Friday, 19 June 2020

Nothing to see here

The much-hyped meeting between Boris Johnson, Ursula von der Leyen, David Sassoli and Charles Michel did not, apparently, see Johnson “banging the table” or even “warning” the EU that Britain would be a “fully independent” country next January “whatever happens” (£). If he did issue such a warning, it would have been interesting to know what the response was. Apart from incredulous laughter, the obvious retort would be that Britain, like all EU countries, had been independent whilst a member state. Were that not so, Brexit would not have been possible in the first place.

For as the very first Brexit White Paper helpfully – but, alas, too late - explained, Britain had always been a “sovereign country”, it just “has not always felt like that” (para 2.1 of link). The noble project of ‘national liberation’ turned out to have been based upon a massive misapprehension, akin to decapitating yourself because of having a bad hair day. As for ending the transition period regardless of the consequences, if that is a warning it would be better made to the people of the UK, who will have to suffer the most serious of them. Then again, since the Brexiters insist that no deal would be just fine for Britain, it could be asked how, exactly, it functions as a “warning” to the EU?

Whatever went on inside the (virtual) room, the joint communique issued afterwards was a masterpiece of anodyne diplo-speak (constructive …. challenges … new momentum …. work hard … blah blah blah). Since the undiplomatic alternative would be to say that the whole thing is a godawful mess and no one knows what to do about it, perhaps such blandness was predictable.

The only line which might have brought a sardonic smile to the face of anyone reading that far was the hope that the July talks would include “if possible, finding an early understanding on the principles underlying the agreement”. Given that this understanding was, supposedly, what the Political Declaration provided and given that there are only six months to go until the end of transition, it might be thought that this aim achieves the unlikely feat of being simultaneously wildly optimistic and woefully inadequate.

A glimmer of realism?

Even so, the very dullness of the statement had a significance of its own. Since last February, the British government’s stance has repeatedly been that it would walk away from the talks unless there was the “broad outline” of a deal. There is manifestly no such outline, but it hasn’t walked away. That could be interpreted as a ‘mini-blink’ on the UK’s part and a recognition that, for all the rhetoric, there is somewhere still left a tiny shred of realism about the damage that no deal would mean.

That’s a viable interpretation for two reasons. First, because it emerged at the end of the last week that the government realises it is not, in fact, ready for the UK to be ‘independent’ in January to the extent of announcing that it will not enforce border controls on goods coming from the EU, at least in the short-term. Eventually the plan, wouldn’t you just know (and if not, see Jill Rutter’s sharp discussion of the government’s ‘world-beating’ rhetoric), is for the ‘best border in the world’, mere competence being anathema to the government and, indeed, something it has successfully avoided thus far.

This announcement comes just four months since that insisting that there would be such controls in place by the end of the year. It won’t, of course, do anything to ease the outbound flow of goods (£) and since, in practice, the vehicles going one way also do the return trip then this decision will have only limited impact. Still, it does show some recognition of practical realities and that is not exactly something that can be taken for granted in relation to Brexit.

The other reason to think the government may be becoming less gung-ho about no deal is the polling evidence that it would be unpopular – and if the idea of it is unpopular, how much more so would be the reality. Of particular interest this week was a poll (conducted for Best for Britain) of the Tories’ newly acquired ‘Red Wall’ seats. Voters here, including those who switched to the Tories at the last election, and including those who voted leave, are overwhelmingly in favour of a deal being done.

And, indeed, they are quite entitled to that view given the promises made both by Vote Leave in 2016 and by the Conservatives in 2019. Oddly, despite their frequent complaints that remainers sneer at the intelligence of leave voters, it is Brexiters who seem to imagine that such voters will be satisfied with sops like blue passports (it emerged this week that the former aren’t satisfied and the latter aren’t blue, and they’re made by a Franco-Dutch firm in Poland; really, the perfect metaphor for the disappointments and delusions of Brexit) or, the latest risible stunt,  a red, white and blue repaint of the Prime Minister’s aeroplane.

So the polls and focus groups may be telling the government that this is not so and – horror of horrors – leave voters actually believed all the promises that were made to them. It’s perhaps also of note that the latest polling shows a 56-44 preference for the UK to remain in the EU. If Brexit is now very clearly not the will of the people, how much less so is Brexit with no deal?

Thus faced with declining popularity due mainly to its inept handling of coronavirus, low electoral calculation as much as anything else might drive the government to making some kind of a deal with the EU in the coming months. But time is vanishingly tight given that any deal would need to be not just struck but ratified by the end of the year.

There really is no plan

But the reality is that no one knows what is going to happen, and its notable that the most astute and well-informed Brexit watchers assessing the current situation – RTE’s Tony Connelly being a prime example – wisely avoid making predictions.

There’s no such restraint amongst the legions of commentators on social media who proclaim, with equal certainty, that no deal is inevitable and was always ‘their plan’ and that the UK ‘caving in’ to the EU is inevitable and was always ‘their plan’. The ‘no deal’ predictions often rest upon repeatedly discredited ideas that Brexit was all about avoiding EU regulations on offshore taxation or hedge fund plans to short the pound. These myths are the mirror image of leavers’ absurd jibes about remainers being in the ‘pay of the EU’ or ‘wanting to keep their cheap Bulgarian nannies’. The ‘cave in’ predictions often rest upon the belief that, ultimately, economic rationality will hold sway. That’s not unreasonable, but, as per my last post, ignores or least downplays the cult-like nature of the Brexit government.

I understand the motivations for these confident claims, because in their different ways they suggest a logic and coherence to what is happening. That would be if not nice then, at least, a nice idea. But it’s wholly mistaken. There is no inevitability, there is no ‘they’, and there is, most certainly, no plan. The Brexiters have no more idea in private than they do in public about what they are doing. Predictions based upon their concealed intent project on to them a competence they simply don’t possess.

A government of all the talentless

It’s this which makes the present political situation truly alarming. We’re not in sway to some set of manipulative geniuses pursuing a well-thought out, if malign, agenda, but the captives of a coterie of utterly deluded simpletons who have stumbled into power by a series of accidents. The plane hasn’t been hijacked by steely-eyed terrorists so much as it has fallen into the inadvertent hands of a group of smirking school bullies and debating society geeks, led by a priapic layabout and advised by those for whom the term Incel inadequates is not so much an insult as an unattainable aspiration. Thus as Rafael Behr writes, convincingly, “incompetence is a built-in feature, not a bug of Boris Johnson’s government”.

This has its roots in Brexit, as I’ve argued before, but that doesn’t mean we have a government competent to deliver Brexit but not to do anything else. Rather, we have what might be called a government of all the talentless, incapable of competence in any domain and almost ludicrously inadequate to any challenge it is set or sets itself.

So even if they have a plan for Brexit it doesn’t follow that they will stick to it, and even if they stick to it then it doesn’t follow that they will deliver it, and even if they deliver it then it doesn’t follow it will have the effects they expect. This dire situation is made all the worse because, as, again, I’ve argued before, the Brexiters’ plan for Brexit was that no plan was needed anyway. Indeed, this was a virtue born of a necessity since were a plan needed it could never be formulated given that no two Brexiters chosen at random are likely to agree what Brexit means.

Trading ironies

The many fissures and fault lines that lack of clear purpose creates are becoming ever clearer by the day. The most fundamental of them lies in the way that what was sold to voters as a largely nationalist project is being pursued as a globalist one. Those who will be most centrally and most symbolically caught in the middle of that are farmers, for it is clear that any meaningful trade deal with the US (£) – or for that matter Australia and New Zealand – will almost certainly bring with it a massive opening up of the UK to food imports from those countries and with that will come issues of consumer and animal welfare standards. But this will be only the most high-profile example – or perhaps not even that if healthcare gets thrown into the mix.

The ironies of these developments abound. The most obvious is that in pursuit of reducing barriers to trade with smaller and more distant markets substantial new ones will be erected with the UK’s closest and largest market, something understood by the US trade negotiators if not the Brexit government. Plus, just as in the case of Japan discussed in last week’s post, the US negotiators recognize that the shape of any deal with the UK is inseparable from what the UK agrees with the EU and, moreover, will be contingent on the absence of an Irish land border. So any idea Johnson and other Brexiters may have of reneging on the NI Protocol agreed with the EU  will scupper their idea of a US trade deal (this shouldn’t be news, as per my post of April 2019).

Another, emergent, irony is that the proposals for a deal with New Zealand seem to entail level playing field commitments that are (arguably) not so very different to those deemed unthinkable in relation to any EU deal. And deals with Australia and New Zealand are, according to Trade Secretary Liz Truss (£), staging posts towards joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in a move which she says will show that Britain is “back as a proud independent nation again”. This in turn is also potentially linked to US trade in that, if Trump loses the election, a Biden administration might well revive US CPTPP membership (Obama had been set to be part of TPP, its abandoned predecessor). If so, and the UK was a member, that could amount to a US-UK deal by the backdoor.

But what’s this? Read the New Zealand press and you find that their government is preparing to veto the UK joining CPTPP if their country does not get the access it wants to British agricultural markets. So New Zealand, which currently accounts for about 0.2% of UK trade, holds a powerful lever in negotiations which could become a spanner in the works for British trade policy. It turns out that ‘independence’ is a bit more complicated than Brexiters thought.

A third irony is that the Brexiters used to say that having an independent trade policy meant that British voters could decide whether or not they approved of what was being done. Lexiters, in particular, made much of the argument that the EU was “negotiating secret trade deals”, especially the TTIP deal with the US. This was linked to the at best dubious proposition that TTIP could lead to the privatization of the NHS, in which they made common cause with arch free-marketeer Peter Lilley.

Yet the government has now agreed that documents relating to the current US-UK negotiations will be kept secret until five years after any deal is struck. And despite assurances that any such deal will not involve the NHS or drug prices, these, along with agriculture, are key US demands regardless of the administration, Trump certainly wants them, and it is known that they have already been discussed – because some of these secret documents have been leaked!

However, there’s no need to consider perhaps obscure details of trade policy to understand that first and fundamental Brexit fissure between nationalism and globalism. It’s enough to see the images of the violent far-right protests in London last weekend. These were not about Brexit, of course, but I don’t think it is a hugely controversial leap of the imagination to think that most of them were enthusiastic supporters of it. And nor is it a great leap to think that they will have been voting for an essentially nationalist project rather than, as Liam Fox claimed when Trade Secretary, a “glorious opportunity” to place themselves “in the centre of an increasingly interconnected world”.

In practice that might mean that in order to do a trade deal with, for (particular) example, India the UK agrees to relaxations of immigration controls. And whilst Brexiters’ political correctness means ‘we’re not allowed to say’ that the leave vote had anything to do with immigration – apparently, it was all based on a close reading of Edmund Burke’s theory of sovereignty -  it’s perhaps not immediately clear that this would find favour with those protestors or others with similar viewpoints. Indeed, it may not be too long before we hear what would be the final irony of them saying that immigration ‘used to be alright’ in the good old days of EU membership but now ‘it’s gone too far’.

We didn’t know what we were voting for

But, to coin a phrase, they will just have to ‘get over it’ (£). Untrammelled by anything as inconvenient as a plan, or even a definition, Brexit can now mean whatever this government of all the talentless decides it to mean.

The very first thing I wrote about Brexit was an article in The Conversation, in October 2015, before a date for the referendum had even been set, laying out the main variants of what Brexit could mean (see also the follow up piece warning of the complexity and uncertainty of post-Brexit trade deals). There are parts of it I would change today but its conclusion was depressingly prescient:

“We must be absolutely clear which of the different Brexit scenarios is envisaged, and not to confuse or conflate them. If not, and the vote is to exit, it will be no good saying afterwards that ‘we didn’t understand what we were voting for’, the repeated complaint made by Eurosceptics about the 1975 Referendum. By then it will be too late”.

Well, here we are, and so it is.

If readers detect a certain weary despair in this post, then they are not entirely wrong.

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