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.

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