Sunday 13 December 2020

Brexit debilitation

So yet another supposedly final deadline has come and gone, and the ludicrous ‘will they, won’t they’ theatre of the last few months continues. Ludicrous, but debilitating, too, in a host of ways.

Debilitating, certainly, for those desperately anxious to know just how much their lives and livelihoods are going to be damaged, with literally only days to go. Debilitating for those businesses and others who are expected to be prepared for changes as yet unknown or, where known, lacking in the necessary operational detail, as the head of the British Chambers of Commerce has outlined. Debilitating, too, for the reputation of the UK - already so battered by Brexit - with bellicose talk of deploying the Royal Navy to police ‘no deal’ fishing rights and the ramping up of jingoism and xenophobia in this weekend’s newspaper headlines.

If this is all supposed to be part of a ‘tough’ negotiating strategy, it is one which makes for deeply irresponsible government and which is having deeply destabilizing effects. Huge sectors of the economy don’t know what they are facing, and business leaders are reported to be in despair. We’re in the extraordinary situation of planning for a military airlift of vaccines to the UK (and, equally extraordinary, of not knowing whether there will be adequate supplies of general medicines). Already supermarkets and others are stockpiling goods, with consequent massive lorry queues. Nor should the uncertainty about non-economic issues, such as those of security co-operation, be forgotten.

Perhaps the greatest uncertainty is faced by the people of Northern Ireland. Whilst the Northern Ireland Protocol was designed as an insurance against every eventuality, including no deal, it has already come under strain. Last week, some agreements on how it would operate were reached and – whether as cause or consequence – the government agreed to remove the illegal clauses from the Internal Market Bill and other legislation. However, as a leading expert on this topic, Professor Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast, explained this does not mean that Northern Ireland is ‘sorted’ and all the more so if there were to be no wider trade deal.

We don’t even know whether, if there is no deal, the UK will agree to the EU’s temporary mitigations which were announced last week. Under these, “basic” air and road connectivity will be assured for six months, subject to UK reciprocation, and there would be a one-year standstill on fisheries. If the UK didn’t agree, it would make the crisis of no deal even greater than it would otherwise be. So across the entirety of national life we are only a few working days from a completely unknown situation. Yet MPs asking questions about preparedness for no deal this week were berated by Paymaster-General Penny Mordaunt for not acting “in the interests of the country”. The very basics of democratic accountability, even of rational debate, are now deemed unpatriotic, debilitating our political culture.

The lies that bind us

As always, in the background are all the lies stretching back to 2016 about a quick and easy deal. But even without rehearsing those again it’s enough to recall how during the 2019 General Election Boris Johnson was pretending (though not quite saying) that he had already done the final Brexit deal. He covered himself verbally but the meaning of his continual slogans about ‘an oven ready deal’ that would ‘get Brexit done’ was designed to deceive and it did deceive. Now, of course, he and his apologists are pointing to the verbal tricks to deny that any such pretence occurred. We are no longer just in the territory of lies, but of lies about lies. Even now Johnson is incapable of telling the truth, with his smirking pretence that if there is no deal it will, in fact, be an ‘Australia-style’ deal.

And, as always, we are in this situation because a small but ruthlessly extremist group of politicians, journalists and ‘thinktankers’ have pushed to ever more extreme positions. The proposition just a few years ago that ‘it wouldn’t be so bad to be like Norway’ – a debatable but perfectly sane and practically deliverable proposition – has gradually morphed into one where, for the Brexit Ultras, any kind of deal with the EU would be a betrayal of a wholly absurd theocratic doctrine of sovereignty (£). It is the adherents to this doctrine to whom Johnson is in thrall if, indeed, he is not one of them himself.

It is a doctrine which makes no sense even in its own terms, because at the same time as it is deployed as an inviolable principle that may preclude any deal with the EU, it is necessarily compromised in the trade deals the government is agreeing with Japan or Canada, and in potentially embracing WTO terms for trade with the EU. On these grounds, simultaneously meaningless and hypocritical, the government is apparently still considering something which, from its own impact assessments, carries the dangers of creating “a systemic economic crisis” with food and medicine shortages, power cuts, and civil disorder.

Perhaps this won’t happen. Perhaps, as some rumours have it, a series of fudges and compromises are in the offing which will get some sort of a deal over the line – although, even if so, there would seem to barely be enough time to ratify such a deal in time for the end of the year. But why are we even in this situation of debilitating uncertainty?

Why are we in this situation?

It is important to be clear that the reasons the Brexiters are giving for why a deal has not been made and is proving so difficult to make are also lies. Their key claim is that the EU has made unreasonable and unprecedented demands upon the UK, many sprung on the UK at the last moment. Even taken at face value this is an odd claim. The Brexiters have spent decades saying that the EU is akin to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, totalitarian and dictatorial, and a ‘protectionist racket’. Yet they seem to have predicated Brexit on the starry-eyed belief that it would be cuddly and nice, and a pushover in the negotiations.

But, of course, the claim shouldn’t be taken at face value. In one way, it is true by definition that the terms of a Brexit deal would be unprecedented – never before has such an exit occurred – although the extent to which the EU is making unprecedented demands compared with those on other third countries is over-stated. The situation of the EU making a deal with a geographically close and economically completely intertwined third country is similarly unique. The UK idea, since Johnson came to power, of the negotiation being one of ‘sovereign equals’ with there being some set of rights of what is due to the UK as a third country is at best na├»ve and at worst disingenuous. Indeed, as the Spanish Foreign Minister acutely pointed out today, trade negotiations are a vehicle for managing interdependence between sovereign nations; using them simply to assert independence is to doom them to failure.

Equally disingenuous is the idea that the UK is only asking for the same as Canada (it has been asking for more, not improperly but it is dishonest to say otherwise). Indeed repeated claims from Brexiters that their plan was for a ‘Canada +’ or even ‘Canada +++’ or ‘Super-Canada’ deal give the lie to this idea. And also disingenuous is the idea that the long-standing EU offer of a ‘Canada-style’ deal meant ‘exactly the same as CETA’, as opposed to ‘in the category of free trade agreements’ (rather than single market membership). Let’s knock on the head once and for all the myth that Michel Barnier (with his staircase) and Donald Tusk promised a cut-and-paste of CETA. They didn’t – they said that UK red lines left a free trade agreement, of the type but not of the same content as CETA, which would be definitionally worse that single market membership. Moreover, at the time, Brexiters greeted this not as a promise but as a ‘threat’ of punishment

As regards the issues that have proved to be the main barriers to doing a deal, the unique circumstances of Brexit were always going to make disentangling fishing arrangements complex, even leaving aside anything else, just as they had been prior to EEC membership. That the EU would seek Level Playing Field commitments as a condition of a free trade deal was made clear as early as April 2017, and was in the Political Declaration that Johnson signed – and promptly dismissed as irrelevant. And there was always going to need to be a governance mechanism – if the EU has become more insistent in recent weeks that this be tightly specified that is because the UK has already shown it is willing to break both what had been signed up to legally in the Withdrawal Agreement and informally in the Political Declaration, thus destroying all trust.

It’s also worth noting something about these three sticking points. A key and utterly flawed claim of the Brexiters has been that a trade deal would be easy because the UK was starting from a point of total convergence with the EU, and it is agreeing convergence which makes making free trade deals so difficult and slow. This was the basis of, for example, Liam Fox’s now notorious claim that it should be “one of the easiest deals in history’. It was always nonsense (as pointed out in my post of July 2017) because the aim of this trade deal, uniquely, is divergence, and so it was the management of divergence which was bound to be problematic. And so it has proved – for all three of the potentially deal-breaking issues are about the terms of divergence.

Beneath all of this is a more basic issue. Questions of whether or not the EU is being ‘reasonable’ in its demands are entirely beside the point. Trade negotiations aren’t ‘nice’. They involve the parties pursuing what they see as their self-interest. The ‘what they see as’ bit is crucial – Brexiters have long sought to define for the EU what its self-interest ‘should be’, with their claim about the significance of the UK trade deficit being central. They were wrong, as they were told they would be. It doesn’t even matter if the EU has miscalculated (though there are good arguments against that being so) because the brutal reality is that this is its calculation.

And not only were the Brexiters wrong about the EU’s interests, so too are they wrong about the UK’s. For, as we are seeing, they have led us to paying a terrible price – exactly how high will depend on whether there is a deal - for the purely imaginary benefit of sovereignty. And, despite what is now claimed, that benefit was never presented simply as a matter of principle to be achieved at any cost, but as something which would also bring economic benefits, with the £350 million a week for the NHS being the headline example. They were wrong about that, too.

In short, we haven’t ended up in the present mess by accident. It has happened because when they were not lying the Brexiters were simply ignorant. They either fooled themselves or were fooling others. Every single step of the way, every single claim they have made has been discredited. And, of course, there is much more in the way of consequences of that still to come.

So what now?

In the immediate term, it’s impossible to know what will happen. The swirl of rumours, counter-rumours, predictions, counter-predictions, and rune-reading that has characterised the last few months is intensifying and will continue to do so. All of the rumours can be made to equally well fit a narrative of Johnson proclaiming a last-minute triumph, despite EU perfidy, as they can one of a last-minute failure, because of EU perfidy.

The stories after the Johnson-von der Leyen dinner last week seemed to point firmly to there being no deal (£). Today’s joint statement is being widely interpreted to suggest a deal is now more likely, perhaps the more so because it was a joint statement. Almost everyone thought that this weekend there would be a definitive announcement. There wasn’t. Perhaps it will come in the next few days, or perhaps things really will drag on until the very end of the month – it may be telling that today’s statement did not mention any new deadline. Perhaps even at this late moment some kind of fudged deal-but-not-a-deal will be created with implementation periods that mimic an extended transition. Perhaps there will be a very short no deal interim.

It’s easy to make out a convincing case for why both deal and no deal are likely because it is the same old issue as there’s been from the outset: the rationality of reducing the economic damage points in one direction, the rationality of reducing the political damage of offending the Brexit Ultras points in the other. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that nothing can be said with certainty (apart from this), and those who do so should be taken with a pinch of salt.

In the meantime, it serves little analytical purpose, as well as being psychologically debilitating, to try to follow each twist and turn at the moment. It may very well be that, as before his decision to campaign for Brexit, Johnson is even now drawing up two announcements, one for deal and one for no deal. There’s not much any of us can do except, perhaps, to refuse to play out bit parts in this theatre of horror. Better to simply switch off for a while and focus on Christmas.


I am going to try to take my own advice, so this will (probably!) be the last post until after Christmas.

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