Friday 12 February 2021

The Brexit we've got

Over the last five years there have been innumerable types of Brexit identified – including soft, hard, clean, true, no-deal, smooth, dirty, kamikaze; innumerable different models – including Norway, Canada, Switzerland, Jersey, Turkey, Australia, Ukraine; and innumerable versions of how to resolve the Irish border issue – managed divergence, ambitious managed divergence, maximum facilitation or ‘maxfac’, the three baskets approach, the hybrid model or customs partnership, the SPS-only solution, the two borders solution, the smart border, and, as if we could forget, the Malthouse Compromise.  

In the end, though, there is only one type of Brexit, and only one model for it, and only one version of the Irish border solution. It’s the Brexit we’ve got.

The problem is, no one seems to like it very much. The even bigger problem is that this includes the government led by the same people who led the campaign for Brexit and the same people who negotiated the terms of Brexit. And the biggest problem of all is that they signed agreements with the EU which bind them – and all the rest of us – to the Brexit they now dislike so much, the main current focus of that dislike being the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP).

Hence last night’s “frank but constructive” meeting of Michael Gove and Maros Sefcovic, the joint chairs of the Joint Committee overseeing the NIP. The prior exchange of letters showed that the UK wants huge swathes of the NIP revised as well as a two-year extension of the grace period on the introduction of some GB>NI checks, whilst the EU pointed out that some of these demands, especially as regards Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) checks could only be met were the UK to align with EU SPS rules. It also indicated that the UK has yet to implement much of what had been agreed, and that until it had issues of what changes might be needed, or possible, could not be considered. Separate reports suggest that EU will not offer a two-year extension of the grace period but only three or six months.

The immediate reaction from the UK government to Sefcovic’s letter was to hark back to the EU’s (non-) triggering of Article 16, continuing the opportunistic use of this as a false argument for revising the NIP, as discussed/ anticipated in my previous post.

A brief history of the Irish Sea border

It’s worth stepping back to see just how extraordinary a situation this is. An Irish Sea border, initially as a ‘backstop’ in case no other solution could be found, was first agreed by the UK in December 2017, at the end of phase 1 of the Article 50 talks under Theresa May. Within a couple of days, the then Brexit Secretary, David Davis, casually repudiated it as ‘non-binding’ in a TV interview, prompting the EU to write it up as a legal text. This was immediately denounced by May as something that “no British Prime Minster could sign up to”, leading through a tortuous process to a different backstop.

May’s backstop was deemed unacceptable by the Brexiters and replacing it was central to Boris Johnson’s party leadership campaign. When he became Prime Minister, he agreed to replace the backstop with a frontstop which was … the Irish Sea border. This he declared to be huge triumph for his negotiating skills, and was part of what he put to the electorate in 2019 as his ‘oven ready deal’ which would ‘get Brexit done’. Once elected, his MPs all voted for this deal, with barely time to read it, and he signed it with the EU leading to the UK leaving on 31 January 2020.

Yet within just 48 hours of that the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, denied any Irish Sea border had been agreed and a few days later Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, said the same. Within less than a month there were reports (£) that Johnson had ordered plans to be drawn up to “get around” the NIP, and he, too, has repeatedly denied that there is a sea border. Within a few months, the Brexit Ultras – including some of those who had voted for it as MPs or MEPs – denounced the entire Withdrawal Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Protocol, as incompatible with British sovereignty, and not long after the British government proposed to break international law by unilaterally over-riding key provisions about the Irish Sea border within the Protocol. Now, barely more than a year since it was signed and barely a month since it became operational, the government is demanding it be completely renegotiated, whilst many Brexiters are calling for it to be scrapped altogether.

It is not, by the way, as claimed by James Forsyth in the Spectator this week, that the NIP “was agreed by Boris Johnson as he struggled to get a Brexit deal in time for the 2019 General Election”. At the time he agreed it, parliament was still refusing to allow him to call an election, and there was no reason to think that was going to change. It did, but only after the introduction of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Any idea that Johnson was somehow hurried into agreeing a deal he did not understand is untrue. If there was a time pressure, it was solely of his own making because he did not want to extend the Article 50 period again. In any case, whatever the reason, it would be a groteseque and indefensible failure of statesmanship to make a major international agreement without understanding or accepting its contents.

As the cliché has it, you couldn’t make it up. But it is hugely serious, both in its implications for Northern Ireland and for the wider relationship between the UK and the EU. As a thought experiment, imagine how Brexiters and the government would have reacted had the EU behaved in anything like this way. Their fury can be guessed by looking at the mileage they are making of the, by comparison, trivial error the EU made in its aborted invocation of Article 16 the other week. They are claiming that as some game-changing breach of trust and yet it pales into insignificance compared with this litany of dishonesty and untrustworthiness.

Deeper roots: Brexit doesn’t mean … Brexit?

This, in turn, has deeper roots than the mendacity and incompetence of successive Brexit governments. Rather, it grows organically out of fundamental flaws within the entire Brexit prospectus. Most obviously, it arises because Brexiters never understood, and some still deny, that Brexit had any implications at all for the Irish land border. Johnson and others said this explicitly before the Referendum and did so repeatedly afterwards. Thus, by extension, they also don’t accept that the Irish Sea border is necessary as a way of avoiding the land border.

All this is a sub-set of a profound paradox within Brexit. As I have written before, many Brexiters simultaneously see Brexit as a vital change, imbued with huge meaning, and yet as not meaning that anything much changes at all. That is, Brexit was treated as a symbolic act of supposed national liberation but as if it didn’t, or shouldn’t, carry practical, legal, institutional consequences – or, if it did, this was just because the EU is being unreasonable.

In the present context, this is evident in Gove “demanding” that EU SPS rules be relaxed: “it does not threaten the integrity of the EU single market to have bulbs ordered from a wholesaler in Scotland or England which will then be planted in a garden in Belfast or Ballymena. We need to be practical and pragmatic about this”, he complains (£). But, of course, it does create such a threat. It’s in the nature of rules that they be applied, or else they cease to be rules. And if waived in one case then the inevitable demand is that they be so for another, and so on, until nothing is left of them. What “practical and pragmatic” really means here is to leave unchanged those things which the UK has chosen, with Gove a key architect, to change.

A similar point is made by David Allen Green in a blog post this week. There, he remarks upon how Gove (and George Eustice, the Agriculture Secretary) are complaining about the EU not consulting or giving warning about changes to EU regulations. But, as Green points out, “that is what Brexit means”. “What”, he rhetorically asks, “did Gove and other Brexit-supporting politicians think Brexit meant?” Well, indeed.

It’s a rhetorical question if we assume rationality or, indeed, ‘practicality and pragmatism’, but within Brexiter political psychology it has an answer. And the answer, I think, is that they thought it meant things continuing pretty much as usual. It’s an answer which is at once less understandable and less defensible than the doctrine of ‘cakeism’. I’m not sure it’s even about British exceptionalism, or at least not solely. I think it’s more to do with this idea of Brexit as symbol rather than substance and it is the counterpart of the way that, as the first Brexit White Paper put it, “whilst parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that”. By extension, Brexit was about gaining the ‘feeling’ of independence but not the concrete effects, which are held to be punishment.

Be that as it may, it presents a huge problem for the EU, especially. This is not, as David Frost rather patronisingly opined this week because “the EU is still adjusting, somewhat … to the existence of a genuinely independent actor in their neighbourhood”. Rather, it’s because it has a neighbour which appears to have no real understanding of, or commitment to, the things it agrees to. Just as Brexit is a symbolic act so, apparently, are Britain’s international agreements with the EU ‘just bits of paper’. It may very well be that, within what is on the paper, the EU can agree some “flexibilities”, but the fundamental point is that these agreements are legally binding and do not allow things to just go on as if Brexit had never happened, or as if those agreements had not been made. Brexit has real consequences, and not just for Northern Ireland of course.

Ongoing consequences and Brexiter apologias

Those consequences continue to be seen and will get a lot worse when the UK introduces the import controls it was not ready to enforce when the transition period ended. The damage Brexit is causing – just to take a selection from this week -  is shown in the heartbreaking stories of individual businesses from cheesemakers to meat processors to lobster exporters to oystermen, in the staggering 50% increase in the cost of road freight from France to Britain, in the decline in German exports to Britain, in the collapse of trade through Welsh ports, in the jobs that would have been created in the UK by JJD Sports going  to the EU instead, and in business surveys such as that showing that one in ten Japanese businesses will reduce their UK presence as a result of Brexit whilst none – none – will expand it, and that showing (£) that half of British exporters are experiencing problems described as ‘worsening’ and, even, a ‘nightmare’.

These and the multitude of other stories of Brexit damage linked to in my recent posts show just how devastating Brexit has already been. But there is no definitive assessment, not least because, extraordinarily, the government has refused to publish any impact assessment of its trade deal with the EU. It would be a very naïve person who imagined that this is because such an assessment would show how beneficial it has been. Instead, we have the assessment provided in another article in the Spectator by well-known Brexit ideologues Robert Tombs and Graham Gudgin. It’s a piece of note, not for its quality but for drawing together the various apologias that are doing the rounds in Brexiter circles.

They compare what has actually happened with the “cliff edge” predicted – ignoring the fact that the ‘cliff edge’ prediction almost invariably referred to a no (trade) deal Brexit – so, unsurprisingly, find that the actual effects in terms of queues and shortages were far less severe. They downplay, as the government do, the difference between cross-channel trade flows with cross-channel truck flows, caused by the issue of empty trucks identified by the Road haulage Association. They dismiss the impact on financial services as having been “dealt with long ago” (they presumably mean things like the transfer of €1.2 trillion of banking assets from London, with more to come), with job losses to the EU just “a few thousand posts” (7000, some high value, ignoring the many more expected to come) and say that “since January, financial services trade has continued with no obvious difficulties” (unaware, apparently, of the near total exodus of EU share trading in January (£) which has resulted in Amsterdam overtaking London (£) as the largest centre for such trade) . Smaller firm business to consumer trade is “likely to largely disappear”, they admit, and agri-food and fishing businesses are blighted in various ways, but, as to that – well – it’s just the way it is. Apparently, they tell us, some didn’t understand that non-tariff barriers are often more important than tariffs! Well go the foot of our stairs. That’s only what many of us have been trying to explain to Brexiters for five years now.

And then there is the Northern Ireland Protocol, which Tombs and Gudgin opine is “totally unworkable” and should be “radically changed”. But since they admit this is unlikely, they fall back on the false argument that the disruptions the NIP is causing would justify using Article 16, bolstered by the non-argument that the EU’s recent near-invocation of Article 16 now makes it easier for the UK to do so. This, as the government’s response to Sefcovic’s letter illustrates, has now become firmly established as the Brexiters’ latest piece of mumbo-jumbo – the post-Brexit equivalent of German car makers or GATT Article XXIV.

The Brexiters’ new modesty

Apart from the factual inadequacy of this pollyannaish account of the effects of Brexit, what is striking about it and similar attempts to do the same is how Brexiters have pretty much given up on claiming that anything good is happening as a result of Brexit. Instead the suggestion is that ‘it isn’t too bad’ or ‘it isn’t as bad as some people said it would be’ which, even if it were true, is a pretty underwhelming defence. Brexit was sold for the sunny uplands it would deliver, so to now say that the result is persistent rain but there’s been no hurricane is hardly a ringing endorsement.

In this context, there is something mildly amusing in the spectacle of Michael Gove being left to scurry about trying to deal with all the problems that Brexit has caused. There is, somehow, the sense of Johnson having, Bullingdon Club style, trashed the restaurant and now dispatching the grammar school oik to clean up the mess. But since Gove lent his oleaginous faux-gravitas so freely to the Vote Leave campaign it is hard to feel much sympathy. It’s difficult, though, not to feel considerable, indeed profound, sympathy for Maros Sefcovic.

As to what happens now, it’s perfectly possible that the UK government will quietly agree to, in particular, SPS alignment in order to reduce one big cause of disruption. Or it may decide to invoke Article 16 and set up a huge crisis. A bit like the ‘deal or no deal’ drama of last year, it is easy to construct an argument to predict either outcome. But on the basis of what happened with the TCA last year, and also with the Withdrawal Agreement that created the NIP in the first place, it’s perhaps slightly more likely that the outcome will be the former. That seems to be the implication of initial reports of last night’s meeting having “lowered the temperature” (£). If so, the immediate row may be defused but it is in the nature of what Brexit has created that it will be succeeded by another and another. Far from basking in the triumph of Brexit, Gove is likely to be grubbing around in the Augean stables for many years to come.

Welcome to ‘real Brexit’ – because it’s the only one there is.

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