Friday, 2 October 2020

The theatricals of 'deal or no deal' are a distraction

As this supposedly final week of Brexit trade talks ends, the ‘will they, won’t they?’ show continues to play out like an amateur production of an absurdist play or, perhaps more appositely, a Whitehall farce.

At all events, a theatrical metaphor is called for because what we are seeing is a manufactured drama. It is manufactured in the most obvious sense by the fact that the impending end of year time limit, and with that the timescales for agreement and ratification, are entirely down to the UK government’s choice not to seek an extension to the Transition Period. Even more important, the choreography of there being two opposing ‘sides’ going mano a mano until one of them blinks is almost entirely the creation of British Brexiters who have antagonistically constructed the EU as ‘opponents’ to be outwitted in some macho battle of wills.

None of this was necessary. The EU response from the outset has been one of sadness rather than antagonism, and its approach one of dry technical rationality rather than histrionics. It is the Brexiters who have both chosen and needed to make it otherwise, which can be traced right back to 2016 when, far from revelling in their victory, they displayed a sullen suspicion that quickly escalated to bellicosity at the slightest trigger, as with the absurd sabre-rattling over Gibraltar in April 2017. Now, like neighbours from hell with whom all reasonable discussion has been tried, the UK has goaded the EU into starting legal proceedings.

As for who the audience for all this is, that’s a matter of interpretation. Brexiters would claim that it is the EU – to show them that Britain is a ‘sovereign equal’ and will not be pushed around. But of course that is just another line from the play rather than a serious analysis of it. All the signs are that the EU, and the wider world, looks on with bewilderment at the peculiar and undignified conduct of a country formerly seen as rather sensible.

It may, as some think, be the government playing tough for the gallery of the Brexit Ultras as a prelude to letting them down. It may be for leave voters, via the headlines that the government can get in the pro-Brexit press. It may be for the electorate as a whole, softening them up for what is to come – deal or no deal – as being the product of EU intransigence which plucky Britain has fought tooth and nail. Or it may be aimed, again at the whole electorate, as a prelude to a ‘triumphant’ announcement of a ‘great deal’ having been struck at the last minute, much as Johnson did with the Withdrawal Agreement last year.

But even to engage in such speculations is to get sucked into the performance that is being put on, for they are really just another version of the ‘will they, won’t they?’ script. So too are the endless and contradictory predictions of pundits about what the outcome will be, including those who declare that a deal was ‘always inevitable’ and the equal number who declare with equal certainty that no deal was ‘the plan all along’ (whatever happens, half of these are guaranteed their moment of triumph).

Deal or no deal, this isn’t what was promised

What we should be focussing on is that we are approaching the point where all the possible outcomes are hideously etiolated versions of what was promised by Brexiters, let alone of what Britain enjoyed as an EU member. Any deal that is likely to be made, and no deal, and no deal followed (as it probably would be) by some piecemeal deals are all to varying degrees bad outcomes. I’ve argued before (and continue to believe) that a deal of any sort would be the best – or perhaps one should say least-worst – of these available outcomes, but that is all it is.

Thinking just of trade - although that is far from all that matters, as leading security experts pointed out this week (£) -  it is bound to be worse than EU membership. To leave the largest, most integrated, transnational market in the world and the one which is also geographically closest can’t help but be highly damaging, whatever terms on which the UK then trades with it. That’s a truism, but it is worth noting that whenever it is pointed out – as, most recently, by Ursula von der Leyen in January – it is greeted by hardcore Brexiters with paroxysms of fury. So, truism as it may be, it contradicts what some still see as an entitlement.

But what is in prospect isn’t just worse than what we had as members, it’s also far worse than the Brexiters assured us would be the case as a non-member. The words of the Vote Leave campaign documents, repeated with such authority by Michael Gove and others so many times in 2016, should never be forgotten: “there is a free trade zone from Iceland to Turkey to the Russian border and we will be part of it”.

Whether this meant single market membership, as it seemed to imply, and they later reneged on it, or whether they really believed that some other “zone” existed doesn’t matter. It is clear that whatever happens now it will not be this, and it has been for a long time. But, during that long time, they made other promises – of a ‘deep and special partnership’, of a Canada + or even Canada +++ or Super-Canada trade deal. Indeed during the 2019 Election campaign Boris Johnson promised “a super Canada-plus” deal by the end of 2020. All that has disappeared, since the only meaning such terms could have had would have entailed far more extensive integration than the UK is now willing to countenance.

None of this is ancient history. The referendum campaign itself was only four years ago, and voters are entitled to recall that what is happening now flows from, and claims mandate from, the vote. Nor do we have to go back that far, since the groundwork for Johnson’s “super Canada-plus” deal was laid with the Political Declaration (PD) that was part of the ‘oven ready deal’ he was elected on just last December. Yet he immediately repudiated the key elements of that Declaration that would have made a more extensive deal possible, and since then the UK has insisted that it wants no more than a Canada-style deal, with no ‘pluses’ or ‘supers’.

It’s true that even within this there is considerable disingenuity, for two reasons. On the one hand the UK is actually asking for more than ‘Canada’ (e.g. in terms of cabotage rights). On the other hand, the EU has always made it plain, and in the PD the UK accepted but now denies, that any form of trade deal would come with level playing field conditions. But the point holds that all talk of an ambitious deal going well beyond a standard free trade agreement has now been dropped.

One aspect of that is that whereas under the terms of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement (WA) there was the possibility that the trade deal could have had generous terms on ‘rules of origin’, Johnson’s WA removed that option and as a consequence it has just been revealed (though it was not a surprise) that such terms will not be agreed, with significant negative consequences for several industries, including car making. Again, this contradicts what Johnson promised during the election about protecting automotive supply chains.  (Rules of origin are complex but important, see the primer by Alex Stojanovic of the Institute for Government).

It beggars belief that the government should now be contemplating, not as its worst scenario but as its best and indeed preferred scenario, the thinnest of trade arrangements with the EU. It was not entailed by Brexit – even leaving aside the soft ‘Norway’ model, an Association Agreement of the Ukraine type was a possibility, albeit one open to criticism, or some more imaginative hybrid could have been constructed. But Britain has been driven by the implacable extremism of the Brexit Ultras to a situation where the only future relationship options are distance or dislocation.

This is not what was sold to the British people. Nor is it what they currently want, given opinion polls showing that 80% think maintaining a close relationship with the EU is important and that the biggest gap since the Referendum between those thinking leaving is wrong and those thinking it’s right (50% to 39%) has now opened.

Deal or no deal brinkmanship is itself damaging

All this is not just the context for, but is actually more important than, all the excited talk about whether or not – and, if so, when - the negotiators are going to enter ‘the tunnel’ to finalise a trade deal. That matters, but it is the sub-plot to the bigger story and in many ways a distraction from it.

For that matter, the manufactured drama of ‘brinkmanship’ is not just a distraction but itself has serious adverse consequences in terms of the uncertainties facing so many people and industries as a result. For example, for both the UK in general, and Northern Ireland in particular, the present situation calls into question the security of medical supplies, with one Irish MEP saying that “people’s lives are at risk”.

It should be noted that the issues here relate not just to the future terms talks but to the equally important operation of the Joint Committee (JC), charged with implementing the Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), which also met this week. For whilst these are separate processes they have become very much linked in recent weeks as a result of the ongoing row over the Internal Market Bill (IMB). This has created a huge trust problem with the EU over the UK’s willingness to abide by the NIP and work through the JC, rather than to make unilateral decisions that flout the Protocol and thereby, on the government’s own admission, to break international law.

At this week’s JC meeting Gove confirmed the UK was proceeding with the legislation and, contemptibly, the Bill passed its final reading in the House of Commons, with the Tory backbench rebellion fizzling out. Even Theresa May, despite her much-vaunted opposition, did not actually vote against it but abstained. It is a new and shameful low, showing the extent to which all constraints and norms are being jettisoned in the name of Brexit. Unsurprisingly, as it had indicated would happen if the offending clauses were still in play by the end of the month, the EU began legal action. However it has given the UK a month to respond to its initial legal notice (it could have been shorter) and is meanwhile willing to continue trade talks.

The IMB now goes to the House of Lords, where no doubt it will be mauled, but as trailed in my last two posts the government has delayed the timetable for this. Taken together with the terms of the EU’s legal action, this means that there is a tiny window in which the trade talks can proceed without the Bill actually becoming law. That creates a theoretical possibility that the illegal clauses might be dropped in the light of a deal being done, according to Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, and others. Thus by the middle of October, conceivably, there might be a trade deal and an end to the threatened international law breach.

But massive damage to trust has already been done, with the result that the issue of enforcement for the governance mechanism for any trade deal has now taken centre stage in the future terms negotiations. The obvious concern is that the Johnson will once again sign a rushed deal with implementation details to be filled out later, perhaps especially tempting given the ongoing coronavirus crisis, only to backtrack later when it comes to putting what was agreed into practice as has happened with the IMB. Shamefully, thanks to the behaviour of Johnson’s government, our country is no longer trusted to behave honestly.

Deal or no deal, the outlook is unremittingly grim

Meanwhile, all the costs and inconveniences of Brexit, deal or no deal, continue to rack up. Having already lost the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority – inevitably, though Brexiters claimed otherwise (£) – it has now emerged that the UK-based European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), a key body for climate change research, is all but certain to be ineligible to go on hosting EU funded activities and programs. Month by month, Brexit is already inexorably impoverishing and damaging us, in ways small and large, and which, as in these cases, reach deep into the core strategic strengths and priorities of our country. But as Brendan Donnelly, Director of the Federal Trust, wrote in a hard-hitting blog this week, “the worst is yet to come”, and Simon Nixon in The Times was equally forceful in arguing that “business is about the be thrown under a bus” (£).

As a Select Committee heard this week from leading figures in the aerospace, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals industries – again, all key sectors – trade will become “a day-to-day struggle”, with huge new costs and paperwork, reduced investment and some products being unavailable. Each witness was asked if any reason could be given to welcome the impending end of the transition period. None of them could give one.

Separately, a new report (£) shows that leaving the EU platform for electricity trading will cost hundreds of millions of pounds in increased energy bills. The latest figures on the financial services sector suggest that it has moved 7,500 employees and more than £1.2 trillion (yes, that is trillion) of assets to the EU since the Referendum, with accelerating relocations as the end of transition approaches. And Michael Gove officially confirmed the long-touted figure of £1 billion as the cost of regulatory re-registrations in the chemicals industry. It remains unclear whether the new UK regulatory system will even be ready by the end of the year.

An obvious huge change in January will be the end of Freedom of Movement, which is set to cause serious problems for many sectors of the economy, with a particular and immediate impact on care homes, already in crisis because of coronavirus. And those EU nationals living in the UK with settled status face the nightmare caused by the government’s refusal to provide physical, documentary proof of their status. The digital-only system is unreliable and creates horrendous problems for accessing housing and services, heaping further pain on the already shameful way this group of our neighbours, friends, colleagues and families has been treated since 2016.

The adverse effects in prospect – again, regardless of whether there is a trade deal - will touch every aspect of daily life. The RSPCA is warning of shortages of pet foods and medicines (£) and, although it’s not exactly news, the BBC has produced a listing of things that will change at the end of the transition, mainly focussed on individuals and travel. Unsurprisingly, and in line with the government’s ‘Check, Change, Go’ information campaign, every single thing makes life worse and more difficult. Every single thing.

We are no longer at the point of debates and claims, in which ‘balanced’ coverage supposedly meant pitting a rosily optimistic Brexiter against a ‘Project Fear’ remainer. We are now at the point of news reporting, in which every Brexit story is a bad news story because there aren’t any good news stories.

Nor can this be ascribed to anti-government bias, because if the broadcasters did nothing but read out, North Korea style, every single page of the government’s ‘Check, Change, Go’ website then it would be an unrelenting diet of misery. And this isn’t precautionary stuff for the event of no deal. Everything on that site is bad news – there’s literally nothing that makes life easier or better - it’s just even worse if there were to be no deal. This all comes on top of the COVID-19 crisis but, unlike the virus, is entirely self-inflicted. Britain is doing this – not just Brexit, but the way it is going about Brexit – to itself.

Deal or no deal, the highest price of all?

The previous section summarised only a selection of stories and reports from the last week. Multiple other examples can be found, not least in many previous posts on this blog, all testifying to the terrible price – economic, political, cultural and even moral – of Brexit largely irrespective of a trade deal. The final example is at first sight more trivial. It was reported this week that the Tory MP Esther McVey has accused teachers of left-wing indoctrination of their pupils and more particularly that “white working-class lads” in Brexit-voting areas would be alienated by having “their family’s beliefs” questioned by anti-Brexit teachers.

Everything about this is obnoxious, not least its evidence-free assumptions about teachers’ beliefs and conduct, the homogenization of whole areas, social classes, and ethnicities in terms of their Brexit stance, its faux-egalitarianism - and, even were it all true, why is it only the ‘lads’ who are so delicate? Worse is the grotesque implication that teachers’ political views be monitored. Whilst only a fragment, it forms part of a bigger picture in which being pro-Brexit is being made a condition for appointment to public bodies, or for being rewarded with ennoblement, or is being used to re-shape the civil service – with supposed remainers within it being described by an ‘anonymous Whitehall source’ this week as “the enemy within” who “will be rooted out”.

The noisy barrage of the ‘enemies of the people’ headline is giving way to the quieter but more lethal seeping poison gas of political loyalty tests conducted under cover of populist rhetoric – populist, but not even popular given that support for Brexit is now a minority opinion. Each example in isolation seems trivial, or can be given some justificatory spin, but their accumulation may end up being the highest price of all that Brexit inflicts.

There is a telling line in Sam Byers’ post-Brexit satirical novel, Perfidious Albion: “Brexit was over, but the energy it accumulated had to be retained. Fears needed to be redirected. Hatred had to pivot” (2018, p.119). It seems prophetic in the light of Farage’s new hobby of hanging about grubbily on beaches looking for migrants to denounce. And it conjures up a country – of which the McVey story provides a tiny glimpse – in which the Brexit divide segues into a wider assault upon immigrants and intellectuals, on ‘woke’ culture in schools and universities, on ‘unelected judges’, on civil service neutrality, and on the rule of law (the latter link is to the first of a three-part blog by David Allen Green, so check the follow-on posts for the full argument).

There’s nothing new in the existence of such ideas, but this is the first time that Britain has had a government that subscribes to them. Governments doing so is the script of a story we know well, and it doesn’t have a happy ending.

So as the uncertainty over whether or not there will be a deal continues – and it will for a little while yet – and, for that matter, when that uncertainty ends, it’s important to see it for what it is. Not without any significance, certainly, but a distraction from what is much more significant: the damage, decay and danger of Brexit itself. That drama - of lies told, promises broken, and a country on the brink of calamity - is the etiology of what afflicts us, rather than the tedious theatrics and accompanying breathless predictions which are one of its symptoms.

Updated 04/10/20 to correct misleading phrasing of the story about the ECMWF.

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