Friday, 30 October 2020

Beyond folly

The last ten days were supposed to be my break from Brexit hence, as trailed two weeks ago, there was no post on this blog last Friday. But escaping did not prove easy, gloomily conscious as I was of taking my first trip to the EU since Britain ceased to be a member and my last before the transition period ends. Even if that had not been in my mind, in motorway service stations and elsewhere was the unavoidable message of the government’s increasingly panicky campaign: “time is running out”. Brexit is not mentioned of course, for we are not supposed to recall that what were to have been the ‘sunny uplands’ turn out to be a quagmire of paperwork, cost, and inconvenience.

A further reminder, as I drove through Kent, was the sight of huge construction works for one of the lorry parks that will be needed post-transition. Then, taking the Dover to Dunkirk ferry laden with lorries from Portugal to Lithuania to Bulgaria, just a few of the 2.1 million that Dover’s port handles each year, it was hard not to wonder who thinks that what this huge, complex artery of international trade really needs is to have a whole lot of new disruptions. And, over in Dunkirk, the new sanitary and phytosanitary lanes were a visible indication of just what leaving the EU and the single market means in, literally, concrete terms (it is notable that the new facilities and systems needed for Brexit in EU ports have been in place for months whereas, for all the talk of taking back control, the UK is still developing them).

Petulant children and the role of the man-baby

None of this, as everyone should know by now, will be avoided by an EU-UK trade deal, although it will be worsened without a deal. On that issue, the outcome remains opaque. The talks have resumed after the UK’s sort-of-but-not-really walk out, a resumption enabled by Michel Barnier ‘conceding’ to British demands to use the ‘right’ words (intensification, compromise needed on both sides, British sovereignty respected).

In the Ladybird book of international negotiations that seems to be Boris Johnson and David Frost’s go-to text this perhaps counts as a victory and I doubt they have any inkling that to outsiders it resembles an adult placating a petulant child. As Tony Connelly of RTE reports – within a detailed explanation of how the talks faltered and resumed - an EU diplomat described the conversations that preceded the resumption as the UK being “in the therapeutic phase”.

Connelly and others also report that one reason the outcome remains unknowable is Johnson’s almost pathological aversion to making the necessary choices, with their inevitable costs. One widely discussed suggestion is that he will await the outcome of the US Presidential election before deciding which way to jump. In brief, if Trump were to win then Johnson would be more likely to opt for no deal with the EU, in the expectation that a trade deal with the US is more likely than it would be under Biden (for a wider discussion of what the US election means for the UK see Patrick Wintour’s excellent in-depth analysis, and for what it means for the prospects of a trade deal see my recent article in Byline Times).

It is a plausible enough theory of Johnson’s decision-making process if only because it is so inane. Economically, of course, no US trade deal could come close to compensating for the damage of there being no deal with the EU (government estimates being +0.16% GDP over 15 years for the former and -7.6% GDP over 15 years for the latter). And if Johnson hasn’t yet learned that Trump is a blowhard who, for all his talk, is not going to do Brexit Britain any special favours, then he simply hasn’t been paying attention. Not that that would be a radical departure from character.

Yet there is a political, or perhaps just a superstitious, rationale for this theory. Trump’s demise, if it comes, will be as symbolically important for Brexit as Brexit was for his election in 2016. It will mark the rout of the figurehead of nationalist populism and, as Rafael Behr observed some time ago, would scupper Johnson’s “bumbling English Trump tribute act” and the “tantrum diplomacy” that goes with it (of which the UK’s recent outburst over continuing the talks is a good example). Indeed the parasitical relationship of the Brexiters to Trump was made plain this week by Nigel Farage’s cringingly sycophantic endorsement of his idol, in which he underscored that a defeat for the Washington man-baby would be a defeat for nationalists globally.

So on this account a Biden win most likely heralds a trade deal with the EU (unless, something underpriced in UK discussions which are almost invariably parochial, such a win hardens EU demands upon the UK or at least reduces willingness to accede to those made by the UK). If so, for all that it will by definition make Britain poorer than the present trading relationship, it will be spun as a great victory by Johnson.

Turning Japanese

A tiny foretaste of just how dishonest that spin will be came this week in the government’s triumphant announcement that, as a result of the trade deal it has just signed with Japan, soy sauce will be cheaper from 1 January as it will attract a zero tariff. It turned out to be a lie of a strange and complex sort in that soy sauce currently has no tariff charged anyway because of the EU-Japan trade deal which the UK is leaving, so the deal with Japan doesn’t make it cheaper it just stops it getting more expensive by virtue of trading on WTO terms. Anyway, much of it doesn’t come from Japan but from the EU, with which the government says trading on WTO terms is fine. And, anyway, you’d have to use an awful lot of soy sauce to benefit by more than a few pence. These and other nonsensical or misleading features of the announcement have been documented by Full Fact.

As for the Japan trade deal more generally, it should be filed under ‘not bad news’ rather than ‘good news’ in that, despite some features which do go beyond what the UK had via the EU-Japan deal, it mainly continues those provisions. So if it hadn’t happened it would be a further example of Brexit damage. That it is being trumpeted as evidence of the virtues of Brexit is indicative of the shameless disinformation and ludicrous boosterism of this government, which will go into overdrive if there were to be a deal with the EU. If and when that happens it will be worth recalling how Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement was also greeted as a huge triumph by those who, only months later, denounced it as a disaster.

Meanwhile in the real world …

Moving from Brexiter PR back into the real world what we find are new reports of impending labour shortages once transition ends in fields ranging from agriculture to dentistry (£), of regulatory uncertainty in industries from aerospace (£) to chemicals (£), and of ongoing difficulties in the recruitment of trained customs staff (£). Many of these stories are, as they have been for years, under the public radar, appearing in the business pages of newspapers or in the specialist media of particular industries. There is more cut through when the Brexit effects on holidaymakers are reported, as with last weekend’s outrage at the “petty EU” for “threatening” British tourists with longer passport queues from next year.

It’s a story that encapsulates so much of the Brexiter mindset. That this was likely to be an effect of Brexit is not a new idea, but they dismissed it as more Project Fear. Then, when it threatens to become a reality, they treat it as a form of punishment as if whilst leaving the EU Britain ought to retain the rights it had as a member. As the years have gone on, this mindset seems to have become so ingrained that there is no way of reasoning with it: all the adverse effects of Brexit are either denied (they won’t happen, it’s just scaremongering), ignored (they aren’t happening), displaced (they are happening but it’s not because of Brexit) or disowned (they shouldn’t happen, it’s only because the EU are punishing us).

Between this barrage of misinformation and the general lack of profile in the news of Brexit effects, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a YouGov poll this week found a very low level of public awareness of how things will change once the transition ends. It should also be noted that even where respondents believe they are clear about what will happen it doesn’t mean that they are. On one specific issue which will affect individuals travelling to the EU – the need to pay for electronic authorization to travel – just 9% knew that from 2022 this will be a requirement, whilst another 14% knew it would be required, but wrongly thought it would begin in 2021 (it doesn’t because the system isn’t ready yet).

The interesting and important question will be how people react as the post-transition effects become obvious and, crucially, who they blame. Another YouGov poll this week suggests that 57% of people would blame the government if the transition ends with no deal. But what of those adverse effects that will arise even if there is a deal? Clearly the Brexiter press will push the EU punishment narrative, but this may have much less traction than in the past, if only because public perceptions of governmental competence have been damaged by the handling of the Covid-19 crisis. That of course is now the backdrop to everything and whilst it does not diminish the significance of Brexit it does inflect it in new ways.

The blindingly obvious is undiscussable

As I return from France, it, like Germany, is going back into lockdown (and I am beginning a two-week quarantine). The clocks have changed, the weather is awful, much of the UK is subject to stringent restrictions and everyone can see that even greater ones are in prospect. Over 45,000 of our fellow citizens have died because of the virus – in March, it was hoped that 20,000 would be the maximum – and infections continue to rise.  We are heading for a long, hard winter and with some two-thirds of businesses at risk of insolvency along with millions of jobs  we face a potentially cataclysmic situation that will damage the livelihoods of all but the most comfortably cushioned.

Few of us have experienced anything like this and much that is familiar is being ripped up by force majeure. But, still, Britain pushes on with the one, supposedly inviolable, immutable policy of Brexit. A policy of such folly that the government no longer dares mention it by name and which even its most enthusiastic proponents have ceased to try to justify in any serious way. The Brexit Emperor lacks not just clothes but skin and flesh.

Yet even now – hugely difficult as it would be – it wouldn’t be totally impossible given the extraordinary circumstances for the UK to at least try to find some route to extending the transition, which ends in only two months’ time, rather than to just parrot that “time is running out”. It seems feasible that if the UK was open to such an idea the EU would be at least willing to explore how to make it work, if only because of the worsening Covid-19 situation in many of its member states.

There are plenty of people who can see just how ludicrous this is, but it isn’t in any serious sense within the realms of what is even politically discussable - and way beyond what Johnson’s woefully incompetent and incontinently dishonest leadership is able to deliver. And whilst the mechanics would be hugely complicated the proposition is not: in the face of so overwhelming a public health crisis, and with so much undecided even about the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement (especially as regards Northern Ireland), there is just not enough time to agree and to move to a new relationship which by any standards is important for both parties. So - let’s just take some more time.

In any other context, political or personal, it would be so blindingly obvious as to not need saying. That it is near to unsayable and certainly won’t happen is down solely to the warthog stubbornness of a small group of fanatical Brexiters still fighting the battle to leave that they have already won, and totally indifferent to its costs.

So we blunder on, prisoners of a series of past decisions that we do not have the wit or the will to revisit, and of a small but powerful group of ideologues we are either too cowardly or too weak to face down.

It is worse than folly. It is insanity.

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