brexit was presented as the triumph of ‘the people’ over ‘the elite’, and the years since the Referendum have repeatedly cast all the conflicts it has given rise to in those terms (hence, ‘will of the people’, ‘enemies of the people’, and the equation of remainers with the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’). Yet this is a precarious construct, given the fact that the country was and is more or less evenly split – making ‘the people’ an unconvincingly small proportion and ‘the elite’ a preposterously large one – and the self-evidently elite nature of its leaders.

The idea that the largely male, public school and/or Oxford educated Brexit leaders – a category that takes in Johnson, Gove, Farage, Cummings, Carswell, Lawson, Rees-Mogg, Hannan, Redwood and many more – are anything other than a privileged elite is plainly ludicrous. It is a fiction which is constantly vulnerable to obvious inconsistencies, but although they are often pointed out (Rees-Mogg’s investment fund company, Lawson’s French Chateau, Redwood’s advice to investors) this has no cut through with their supporters.

Why? It is not, I think, that those supporters fail to spot the privilege of their leaders. It is that this isn’t the kind of privilege to which they object. Such figures – Johnson, most obviously, Farage, certainly, even Rees-Mogg, surprisingly – are seen as being, despite that privilege, still in some way ‘ordinary’ and, perhaps, more important, as ‘authentic’. More than anything, they may be privileged but they are not what their supporters mean by ‘the elite’ which, instead, is associated with the supposedly finger-wagging, won’t let us say what really think, prissy, moralistic, do-gooders. The Human Rights Brigade. The PC Brigade. The girly swots. The bleeding-heart liberals.

It’s an amorphous group which, together, constitutes a ‘them’ to which the ‘us’ – ordinary, common sense people and their perhaps not ordinary in the ordinary sense but still common sense and authentic leaders – are opposed. For years we suffered as the ‘silent majority’, but with Brexit we found our voice. Within this is another, and crucial, dividing line. As brilliantly depicted in Jonathan Coe’s ‘Brexit novel’, Middle England, the elite in this meaning are ‘constantly telling us what to do and say’. They are interfering. They are authoritarian. They force us to be other than ourselves, and so to be inauthentic, unlike the flamboyant leaders who we revere for having kept their authenticity. They make us follow their rules.

Taking back control

In this cultural universe, ‘taking back control’ was a doubly potent slogan. It was about freedom from EU control, but also freedom from the control of them – who, not coincidentally, were opposed to Brexit – freedom to ‘talk about immigration’, freedom to celebrate Christmas not ‘Winterval’, freedom to fly the St George Flag without being sneered at. In this way it was, of course, partly about nationalism – about ‘us’ as a nation – but also about internal divisions – about ‘us’ versus ‘them’, those who for so long had ruled over us but were now exposed as traitors and saboteurs.

So Brexit provided an umbrella that could link the hard-core libertarianism of a very small ideological minority with the resentments, victimhood and perceived humiliations of a much larger group. And the spines of that umbrella were ‘freedom from the rules’.

Almost all the high-profile fights of the post-Referendum period were framed by this. Domestically, these ranged from the Miller Case on Parliamentary approval for triggering Article 50 through to the row (and court cases) over Prorogation. They were battles over whether ‘the rules’ (laws, conventions) had to be followed or whether ‘the will of the people’ trumped such niceties. In relation to Brexit itself, the distinction between rule-taking and rule-making is what shifted its meaning from ‘single market membership’ to the present stance whereby any and every trace of ECJ involvement must be expunged.

This is also one of many reasons why Brexit has proved so impossible to deliver. For its simple foundational fantasy of national freedom from the rules has constantly been exposed by the complex intricacies of reality. That reality includes the need for transnational regulations if trade is to be done smoothly – free trade in the modern world is not so much about freedom from tariffs as shared rules to eliminate the non-tariff barriers of national regulations.

Sticking a finger in the eye of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ was easy enough, but doing so to hard-nosed trade negotiators – whether of the EU, US, or anywhere else - something much more difficult. Hence, in the end, Brexiters have been reduced to claiming that they never promised it would be easy, or even economically desirable, but all about some ill-defined sense of sovereignty. The ultimate paradox of this aspect of Brexit is that the last-ditch defence of freedom from the rules is championship of adherence to WTO rules.

Enter coronavirus

Into this culture war, the coronavirus pandemic arrived. By this time, the Brexiters were firmly in control of government and those such as Johnson and Cummings, ideologically and psychologically invested in rule-breaking, were suddenly confronted by a situation which required the imposition of new and unprecedently draconian rules and restrictions on everyday life. Small wonder that they did so belatedly, reluctantly and, in Johnson’s case, with a nod and a wink that rules were there to be broken. As Bobby McDonagh observes in The Irish Times, there is “a striking correlation between Brexit indoctrination and virus insouciance”.

As I and others have remarked several times before, Brexiters are far more comfortable with campaigning than governing. As they have found over and over again, it is far easier to stand on the side lines denouncing government ‘betrayal’ of Brexit than delivering it. This is not coincidental, since the promises of Brexit are undeliverable, partly for the reasons given above. But coronavirus revealed a deeper paradox, which is the impossibility of ruling when your politics are defined by rule-breaking. Forced to confront it, Johnson and Cummings opted, however reluctantly, for the rules of lockdown.

But here the culture war took an unexpected turn. Because what was revealed were two diametrically different responses from Brexit supporters. Some of the most high-profile of them became, as discussed in a recent post on this blog – lockdown sceptics. Yet amongst plenty of rank and file leavers a different version of cultural identity held sway, and one they shared with plenty of remainers.

This was the traditional image of the British – and for once it was the British, not just the English - as a ‘naturally’ law-abiding people of orderly queues, fair play, pulling together for the common good, and ‘all in it together’. A people who, in fact, did not disdain but played by the rules. Indeed Johnson himself, with his constant invocations of Second World War unity, mobilised exactly this cultural theme, and it proved to be remarkably powerful. Most people have followed the rules, despite the hardship, and in some cases tragedy, that entailed.

The Cummings row

So, finally, the incipient distinction between ‘the people’ and their anti-elitist yet self-evidently elite leadership was exposed in a way which had cut through. The ‘freedom from rules’ umbrella of Brexit was blown inside-out by the wind of coronavirus. And the trigger for this was Cummings’ exposure as a lockdown rule-breaker and, with it, of what Fintan O’Toole this week called “the unpardonable snigger of elite condescension”.

It’s this charge of elitism and double standards which has been the central theme of the criticism of Johnson’s defence of Cummings, in outlets as diverse as The Spectator and The Guardian. The biter has been well and truly bit.

Cummings’ response to this deployed two of his favourite techniques.

One was ‘to do the unexpected’. In this case, that meant the unprecedented event of a Special Advisor holding a Press Conference. But, here, he had fallen into the trap he accuses his opponents of, that of not understanding how politics looks to ‘ordinary people’. For, outside the despised political bubble, few will know or care that this was an unusual event.

The other was to engage in gaslighting, using a swirl of detailed information and disinformation to make opponents doubt their own grasp or memory of events. In the end, at the very least, all the debate – as with the dishonest Referendum claims about NHS money or Turkey’s accession – serves to create an impression that there are two sides to the story, no one really knows the facts, so who can say what the truth is? At most, the core detail is what sticks in people’s minds.

This time, it didn’t work – or it worked in ways he did not intend. For the most part, people have responded by ignoring, or mocking, all the extraneous detail and holding on to the central fact that, unlike millions of others in similar situations, Cummings broke the spirit and letter of the rules. Referring to some supposed (and in fact questionable) exemptions in the detail of the regulations cut no ice with those who simply referred to the letter Johnson had written to each household. In fact, it has ironic parallels with the way that Brexiters treated Cameron’s pre-referendum letter promising to implement the result as trumping the legal wording for the Referendum Act itself.

A turning point?

It’s always easy to imagine that current events betoken a major watershed when, in reality, it is only retrospectively possible to see such patterns. But the Cummings debacle does at least illustrate the fragility of populist politics, and the way that riding the tiger of such politics always carries the danger that ‘the people’ mobilised against one kind of elite will turn upon that which led them – as Jennie Russell pointed out in an article in The Times last year (£).

It certainly illustrates the stark differences between campaigning and governing, and the incoherence of a campaign based on rule-breaking becoming a government which must, in all events but especially those of crisis, create and enforce rules.

Both of these points will remain salient whether or not Cummings survives in post. His fate may, though, have an impact on how easy or difficult it becomes for the government to secure compliance with current and future coronavirus regulations, with all the consequences for human lives that will have. For with every ministerial announcement that he was within his rights to make his own interpretation of the rules comes the erosion of the possibility of the population at large adhering to them.

Friday 22 May 2020

"It does not have to be like this". But it is

This week the UK government, belatedly, made public its draft legal texts for an agreement with the EU, for the first time authorising them to be communicated to EU Member States. They are, necessarily, lengthy and highly technical documents which have already begun to be picked over by numerous independent trade experts such as David Henig, Sam Lowe, Dr Anna Jerzewska, Dmitry Grozoubinski, and Iana Dreyer. No doubt more will appear as they and others digest the contents of these documents.

They were accompanied by a covering letter - described by Daniel Boffey of The Guardian as “extraordinary” - from David Frost to Michel Barnier which gives much insight into how the UK is approaching the negotiations. Much of it is not surprising. Repeatedly, it invokes arguments which are now familiar and which I have discussed in several previous posts.

First, it envisages a “suite of agreements” rather than the kind of over-arching Association Agreement sought by the EU. Secondly, it constantly invokes supposed “precedents” based upon a variety of other agreements that the EU has with third countries. As I discussed in my recent blog, this is profoundly unrealistic. However, what I didn’t say there and which has only become clear (to me, at least) with the publication of the draft texts, and the commentary of those listed and linked to earlier, is the cumulative effect of these two things.

For, despite being predicated on the idea that the UK is not asking for anything that other third countries don’t have, stitching them together creates what overall is an unprecedented ask (£), without apparently offering much, if anything, in return. There’s nothing wrong with trying that, of course, but it is disingenuous to suggest at the same time that it is a modest, minimal or straightforward demand, and absurd to complain if it gets rejected.

It’s not fair!

That brings us to the third feature of the letter, which was more surprising and, indeed, extraordinary. For it reads as, first, a letter of complaint, in which the EU is ‘told off’ for having taken an unsatisfactory stance and, second, as a submission to an academic seminar on political theory in which various “arguments” are discussed and (supposedly) refuted. However the overall tenor is, more than anything else, like the familiar refrain of childhood: ‘but it’s not fair’. In that last respect it is very much in line with what Bobby McDonagh, writing in the Irish Times but before the letter appeared, described as Britain’s “Brexit tantrum”.

Thought of in these terms, a useful question to ask is – what reaction from the EU is anticipated? If a letter of complaint – ‘we’re sorry, we got it wrong’? If an academic seminar – ‘good point, we hadn’t thought of that’? If a childish lament – ‘there, there, mummy’s here now’? What, precisely, is envisaged? In the event, the response from Barnier was to point out that such posturing “cannot be a substitute for serious engagement and detailed negotiations”. Well, quite.

For those who insist, as many Brexiters do, on the dignity and indeed the pride of the British nation it was a remarkably undignified and petulant statement. More to the point, it’s simply irrelevant as regards an international (trade) negotiation. For such negotiations are not about winning arguments or making complaints. They are about cold, hard power, interests, and trade-offs. Not only do argument and complaint cut no ice, but they show that you have already lost. It’s as simple and as brutal as a playground fight – the person who wants to reason with their opponent is the one who has already lost.

Does that make the EU a bully, administering ‘punishment beatings’? It’s a meaningless question. Power is just power. What is surprising is that Brexiters who have spent decades saying how awful the EU is are now pearl-clutching about its ‘viciousness’, as if what they expected was charity, or special treatment. And that is the more surprising since they have spent those decades insulting the EU, and yet now imagine that they will be the recipient of its kindness. What, for example, did Brexit Party MPs who last July were childishly turning their backs when the European anthem was played in the European Parliament think? That it would endear Britain to the EU? Did those repeatedly comparing the EU to Nazi Germany or the USSR think doing so would make securing a good deal easier?

So at one level the letter is an expression of the continuing naivety of Brexiters. At another, of course, it’s not about negotiations with the EU at all. Instead, it’s part of a concerted campaign to depict the EU, to the UK domestic audience, as unreasonable. And, indeed, the claim that Barnier is “losing the argument” is now being deployed routinely in support of this. It is as silly as Jeremy Corbyn’s widely-mocked claim that Labour ‘won the argument’ in the 2019 General Election in that, whether or not it’s true, it’s irrelevant to the only issue that matters.

Yet it has a serious implication to the extent that it will morph into blaming the EU if there is no deal, and all the attendant chaos of that, come next January. And if that happens then, no doubt, many will buy that line and forget all the promises made by Brexiters about how Britain ‘held all the cards’. What will matter, politically, is how many do so, if fresh chaos is heaped on a nation still reeling from coronavirus. If it’s, say, 50% or more then the gamble will have worked (in a political sense – of course the economic damage will be unaffected by where the blame goes). If it’s, say, 30% or less then the gamble will have failed. No doubt the question of where, within that kind of range, public opinion might land is what Boris Johnson will be calculating over the next month or so as the decision on transition period extension has to be reached.

The extension debate

With respect to that, fierce debate continues to rage. The Brexit Ultras associated with Patrick Minford et al - in yet another incarnation, this time the “Centre for Brexit Policy” – produced a predictable call against extension. Based, as usual, on the discredited ‘Cardiff model’, it recycled all the usual Ultra lines of which perhaps the most egregious is that whereas, if necessary, ‘WTO terms’ are perfectly viable for UK-EU trade, the key to post-Brexit prosperity is negotiating preferential trade terms with non-EU countries. (And if the predictable recycling of discredited arguments is your thing, look no further than David Davis’ suggestion on Radio 4 this week that – yes - ‘German car makers’ are about to ride to the UK’s rescue, as well as his prognostications about the trade negotiations. But always remember that Davis is the man who invariably  gets everything about Brexit wrong).

On the other side of the argument, warnings about the impossibility of completing a deal without an extension abound, both from (pro-Brexit) columnists (£) and health experts, whilst Nicole Sykes of the CBI tweeted eloquently about the problems for businesses of preparing for a December end to transition whilst dealing with the coronavirus crisis. However, in general terms, businesses have been remarkably quiet about this, perhaps because in the current situation they are so heavily dependent upon government support. But several business-savvy journalists are speaking up, including Martin Wolf in a powerfully argued FT column yesterday (£). I’ve made my own arguments for extending the transition before, and won’t repeat them here.

One interesting intervention in the extension debate came this week from Raoul Ruparel – formerly Theresa May’s Special Advisor on Europe – in an article in Politico. It is a serious piece from a serious author, and proposed a ‘conditional extension’ to be agreed by the end of June, effectively to implement any deal agreed by, say, October. One merit lies in its recognition, often absent from this debate, of the key problem of business preparedness. Another lies in the implication – correct, I think – that the most likely route to extension in terms of UK political realities would be some form, even if not this form, of re-badging and re-designing.

That said, Ruparel’s proposal has several problems, both of timing (a deal by October) and of its legal basis (which he questionably suggests that Article 50 provides) but the one which I think is particularly important, because it has a wider implication, is the suggestion that such a conditional extension could be preceded by a UK parliamentary vote “to indicate that initial political agreement has been reached between the two sides on what their future relationship will be”.

The obvious problem here is that there has already been a not dissimilar kind of vote, when parliament approved the Political Declaration on, precisely, the outlines of the future relationship. This included a commitment to Level Playing Field conditions, specifically linked in the text to geographical and economic closeness, that the UK now openly disavows. It is therefore difficult to see what confidence could be placed in a parliamentary vote of the sort proposed.

A country that can no longer be trusted

For the bitter truth – bitter, that is, to have to say it about one’s own country – is that the way the UK has conducted itself these last four years means that the EU has very little grounds for confidence in us. That is both because we – or more accurately our governments - have repeatedly shown ourselves to be untrustworthy but also to be incompetent – either reneging on, or apparently failing to understand the implications of, what has been agreed to, for example, but also especially, as regards Northern Ireland. It doesn’t need a PhD in textual analysis to realise that when Michel Barnier wrote in his reply to Frost’s letter this week that “I would not like the tone you have taken to impact the mutual trust … that is essential between us” it was diplomatic code for the fact that it already has done so.

But this is not just a matter of a single letter £). The shrivelling of national reputation has been long in the making and, again, for this we must thank the Brexit Ultras such as Jacob Rees-Mogg who over a year ago proposed that the UK should use an (Article 50) extension period to make things “as difficult as possible” for the EU. Or David Davis who disowned the phase 1 agreement within hours of the UK signing it. Or the entire legion – Andrew Bridgen, John Redwood, Nigel Farage - who have made it clear that they regard the financial settlement as illegitimate.

And this is also relevant to the Ruparel proposal (or similar ones that may be made in the future) more generally. For whilst, as I agree, some re-badging and indeed repackaging is likely to be a politically necessary for the UK to agree to any form of extension, the question is – why is this so? The answer is solely in order to once more dance around the sensibilities of the Brexit Ultras – the same old dance that has driven the entire Brexit saga from the decision to hold a Referendum onwards. Again, it’s rather as with a spoiled child who is constantly indulged and, of course, whose behaviour gets ever worse the longer the indulgence goes on.

It is a national tragedy for us but, more importantly in the present context, it is a game the EU is no long willing and no longer needs to play. Having for decades offered compromises and opt-outs to satisfy British Euroscepticism, our domestic political poison is, luckily for the EU, no longer its problem. I don’t sense any appetite within the EU to indulge Britain further.

The brutal truth is that neither Britain, nor Brexit, really matter very much anymore for the EU. Except, to an extent, for Ireland, Brexit is scarcely discussed in the European media, doesn’t figure in the political debates of the member states, and is well near the bottom of EU priorities. The passage of time and the press of coronavirus means that almost no one outside the UK cares now. Yes, the EU would much prefer a deal, but not at any price. So there’s going to be little flex from the EU side because it cares so little about Brexit and, apparently, none from the UK government because it cares too much about Brexit.

For these various reasons, and despite my previous opinion that an extension would probably end up happening because of the overwhelming rationality of the case for it, I agree with Tom Hayes’ excellent discussion in his latest BEERG Brexit Blog which suggests that the transition period will almost certainly end as scheduled, and with no future terms deal in place.

Post-Brexit Britain is coming in to view

Whether or not that proves right, we are now seeing more and more detail of what kind of post-Brexit Britain is envisaged by the government. This is being revealed by, for example, the ongoing parliamentary passage of legislation such as the Agriculture Bill, the dangers of which for animal welfare and product standards were analysed by veterinary surgeon Anna Bramall in Prospect this week. It is also revealed by the Immigration Bill which gleefully cements the end of freedom of movement rights. Though it is rarely stated, this includes the end of those rights for British people - on the other hand, they are awarded the special Brexit bonus of having the lowest paid jobs reserved specially for them! There’s even now a dedicated ‘pick for Britain’ website to facilitate this.

This has been an unusually busy week for Brexit-related stories, and also a busy one for me, so there are several important developments and reports that I have not been able to discuss in this post. So I will just briefly mention some of them.

First, the UK announced the new Global Tariff schedule it will apply to countries with whom it does not have a trade agreement from the end of the transition period. If that includes the EU, then the cost of food and cars imported to the UK from there “will rise sharply” (£). At the same time, the new Customs Academy – set up to train the estimated 50,000 new customs agents that will be needed after Brexit – is reported to have neither the money nor anything like enough trainees to deliver them.

Second, there was a good BBC report on the complex issue of fishing quotas, where all the Brexiter promises are unravelling. Third, there was an analysis of the intricacies of the Irish Sea border by Dr Katy Hayward and Tony Smith on the LSE Brexit site, plus a wider discussion of Brexit and Irish border issues by Dr Andrew Blick at Federal Trust. That is the same Irish border that, before the Referendum, Boris Johnson said would be unaffected by Brexit and about which, since, he denied the consequences of what he signed up to with EU.

Disparate as these and the other stories in this post are, they all point towards what is emerging for Britain. A country that is poorer and meaner, in antagonistic relation with its neighbours and natural friends. A country mired in complex and intractable problems that are entirely of its own making. A country that in the name of taking back control and animated by nationalist chauvinism is now reduced to childish whining when the world outside does not do its bidding and scarcely even registers its complaints.

What makes us “so unworthy”? “It does not have to be like this”, David Frost caterwauled in his letter to Barnier, like a spurned teenager berating the intransigence of a lost first love. Well, certainly, it did not need to be like this and wouldn’t have been – without Brexit, of course, but also without the utterly cack-handed way in which Brexit has been pursued. But it is like this, and it will go on being like this. As indeed the Brexiter faux-patriots were warned from the start and throughout these years of negotiations in which they have, by their own choices and incompetence, dragged our country into internal distress and external disrepute.

Friday 15 May 2020

Lost in time and space

This week saw the third round (by videoconference) of the increasingly surreal post-Brexit negotiations, which rumble on as the one supposedly immutable thing in a world otherwise transformed by the coronavirus crisis. Unsurprisingly, the indications so far (there is a finally plenary session today and so something may change, but I doubt it) are that the impasse continues.

David Frost, the UK’s Chief Negotiator, has reportedly briefed the cabinet to the effect that the EU are still refusing to grant the same deals that it has done with other independent countries. In other words, the flawed logic of ‘sovereign equals’ discussed in my recent post continues to guide the UK’s approach. As noted there, it is an approach that almost guarantees that the negotiations will fail. Next month, when the transition period extension decision deadline looms, is likely to be crucial as it also marks the point when, in the past, the government has said that it might simply end negotiations if there is no deal in prospect.

As always it’s worth recalling, as the 2016 Referendum retreats into history, that the current situation grows organically out of the fact that the Brexiters never had an agreed plan for how Brexit should be done, despite the fact that they had spent years scheming and dreaming for it to happen. Since then, at every stage, the hardest of Brexiters have driven the meaning of Brexit in an ever-harder direction. Thus we have arrived at the present point when virtually any kind of deal is ruled out by red lines that have now turned the deepest crimson.

The plan was that no plan was needed

Yet this does not mean, as unworldly cynics often claim, that no deal was ‘the plan all along’. It’s far worse than that: the central truth about Brexit is that there was no plan all along. It’s true, no doubt, that there are some Brexiters who have always wanted a no deal outcome. But there are plenty of others who genuinely harbour the fantasy that it should be quick and easy to do a deal, and that Britain ‘holds all the cards’. They didn’t for the most part cynically deceive the voters, they naively deceived themselves. And, moreover, the current UK negotiators are almost certainly fully and genuinely in sway to the theology of the Brexit Ultras that, if met with sufficiently firm resolve, the EU will break its own red lines.

This is not inconsistent with having no plan for Brexit. On the contrary, it is one of the reasons for having no plan, since the assumption is that all that is needed is sufficient determination and, no doubt, ‘bulldog spirit’ for all obstacles to disappear. Such reasoning ought to have been discredited by May’s government’s initial attempt – led by David Davis – to negotiate in just that spirit.

But in the circular logic of Brexiters, the failure of their claims invariably proves that they were right all along. For example, this week Douglas Carswell argued that the EU “constantly failed to make the concessions they ought to have made” (my emphasis) and so “administered to Theresa May the equivalent of a punishment beating”. On this analysis, all would have been well had May not – with the Chequers Proposal that saw the resignations of Davis and Johnson – blinked in the face of EU pressure (rather than belatedly, and partially, recognized the economic damage of the original approach).

One serious consequence of this is that the hard core Brexiters have never accepted the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) she negotiated, large chunks of which survived in that which Boris Johnson signed, as fully legitimate. Rather, it is seen as testimony to May’s lack of steel and as the legacy of ‘the remainer parliament’. In due course, if there is no trade deal, this will reappear in the form of questioning what was agreed about the financial settlement, for the Ultras never accepted that this should have been signed off in advance of a trade deal being struck. The aborted ‘row of the summer’ (of 2017) over sequencing still rankles.

In the meantime, it is evident in the way that, having shifted commitment on the Level Playing Field (LPF) from the WA to the non-binding Political Declaration, Johnson’s government are treating even that as some new imposition from Brussels (in fact, it was spelled out at least as early as March 2018). Hence this is now routinely referred to as the “so called” Level Playing Field, as for example in Michael Gove’s recent statement. Brexiter commentators, meanwhile, use more colourful, and yet strangely self-pitying, language, with Ambrose Evans-Pritchard recently suggesting that the EU is “trying to impose terms appropriate for a country defeated in war” (£).

Brexit: unmoored from history and geography

Such hyperbole is the counterpart of the ‘sovereign equals’ idea, but a particular twist on that, which is currently the government’s constant refrain, is that the EU is refusing to understand that the UK has now left and is not still a member state negotiating exit terms (£). This is deeply disingenuous. For whilst, of course, it is literally and legally true, it implies that the UK has suddenly appeared out of nowhere as if with no history and is seeking to create a relationship with the EU from scratch.

Yet, clearly, the form of the future relationship cannot be independent of the near 50-year period that preceded it, or unaffected by the very high level of economic and political interconnection that exists as a result. Moreover, to the extent that the UK is still interconnected in this way because of the transition period, it is nonsense to treat the legal truth of having departed the EU as negating the empirical truth of those interconnections. It’s self-evidently the case that The UK isn’t ‘just another’ third country seeking a relationship with the EU: it is in a half-way house between having been a member and creating a third country relationship.

That can also be put in two different ways. First, it means something which Brexiters have never understood, namely that Brexit is a process and not an event. That failure is precisely encapsulated in the idea that, as of 31 January 2020, the UK’s departure was cut and dried, when in fact the terms of that are still a matter of ongoing implementation (as regards the WA) and ongoing negotiation (as regards the future terms). Second, it puts paid to the entire gambit of seeking ‘precedents’ from other EU relationships with third countries that is associated with the ‘sovereign equals’ logic. For there is no precedent for Brexit – it is a unique process, without precedent, and therefore the form of the future relationship will derive from those unreplicable conditions.

So, context matters. History matters. And of course geography matters. This week a tweet from Robbie Gibb – formerly Director of Communications at 10 Downing Street and an enthusiast for Brexit – opined that “in the modern world of international commerce and trade, geography is irrelevant. It’s just the EU excuse to keep us in its orbit”. It was widely mocked, but Gibb was only saying what is an article of faith to Brexiters. Not only is the UK envisaged as having a completely ahistorical relationship with the EU, but also one in which the spatial reality of proximity is irrelevant, except as an EU ploy.

This lies at the heart of what public policy academic Gabriel Siles-Brugge of Warwick University has aptly called “the emotive political economy” of Brexit trade policy. By contrast, the ‘gravity model’ of trade is just about the most robust empirical observation in economics, and even for services traded electronically there is no real evidence for what Liam Fox called “a post-geography trading world”. As I’ve argued before, Brexiters in both their ‘nationalist’ and ‘globalist’ variants fail to understand that the name of the modern game is regionalisation. Inescapably, the UK’s region is the continent of Europe, most of which is in the EU.

A consistent approach

The key to unlocking the Brexiters’ misunderstanding of this is to see that it is entirely consistent with their overall approach to the current negotiations. In a revealing tweet in 2018 Dominic Raab stated that “Remainers believe UK prosperity depends on its location, Brexiters believe UK prosperity depends on its character”. So just as no plan is needed if the UK shows sufficient ‘determination’, so the brute fact of geographical location will wilt in the face of ‘character’.

It’s no coincidence that Boris Johnson’s endless gung-ho rhetoric appeals to them: it’s not that he has the salesman’s trick of selling the product, it’s that the rhetorical trickery and the product are one and the same. That’s why, from a Brexiter point of view, constant appeals to people to ‘believe’ in and ‘get behind’ Brexit make perfect sense. With such belief, commitment and character all the inconvenient facts of history, geography (and economics) become irrelevant.

Unhampered by this peculiar metaphysics, it is neither capricious nor manipulative of the EU to seek a relationship with the UK which is modulated by the history and geography of the two parties. On the contrary, it is a remarkable folly on the part of the UK to imagine that these can or should be ignored, or that a pivot to ‘the Anglosphere’ or, even more absurdly, the Commonwealth, represents a viable strategy or a realistic calculation of self-interest. That is a critique of Brexit, of course, but given that Brexit is happening there is no reason to compound that other than the implacable hatred that Brexiters hold for the EU and for any proposal emanating from it. Even if one harboured such hatred, it is strange to carry it to the extent of inflicting national self-damage even after having achieved Brexit.

However, with the Ultra Brexiters now firmly in charge of the government, it seems that every aspect of the negotiations, including the constant attempts to resile from the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol (although this week has seen some signs of realism about this), are to be conducted in this spirit of half-paranoid, half-bellicose antagonism. Since this of course is daily eroding what little trust the EU has in the UK as a reliable and responsible negotiating partner the growing danger is not just of there being no future terms deal but of there being long-term diplomatic and economic conflict. This isn’t remotely what voters were told Brexit would mean but, then, nothing that they were told by the Vote Leave campaign was true.

Canadian conundrums

So, for now, the negotiations limp on. It’s no longer entirely clear whether Brexiters know what it is that they are aiming for. It used to be an article of faith that the aim was a “best in class” Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and a “fantastic new partnership” - what else, after all, would be good enough for Brexit Britain? In the past that meant, at least, a ‘Canada-style’ (aka CETA) deal. For example, as recently as February, Dominic Raab explicitly elided the two in talking of a “Canada-style, best in class, free trade agreement”. Mysteriously, though, such an agreement is now being described – Ambrose Evans-Pritchard again (£) - as a “skinny FTA” which would be “no tariffs or quotas but nothing special” or, more commonly, as a “bare bones” deal.

It’s difficult to disentangle all the shifting meanings here (there are shades of the way that ‘hard Brexit’ used to mean ‘Canada-style’ but morphed into meaning ‘no deal’). CETA is not, in fact, an entirely zero tariffs deal, and at the House of Lords EU Committee last week Michael Gove talked of downgrading UK demands from zero tariffs so as to “end up like Canada”. So ‘Canada-style’ has been used at different times to denote both a ‘best in class’ and a ‘skinny’ or ‘bare bones’ deal.

The idea seems to be that by re-badging ‘Canada-style’ in this way it discredits the EU’s LPF demands so as to make them seem unreasonable. Being thwarted when ‘all we wanted was a skinny FTA’ sounds like a better reason to be aggrieved than being refused a ‘best in class’ deal, even though it appears to reference the same, or a very similar, thing. And, after all, if it is deemed that with sufficient character the UK can slip the anchors of time and space it is surely a small matter to re-define Canada in whatever image is chosen.

But, however labelled, the immutable facts of history and geography persist, and these inform the EU’s position. So even a ‘skinny’ or ‘bare bones’ deal would be a complex matter, and come with LPF requirements that the UK currently rejects, partly because, as a matter of fact, CETA itself does have some LPF conditions and partly because, as the EU have long made clear, such a deal for the UK would entail more stringent ones. If these irreconcilable positions persist, we will be back to that other linguistic sleight of hand, an ‘Australia-style’ trade deal – more accurately known as no deal.

A test of character

Again, it would be a mistake to think that all this is simply a well-worked out plan to dump the blame on the EU if no deal is done – although that is certainly what will happen in that event. Rather, many Brexiters genuinely believe that the EU will ‘blink’ at the end of the year, making a transition period extension irrelevant because it delays getting to the ‘blink point’. And, again, that makes sense within a world view that regards history and geography and economics as so much flim-flam, and the real issue to be displaying determination and character.

Yet this is of little comfort to the rest of us, since we have a government whose most obvious characteristics are being pumped high on the steroids of Brexiter hubris and being staffed by perhaps the most woefully incompetent politicians in modern British history. Indeed, the two are scarcely unconnected, since the sole criterion for membership of the government is slavish obedience to the most reckless and irrational approach to Brexit. This hardly augurs well if we are reliant upon ‘character’ to see us through.

Thursday 7 May 2020

Must we mention the war?

There’s relatively little happening as regards Brexit developments this week (although the increasing row over the Northern Ireland Protocol is important), and little new to say about such developments as there are (but see Dr Katy Hayward and Professor David Phinnemore’s analysis of the background to the row). As regards the current situation overall, Katya Adler, the BBC’s excellent Europe Editor, has provided a clear summary.

So instead of writing a new post, I am ‘re-upping’ one from 28 September 2018 on Brexit Britain’s war fixation. It seems appropriate since Britain is having a public holiday for VE Day. That was decided last year, to reflect that this will be the 75th anniversary (the same happened for the 50th) but perhaps also reflects, precisely, a fixation with the Second World War which is growing rather than diminishing with time, even as those who still remember it diminish in number. (For further, interesting, reflections on this do take a look at an excellent blog post by Miles King)

And, indeed, since writing that post it does seem as if war obsession is growing and coarsening, with the behaviour of pantomime oaf Mark Francois a prime, even paradigmatic, case. That could be seen as harmless enough, but it does carry dangers as the post points out. These have come into even sharper relief during the coronavirus. For as discussed in my post of a couple of weeks ago dubious comparisons with Spitfire production or the Blitz have undoubtedly adversely affected Britain’s response to the pandemic.

Despite the post being about 18 months old, there is not much that I want to change or add (and I haven’t edited it apart from expunging one, now legally superseded, phrase), except for two things. One is that my point in the third footnote that people might not be sanguine if faced with disruptions to supplies in the event of no-deal Brexit seems borne out by the panic buying at the start of the pandemic crisis. The no-deal Brexit under discussion at the time was that of there being no Withdrawal Agreement at all, but similar disruptions can be envisaged if, at the end of December, we leave the transition period with no trade deal in place and, actually, even with such a deal there will be a need for new customs processes which will disrupt established supply chains. Also of note is that the coronavirus shortages were caused by a short-term demand spike; those at the end of the transition period will be driven by supply shortages, and may be of longer duration.

The second additional point is that, in response to the original post, I received several messages saying that I was ‘showing disrespect’ for those who fought in the war, or failed to understand its significance. This is nonsense. I spent eight years researching and writing a history of Bletchley Park, Britain’s wartime codebreaking organization. That history is itself often mythologized or misunderstood and as I wrote in the book it shows no lack of respect to those who worked there “to avoid sanitization and sentimentality … most of them would have regarded an attempt at analytical rigour as a more fitting tribute” (p.32).

That same idea matters in the current context, where there is sometimes a mood of almost authoritarian insistence upon jingoistic celebration. It would have seemed odd, I imagine, to those who were engaged in fighting authoritarianism and for individual freedom.

At all events, it is a strange historical irony that, in the long-run, it has proved more difficult for Britain – or perhaps England – to ‘get over’ winning than it has for other countries to get over defeat and occupation. And perhaps an even stranger and grimmer one that this has been partly responsible for Britain leaving the institution which embodies the successful attempt to provide the continent of Europe with an alternative to the horrors of both the war and its long, bleak, ‘cold’ aftermath. Happy Victory in Europe Day.

The September 2018 post follows.

Brexit Britain’s wartime fixation

In the run up to the referendum, it was widely remarked upon that one significant strand of the leave campaign channelled the British fixation with, and often mythologization of, World War Two (WW2). How big a part it played in the outcome of the vote is impossible to say, but it seems plausible that it was a factor amongst the demographic that voted most strongly for Brexit, the over 50s. This would be not so much people who remember WW2 – now a relatively small number – but the generation or two who grew up, as I did, in its shadow. It was a time when every other film and TV series was set in the war, when children made models of Spitfires and Lancasters, and teachers and parents spoke of ‘the war’ both routinely and as the defining event of their lives.

No doubt future analysts will have much to say about this*. For now, what matters most urgently is to understand how that same fixation and mythologization is impacting upon the ongoing politics of Brexit. As the outgoing German Ambassador to Britain remarked earlier this year, it has two components**. One is the idea of Britain ‘standing alone’, the other a narrative that links, as Boris Johnson has explicitly done, Nazi Germany’s attempt to subjugate Europe with the present-day EU. Perhaps we could add (at least) a third aspect, quite often seen on social media, that Europe owes Britain a debt of gratitude from the war that ought to be repaid by accepting all Britain’s negotiating demands.

These and similar sentiments constantly re-appear almost every day, and, possibly, with increasing regularity as the negotiations grind, stutter and stall. Just today there was a report of the views of Conservative Party members on these negotiations. One said: “I’d rather have no deal than a bad deal … if this country had a chance and an opportunity it could look after itself. In the second world war we were feeding ourselves”.

This is obviously historically inaccurate (much food was brought to Britain, at huge cost in human life and suffering, by Atlantic convoys) but the real point is that seems to have been said not as a worst case scenario, but as something desirable, part of the opportunities of Brexit, not as a calamity or as Project Fear hyperbole. It is revealing of the quite different ways that people may react to things like the appointment this week of a Food Supplies Minister as part of no deal planning. Many will think it extraordinary that a rich country in peacetime could even be entertaining such a possibility but others may feel not just sanguine but enthusiastic about it***.

A national quirk takes centre stage

We’re no longer in the situation where this longstanding quirk of the British psyche can just be dismissed as an amusing eccentricity. It has somehow come to occupy centre stage in the politics of Brexit. The Brexit Cabinet sub-committee is routinely described as the ‘war cabinet’. Boris Johnson constantly attempts – and fails – to cultivate a Churchillian image.

Peter Hargraves - the businessman who donated millions to the leave campaign, funding a leaflet to every household in the country - celebrates the insecurity Brexit will bring: “it will be like Dunkirk again”, he enthuses. Liam Fox announces his support for a round-the-world flight of a restored Spitfire to drum up exports for post-Brexit Britain.

Nor is war fever the preserve of crusty oldsters. Darren Grimes, the 22-year old Brexit activist, recently pronounced that “we’re a proud island nation that survived a world war – despite blockades in the Atlantic that tried to starve our country into submission. I don’t think we’re about to be bullied by a French egomaniac [i.e. Macron]”.

There’s a certain bathos in all this. Brexit, sold to the voters as a sunny upland of national pride and prosperity, reduced to the glum promise by Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab that the government will ensure “there is adequate food supply”. Slogans like ‘it won’t be too bad’ or ‘you won’t actually starve’ would probably not have had much traction, no matter how shiny and red a bus they were written on.

The dangers of war fixation

But there is far more danger than humour in it. The underlying sentiment of confrontational antagonism has permeated the Brexit negotiations from the beginning. Brexiters, having won their great prize, and having assured us how easy it would be, immediately adopted a stance not of confident optimism but of sullen suspicion punctuated with bellicosity.

Recall one of the early moments that the complexities of Brexit became clear – in relation to Gibraltar – and former Conservative leader Michael Howard immediately started talking about war. Or, more low-key but showing how permeated with hostility the approach has been, Johnson’s ‘go whistle’ jibe or Davis’s ‘row of the summer’ bluster.

That’s one danger, and it has already done its damage. The far greater one is the now ingrained and sure to become worse narrative of EU ‘bullying’ and ‘punishment’. This is almost invariably accompanied by invocations of WW2, of standing alone, of German aggression and French duplicity. It is dangerous not so much because it often invokes a highly partial picture of the war but because it always invokes an entirely unrealistic picture of Brexit.

Britain, through its vote and its government’s actions, has chosen to leave and to do so in the form that it has. That entails losing all of the benefits of membership of the EU and of the single market. It is not bullying or punishment to be expected to face the consequences of that choice. Britain has not been forced by foreign aggression to ‘stand alone’: it has chosen to do so. It has backed itself into a corner, through lies and fantasies about the practical realities of what Brexit would mean. It is now in danger of telling itself lies and fantasies about why that has happened.

Britain’s wartime history is something we can justly feel proud of. For that matter there are plenty of people - older people, now, inevitably - in countries like France, Belgium and Holland who continue to feel gratitude for it. But pride should not mean truculence, bellicosity, entitlement and self-pity. Above all, Dunkirk was almost 80 years ago. There is also plenty to feel proud of since and, in any case, that one desperate moment in our history should not and does not define us forever.

*Indeed some already have. See in particular the excellent chapter by Robert Eaglestone, ‘Cruel Nostalgia and the Memory of the Second World War’ in Eagelstone, R. (Ed) Brexit and Literature. Critical and Cultural Responses. Routledge, 2018.

**It is noteworthy that even pointing this out was enough to enrage Brexiters, with the Daily Express railing against the comments for ‘mocking’ them.

***The relative numbers in these different camps will become politically significant if a no deal Brexit were to happen. Brexiters are likely to find much less appetite than they think for massive disruption to the amenities of everyday life, even amongst those who currently appear relaxed about the prospect.

Friday 1 May 2020

The flawed logic of 'sovereign equals'

This week’s Brexit news, such as it is, continues to circle around arguments for and against extending the transition period. The government’s substantive arguments against doing so – state aid rules, budget contributions, and ability to deal with the coronavirus crisis - were rehearsed in a good article by Arj Singh in HuffPost. The article also included useful critical discussion of each of these, from Professor Anand Menon of King’s College London, and Georgina Wright and Maddy Thimont Jack, both of the Institute for Government.

However, one development of note was flagged up in Michael Gove’s comments during a Select Committee appearance. Some of these were boilerplate stuff about there being no need to extend the transition period as there is enough time for a deal to be done. In support of this contention there was, as usual, a bogus historical comparison (on this occasion, with the time taken for the 1957 Treaty of Rome to be completed, ignoring that there were many years of prequel and sequel to that) and a slightly absurd call for the EU to ‘concentrate its mind’ on Brexit in view of the coronavirus crisis.

This is all largely by-the-by and was really only a riposte to Michel Barnier’s pointed criticism of the UK at a press conference the week before which might be summarised as a call for Johnson’s government to ‘get real’. Considered as such a riposte, it could in turn be summarised as ‘shan’t’ and, indeed, all such calls have been resisted for four years now.

The UK’s new approach to the Brexit negotiations

By contrast, the interesting aspect of what Gove said lay in his repeated references (subsequently re-enforced by ‘Number 10’) to the UK as being an ‘independent’ or ‘sovereign’ state and, with that, his complaint that the EU was failing to treat the UK as such. This terminology has been emphasised for several weeks now, beginning at least with the publication of the government’s negotiating approach at the end of February. It is also frequently used by the UK’s Chief Negotiator David Frost who regularly re-iterates that the negotiations are between ‘sovereign equals’, and it was deployed forcibly this week in the UK’s insistence on certain fishing rights being “just fundamental” to what “an independent state” means.

At first sight, this might be taken as just another outing for Brexiter sloganising about ‘taking back control’, but it codes a much deeper shift in how the UK is approaching Brexit under Boris Johnson. Throughout May’s Article 50 negotiations, the frequent accusation was that Britain was trying to ‘cherry pick’ the advantages of EU membership, whilst avoiding the constraints and obligations of such membership. Both the EU and many UK commentators remarked that this failed to understand that, after Brexit, the UK would be a ‘third country’. At the same time, many Brexiters were suspicious of such an approach, believing that in practice it would keep the UK tied too closely to the EU’s orbit.

In the new approach, the government has flipped this criticism around so as constantly to emphasise that what it is seeking is a series of arrangements which are in line with precedents from third country relationships with the EU. The precedents vary, according to what aspect of the future relationship is being referred to, but in the negotiating approach document they include Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, USA, and Norway. The term ‘precedent’ or cognates of it appear 30 times in the 30-page document.

The significance of this is two-fold. On the one hand, it is a message to the EU but also to both pro- and anti-Brexit actors domestically, that the UK is neither asking for anything which is unreasonable for a non-member nor for anything which is in any way incompatible with Brexit. On the other hand, and here the notion of ‘sovereign equals’ is important, it implies that these arrangements are or should automatically be on offer to the UK since they are selected from the menu of what independent states are able to agree with the EU.

A naïve and misleading approach

In this respect, it is an approach which is at best naïve and at worst deliberately misleading. It seems to derive from transposing the rules-based nature of EU membership on to the EU’s external relationships. EU membership entails rights and obligations within a system of rules, since that is the only way of holding together a group of (yes) sovereign, independent countries. It is that which precludes cherry-picking, which would fatally undermine such a rules-based system. Once the rules are bent, they cease to be rules. Hence the impossibility of being both a beneficiary and a non-member. What the government’s new approach implies is that the same logic applies to third countries. That is, that they, too, have a certain set of rights, albeit different to those of member states. David Frost has expressed this quite unambiguously in saying that the British approach is “to claim the right that every other non-EU country in the world has”.

If that were indeed so, then, of course, there would be no reason why the UK shouldn’t have, say, a New Zealand-type veterinary agreement or a Japan-style agreement on financial services regulation, to give two examples envisaged in the UK negotiation approach document. In particular, to take the central and most contentious example, there is no reason why the UK should not have a Canada-style Free Trade Agreement without the need for additional Level Playing Field Commitments. All of these are ‘within the rules’ for third countries, have ‘precedent’ and, therefore, the UK has a ‘right’ to them by definition.

But there are no such ‘rules’ or ‘rights’, and the quasi-legal notion of ‘precedent’ is all but irrelevant in this context. To the extent that the EU is, indeed, a ‘sovereign’ it can make whatever external agreements it sees fit, with or without regard for ‘precedent’. What it will do is based upon the calculation of its own interests, refracted through the internal negotiation of the differing interests of its own member states. In particular, what is at issue is the relative negotiating strengths of the EU vis a vis the UK.

A meaningless construct

In this respect, ‘sovereign equals’ is a meaningless construct. Sovereignty applies equally to all countries, but that does not make them ‘equal’ with respect to what they can achieve in trade or other negotiations. The US is the sovereign equal’ of, say, Chad – but in any negotiation between them the US is clearly the stronger party, and it would be absurd to imagine that because the US has such and such a relationship with, say, Canada, it follows that this would be made available to Chad.

The disparity between the UK and the EU is, of course, much less than in this example. But economically, especially, the differences in size between the two is enough to make the EU stronger. Yet, on the other hand, precisely because of the UK’s economic size and proximity to the EU, it is unsurprising that the EU is not willing to offer a Canada-style trade deal without additional preconditions and safeguards.

An alternative reading of being ‘sovereign equals’, and one which is found in numerous government statements, is that it simply means that just as the EU will not accept or be bound by UK law, regulation and jurisdiction so the same thing applies to the UK as regards EU law, regulation and jurisdiction. This is important within the context of the negotiations because it codes, in particular, the idea that any role for the ECJ would be unacceptable to the UK.

But this version of sovereign equality is also naïve and misleading. The global economy relies upon trans-national regulatory systems of which those of the EU and the US are by far the most extensive and powerful. The UK is of course free to set its own standards, and to that extent is the sovereign equal of any other country. But there is no possibility of the UK being an international ‘rule maker’ and to that extent is bound to be a ‘rule taker’. The Brexiter position on this is in any case contradictory given the enthusiasm they evince for trading ‘on WTO Rules’.

The outcome of the negotiations will therefore be a matter of realpolitik, not of a quasi-theological notion of ‘sovereign equals’ nor of a fantasy that some system of rules and rights governs what kinds of deals the EU does or does not do. It is also quite irrelevant here to talk, as Brexiters often do, of what the EU ‘ought’ to do if it had regard for their (the Brexiters’) calculation of its (the EU’s) interests, or those of its member states, or of their industries (the German car maker argument). That’s a matter for the EU, just as it is the for the UK – in that sense, only, are they sovereign equals. Both can make their own decisions and, as it may be, their own mistakes.

How to make sense of all this?

At one level all this is – as so often – more to do with a domestic audience than the EU. Thus the Daily Express reported it as Gove “blasting” the EU for refusing “to accept its own logic” (i.e. a version of the ‘precedent’ argument). That is in part another example of how Brexit continues to be conducted as if it were still in campaign mode but, of course, also an indication of how, especially if no deal is done, it will be blamed on EU intransigence.

At another level, I think it reflects something which many remainers fail to understand. Committed Brexiters really do believe their own propaganda and, in particular, really do believe that ‘sovereignty’ confers unconstrained freedom. In this sense, their fantasy of what being a ‘sovereign equal’ means as a non-EU member is the mirror image of their erroneous belief that sovereignty had been lost by virtue of being an EU member. And allied to that is the persistent paranoia that, as a member, the UK was ruled by the EU and as a non-member is being punished by the EU.

But there are some more fiddly and detailed issues in play here. Firstly, during the May years, as it became progressively clearer how complex the realities of Brexit would be, Brexiters developed the notion of ‘managed no deal’. It was a non sequitur, for it entailed making deals without making a deal. But it lives on in the present negotiations as what might be called ‘managed no deal 2.0’. For whereas the EU approach is to seek a single deal, encased in a single governance architecture, the UK ‘precedent’ approach envisages a series of mini-deals, modelled on this or that precedent.

There’s some irony in this, since one could argue that the EU approach is to offer a ‘bespoke’ EU-UK relationship whereas the UK’s is to seek a number of ‘off the peg’ solutions. So the EU is proposing something which, to the cheers of Brexiters at the time, Theresa May and David Davis said was vital – this was the meaning of her ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ - whereas the UK is proposing what she, again to Brexiter cheers, dismissed as unacceptable.

Secondly, what is going on is an outgrowth of another Brexiter nostrum, namely that the EU ‘always blinks at the last moment’. This has been a claim going right back to David Davis’ tenure as Brexit Secretary, much of it based on an erroneous comparison with what often happens at EU Summits between member states and the situation of a negotiation between the EU and a departing – or, now, departed - member. But it took on a new life when Johnson supposedly re-negotiated May’s withdrawal agreement last year.

The ‘supposedly’ gives the lie to the analysis that it offers a template for the current negotiations. For it is not that the EU ‘blinked’ but, rather, that Johnson accepted something that both he and May had previously rejected as unacceptable, namely an Irish Sea border. And, in any case, what that episode reveals more than anything else is that the hasty cobbling together of an agreement to suit an ad hoc timetable created something which has huge practical problems of implementation (as Dr Katy Hayward of Queen’s University, Belfast has pointed out this week) and key aspects of which the UK does not seem to accept anyway leading to rapidly increasing tensions. So if there is a lesson for the EU in it, it is not to do a deal in a hurry.

That aside, the ‘EU will blink first’ idea is given fresh impetus by the new approach of relying on third country precedents, because the assumption is that since the EU has agreed to them for other countries then, when push comes to shove, it will do so for the UK. On this analysis the EU is simply being recalcitrant and, when stood up by ‘an equal’ will back down. Again, that’s clear in this week’s fishing row, when the UK line is that it’s going to take time for the British position to “sink in” with the EU.

One huge difficulty this creates is that it precludes agreeing to an extension by the end of June, when it needs to be decided if it’s to happen, because the assumption is that the ‘last moment’ for the ‘blink’ will not arrive until the end of December. So if the analysis is then proved to be flawed it will be too late, and the UK will have to pay the heavy price of the consequences.

Contradictions and limitations: Europol and Lugano

Finally, within the undergrowth of the detail, this week saw two stories which speak, in different ways, to the analysis offered in this post. The first shows the contradictions of the UK position. For, despite the new ‘third country precedent’ approach there are still elements of the old ‘cherry picking’ approach in relation to Britain’s reportedly “impossible demands over access to Europol databases”. Here, the UK wants to “approximate the position of a member state as closely as possible”, suggesting some continuation of the flawed idea that there is a kind of ‘alumnus’ status available to Britain as a former member.

The second story shows the limitations of the UK position. It relates to what is, no doubt, to many the obscure issue of the Lugano Convention (the obscurity is also yet another example of how the huge ramifications of Brexit were barely discussed during the Referendum campaign). This is a cross-border legal agreement whereby civil and commercial judgments made in one participating country’s courts can be enforced across all the participating countries. It sounds dull, but it’s important to business, and doesn’t present a problem for Brexiters because it doesn’t involve the ECJ.

So Britain, which hitherto participated by virtue of its EU membership (and, currently, the transition period), applied for independent membership earlier this month. The government’s argument is that this something open to countries around the world (so: the third country precedent argument). But Britain doing so requires, amongst other things, the approval of the European Council and it has been reported this week that such approval may not be “in the EU’s interest” (£). The outcome remains to be seen. But the significance of this is clear. The idea that the UK can fall back on an imaginary world of self-determining national sovereignty is entirely flawed. That sovereignty is constrained by, and contingent upon, decisions made by others.

The bigger picture

Crucially, this is not just about specific aspects of Brexit. It goes to the heart of the entire, flawed, Brexit project. Again and again that project relies upon, at best and then only questionably, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century ideas of nationhood and international trade.

That is most evident in the way that free trade is treated mainly as being about goods tariffs and their abolition (£), which also explains the failure to understand the nature of the single market, services trade, and how removing non-tariff barriers entails ‘losing’ sovereignty through creating international regulations. But it was also evident in David Frost’s recent speech explaining the entire approach to the future terms negotiations as based on Burkean theories of sovereignty.

It is from this approach that the current rhetoric of ‘sovereign equals’ derives. It is totally inadequate for the present day and to use it as the basis for negotiations is almost to guarantee that those negotiations will fail.