Friday, 4 December 2020

When the transition ends

It’s now less than a month, and less than 20 working days, until a massive change in the way that the UK trades with and relates to its own continent, and in many ways to the rest of the world as well. It is truly remarkable how little public discussion of that there has been, and what there has been has almost entirely focused on the ongoing ‘deal or no deal’ question largely ignoring just how much will change in either scenario, and what either scenario will cost (£). On that question, another week is ending with no answer and yet more speculation that all will be revealed within the next few hours or days. I’ve nothing to add to that speculation beyond what is in the last few posts on this blog.

As for relative lack of discussion of what the end of the transition will mean, the Covid crisis has obviously been a big reason for that, but there’s more to it than that. Some people actually believed that the UK left the EU immediately after the referendum. Many more will not have understood that when the UK did leave, at the end of last January, the transition period masked most of the practical effects of doing so. Johnson’s mendacious ‘oven ready deal’ and ‘get Brexit done’ slogans in the 2019 General Election contributed to that. And no doubt others have simply got used to so many changing deadlines and postponements and so are ignoring this one.

Everything will change, but still stay the same

But there is a more fundamental issue than any of these, which is the way that from the outset Brexiters claimed, and many millions presumably believed, that whilst leaving the EU was a fundamental and vital change, in some paradoxical way most things would pretty much stay the same. That was partly to do with decrying claims to the contrary as ‘Project Fear’, but it was also to do with making positive claims about how things would continue as before.

The most egregious of these lies have been mentioned many times on this blog and elsewhere. One was the Vote Leave promise that, come what may, the UK would remain in a European “free trade zone” (sic). Another was Boris Johnson’s airy promise that the Irish border would be completely unaffected by Brexit. A third was that the situation of EU citizens in the UK would be unchanged.

There are many other more minor examples. One, which has come to prominence this week, was about the impact on British owners of holiday homes in the EU. The Daily Mail ran a story on this under the headline “Furious British expats blast restrictive new EU travel rules” and there was a similar piece in the Telegraph.

Some may dismiss such concerns as those of the entitled middle classes, although the assumption that freedom of movement was irrelevant to working class people is stereotypical and outdated. Despite the prolier than thou protestations of the populists, there are plenty of ordinary people who have saved up for, say, a holiday flat in Spain, just as there are plenty who live and work in the EU. The British people who benefitted from freedom of movement were not all privileged members of the elite, lounging around in French chateaux like, say, Lord Lawson.

But that is a side-issue to the present point, which is that of course the complaints are nonsense. These are not ‘new EU rules’, they are the rules that apply to all countries outside the EU (and the single market). Their application to Britons is a consequence of Brexit. And whilst those voters who did not understand that can be criticized for their lack of attention, the real criticism should be reserved for those Brexit campaigners, such as Michael Gove, who explicitly promised that there were ‘international laws’ which meant that there would be no such consequence.

The idea that ‘everything changes yet ‘nothing will really change’ is an ingrained one, with the issue of freedom of movement of people showing some of the many forms it takes. Ending such freedom was foregrounded in the campaign and was undoubtedly the central factor for many leave voters (albeit not to the extent that remain voters believe). But the most galling and most common thing which almost all EU nationals in the UK will have experienced since is to be told by such voters ‘oh but we didn’t mean you’, as if individuals were not affected or, if they were, they shouldn’t ‘take it personally’.

Equally perversely, when the discussion is of UK nationals losing their freedom of movement rights in the EU, it’s common to hear Brexiters say ‘but British people worked and had houses in Europe long before we joined the EU’. The implication is that freedom of movement must be ended and yet … freedom of movement will be unaffected. Of course it is quite true that British people did such things, and will continue to do so, but with far greater restrictions and inconvenience.

Years of false promises

Nor is it just a matter of what was promised before the Referendum. Ever since, the Brexiters made repeated promises that there would be ‘frictionless trade’ and insisted that ‘we won’t be putting up borders, so if they go up it will be down to the EU’. Those who warned that this wasn’t true were pilloried, and the then head of the HMRC received death threats for explaining the costs of new border arrangements. So whilst some mocked the fish exporter quoted in an FT report this week (£) for regretting voting to leave because he “never looked at the implications for the paperwork”, it would be far better to recall the false promises made to him over all these years. Even now, The Sun is still pretending that, if there is a deal, it will mean frictionless trade.

In a similar way, in 2017 the then Brexit Secretary David Davis claimed that despite Brexit the UK could go on hosting the European Medicines Agency* and the European Banking Authority. It was patently untrue, and both have now left, to Amsterdam and Paris respectively. That may not have had much resonance with the general public, but for those directly affected it matters and, certainly, it damages the UK’s international role in those fields.

Along with pretending that nothing would change, and making false claims such as Davis’s, Brexiters have refused to engage in any realistic analysis of the costs of Brexit, either denying they exist or saying they are irrelevant. Thus they have continually resisted the publication of impact assessments of Brexit, and rubbished those which have been published. It is deeply ironic that, now, some of the same people are calling vociferously for the publication of such assessments of Covid restrictions.

Moreover, collectively, the British polity and media have persistently failed to take the opportunities to engage in a serious, public discussion of the practicalities of Brexit. That was not just the case during the Referendum campaign but also during the post-referendum but pre-Article 50 period, the 2017 and 2019  General Elections, and the Tory leadership contests.

How will people react when things do change?

The consequence of all these years of lies, avoidance, misinformation and misunderstanding is that the true implications of Brexit are going to come as a shock to many people. How that happens and with what effects is going to be a crucial political issue in the coming months and years. Of course much will depend on whether or not there is a deal, but either way how the public reaction plays out is difficult to predict. The political scientist Professor Rob Ford of Manchester University this week wrote an interesting Twitter thread suggesting that “strong Remain partisans” would be wrong to assume that it will lead to a widespread turn against Brexit. This attracted some adverse comment but I think he makes important points. So what is likely to happen?

Firstly, as has long been obvious and has long occurred, all the adverse effects will be ascribed by the Brexiters and the government to EU ‘punishment’. Brexit would have been fine, they will say, had the EU been ‘reasonable’. They will also argue (despite their earlier claims justifying Brexit by saying that leaving would be easy because the EU is so dependent on Britain) that the fact that it is not easy is what justifies Brexit, by showing the EU up for the bully it is. And they will also say that, anyway, the problems arise because Brexit was not ‘done properly’ because of ‘Theresa the remainer’ and the ‘remain establishment’. All that script is already written, and many will believe it.

Another script that has already been written is to ascribe Brexit effects to some other cause. In the past that took the form of, for example, arguing that the impact on the car industry was actually due to the collapse of the diesel market. Now there will be an easier line, which will blame Covid and, indeed, it will often be difficult to separate Brexit and Covid effects. That won’t work for some things, especially truck queues at ports and shortages, which will be fairly obviously due to Brexit. But they may be less dramatic or less long-lasting than expected. Other things, like rising unemployment, will be more easily decoupled from Brexit. It speaks volumes that for all their promises, the question for the Brexiters now is whether or not the biggest economic contraction for 300 years will be enough to disguise the consequences of their policy. Sunny uplands indeed.

Beyond that, there are questions about how visible the various effects will be and the extent to which they are seen as inter-related. On visibility, despite some misleading claims, the projected impacts on GDP are not of absolute falls but of reductions in growth that would otherwise have occurred. That matters in terms of prosperity and public services, but – as with the lost GDP growth that Brexit has already caused – not having what you would otherwise have had is very different to having something you already had taken away from you.

The economic effects of Brexit may well continue to be a slow burn, or slow puncture, rather than a conflagration or a blow-out. That fate already seems to be unfolding for the City of London, centre of one of Britain’s most important services industries, according to a Bloomberg report this week. The same is even more likely to be true of the waning geo-political standing and influence of the UK – Brexit will be less like a ‘Suez’ moment and more like Britain’s gradual post-war decline.

On stitching the Brexit effects together, the issue is that these will be felt by different groups of people and at different times. Tom Hayes of Brussels European Employee Relations Group has been writing for a while about the idea of the ‘Brexit of small things’ – that is, the way that people will come to encounter inconveniences in everyday things they used to take for granted. Good examples include ‘green cards’ for British motorists in the EU (£), or the impact on dual nationality families (that is not a ‘small thing’ for them, but affects a relatively small number of people) which, like the holiday homes issue, received some media attention this week.

Never-ending Brexit

As people feel such effects they will realise that, indeed, Brexit has real consequences and literally none of them make life easier. But, precisely because they are ‘small things’ (or affect few people), experienced gradually as they arise, there may be no ‘moment of realization’. Additionally, as a very interesting article by Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform explained this week, much will depend on how rigorously the rules that Brexit imposes on British people and businesses are enforced. There will, he points out, be much “accidental illegality” because of confusion and lack of preparation time. If all these are penalized from day one, the overt impact of Brexit will be more obvious.

The idea that penalties for rule breaches might only gradually be introduced is part of a wider issue, as discussed this week by Joe Marshall of the Institute for Government. For whilst the end of the transition will certainly be a major watershed, he points out that many changes will be phased in over time (including UK checks on EU imports) with, depending on what deal if any gets done, different implementation periods for different aspects. Moreover, deal or no deal, there will be on-going negotiations with the EU about all manner of aspects of their relationship, very much in the way that Switzerland and the EU are in semi-permanent talks. That’s inevitable if only because of the economic and geographical facts of the UK-EU relation.

This will serve to dilute some of the impact of the end of transition, but it will also mean that the consequences of Brexit will never be very far from the headlines for years to come and perhaps forever. It’s worth thinking about this and, more generally, about the bigger and more long-term picture. For even if the Brexiters manage to disavow blame for the immediate disruptions of ending transition, they may not be able to escape responsibility for what they have done.

The failure the Brexiters made of their success

Crucially, despite their trumpeting of Brexit as ‘the will of the people’, the reality is that it has never been a truly popular cause. Before the referendum EU membership was barely an issue for most people. Since, opinion polls have rarely shown majority support for it and that has now clearly disappeared. Stripped of ‘don’t knows’, the latest poll shows some 57% now think Britain was wrong to leave the EU and only 43% think it was right (these figures become 50% and 38% respectively if don’t knows are included). Since June 2018 there has only been one time (March 2020) when more thought it right to leave than wrong.

All this is before many of the concrete impacts have been felt. Having squeaked a victory in the Referendum, Brexiters have made no attempt to build any consensus for Brexit in general or for the way it is being done. In this, they have not only treated remainers with contempt but also leavers, for deal or no deal Brexit will not be anything like what they were promised.

Of course Brexiters would say that all that matters is the 2016 vote and in one, extremely important, sense that is obviously true. But in the longer run things are more complex than that. To undertake so major a change without widespread and deep popular support, and not just failing to build such support but actively promoting division, is profoundly dangerous. Where that danger leads is unpredictable, though is unlikely to rebound on the Brexiters in some moment of public shaming and with justice meted out. Still, it’s already clear that few will celebrate Brexit and, as time goes on, those who most assiduously promoted its cause may find their reputations most tarnished by its consequences.

In the meantime, rejoiners could learn some lessons from how what are now called Brexiters conducted themselves since 1975 and, especially, since the 1992 Maastricht debates. It will require a monomania and a ruthlessness of purpose. The very first challenge will be to be supportive, rather than disdainful, of those individual leave voters who come to regret their vote. Some rejoiners will find that an impossible challenge but, if so, it reveals elevating personal feeling above the rejoin cause and in that sense a lack of ‘monomonia and ruthlessness of purpose’.

What Brexiters could learn from remainers

To put all this another way, it is a very legitimate criticism of pro-EU British politicians and commentators that they did virtually nothing to promote and build consensus for it in the decades of UK membership. Even in the periods when it could most easily have been done, they, at most, presented membership in instrumental and transactional terms, and by the time of the Referendum the case for remain had no deep roots and it was far too late to develop them. By the same token, Brexiters now face the challenge of embedding Brexit.

Whatever else changes at the end of transition, the purchase of already shop-soiled slogans such as ‘taking back control’ and enacting ‘the will of the people’ will disappear. It will no longer be enough to be ‘against’ EU membership, for that will be a thing of the past. Nor will it be possible for them for long to blame the EU for all Britain’s ills. It will be necessary for Brexiters to show how being out of the EU translates into some positive and popular vision of post-Brexit Britain. If they fail to do so, they, too, may one day find themselves having to argue a case in the few short weeks of a referendum campaign that they had never bothered to make in the years before.

I suppose that that might sound like an optimistic scenario for rejoiners, but the kicker is that, even if it comes to pass, many will be dead by then and the United Kingdom, as such, will probably have ceased to exist.

 

*Whilst on the subject of the EMA, a ludicrous claim was made this week that the UK had been able to approve the first Covid vaccine virus for use because it has left the EU. It was demonstrable nonsense, of course. It would be easier to respect the Brexiters if they did not lie so incontinently.

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