Friday 23 February 2024

Britain is slowly learning what Brexit means

Shortly after last week’s post about Brexit, Russia, and defence went up, the news of Alexei Navalny’s death was announced, and although its cause is still shrouded in secrecy it can hardly be regarded as an accident, if only because of the brutal regime obtaining at the ‘Polar Wolf’ penal colony where he was incarcerated. It was a further reminder of the nature of Putin’s regime, and the anniversary, tomorrow, of its unprovoked attack on Ukraine will provide another. That is even without considering the crazy threats last weekend from Russia’s former President and Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev that Washington, London, Berlin, and Kyiv would be obliterated by nuclear missiles if his country was forced out of Ukraine.

As I argued in that post, the combination of the Putin threat and a possible Trump Presidency is provoking renewed debate about, and possible progress towards, closer defence and security integration between the UK and the EU. It is telling that, just as I was writing it, the German Finance Minister even floated the idea of closer Anglo-French nuclear weapons cooperation, with financial support from EU countries, so as to develop a European capability (not that this week’s events have been much of an advert for Britain’s nuclear prowess). Shortly afterwards, that idea was alluded to by a close ally of Emmanuel Macron, on a visit to London to discuss the UK’s possible role in European defence more generally.

Nuclear defence integration isn’t in prospect, but that it is even being discussed is an indication of the seriousness of the situation, and the integrative logic of that situation. That logic was certainly on display last weekend at the annual meeting of the annual Munich Security Conference, which brought perhaps the strongest statement yet from Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy that a Labour government would seek a deep security and defence pact with the EU. At the same time, Valérie Hayer, who leads the Renew Group, the third largest bloc within the European Parliament, indicated strong support for a new defence treaty with the UK.

School for scoundrels

If growing threats are once more teaching the perils of isolation, passing the test will not be easy. Even without Brexit, a defence agreement would have been difficult and Brexit has made it harder. Hayer referred to such an agreement as having been spoken of in Theresa May’s time. That’s true, but it has a convoluted history, which remains important. When May submitted the letter triggering Article 50 in March 2017, there was a strong implication, much resented within the EU, that the UK would use its security and military capabilities as a bargaining tool in the exit negotiations. It’s worth recalling this partly because there is a tendency as time has gone by to depict May as (according to taste) the reasonable and pragmatic face of Brexit or, as Brexit Ultras would have it, unwilling to play ‘hardball’ with the EU.

In fact, apart from security, it was May and the then Chancellor Philip Hammond who threatened the EU with an ‘alternative economic model’ of aggressive tax cuts and deregulation if the UK did not get the kind of trade deal it wanted. Recalling this isn’t just a matter of setting the domestic record straight. It is directly relevant to the present because, although UK-EU relations are now generally better than they have been, there is still a legacy of distrust to be overcome which is not solely connected to how Boris Johnson conducted himself. Having never exactly been an easy partner even before the referendum, Britain came very close to making itself a pariah state in the years after 2016 and the memory of that, along with the spectacle of so many Tory MPs and their allies still obsessively demanding a cleaner break with the EU, as well as derogation from the ECHR, means that creating a new relationship of deep trust will not be easy.

May became considerably less antagonistic in tone in her September 2017 Florence Speech, to the extent that ironically, as I observed at the time, it sounded more like an explanation of why the UK should be joining the EU rather than of why it was leaving. As regards security, specifically, she was also notably diplomatic in her own speech to the Munich Security Conference, in 2018, although as I discussed then it continued to have some ambiguities. (By contrast, Boris Johnson, as Foreign Secretary, had used his appearance at the conference, the year before, to raise hackles by gloating about Britain’s “liberation” from the EU.)

However it was the Russian nerve poison attacks on Salisbury, just a couple of weeks after May’s Munich speech, which really brought home – literally – the fact that the UK needed European allies. That provided the background to the possibility of a deep security and defence pact that Hayer referred to, which was envisaged by the Political Declaration that accompanied May’s Withdrawal Agreement. But once Johnson came to power, he and David Frost proceeded to question its parameters and once again it was suggested, including by Nick Timothy, May’s one-time adviser who had been a key architect of hard Brexit (and, reportedly, had had an input into the Article 50 letter ‘threats’), that security and defence could be used as “leverage” to gain concessions on trade.

It’s not clear that any such concessions were achieved and, at all events, what emerged in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement was, as regards security, a “dialled down” relationship and, as regards foreign and defence policy, no agreement at all. It was really only the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 which created an impetus to greater cooperation, but “the relationship remains unstructured”. As I argued last week, the continuing threat of Russia, plus the threat, and, if it happens, the fact, of a Trump Presidency – along with the advent of a Labour government – may well be a catalyst for a closer and more structured relationship. Certainly some Brexiters have become alive to that possibility, with the Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (£) counselling that “if you want to keep Brexit, pray for a Biden victory” and a Spectator article warning (£) against attempts to ‘lock’ Britain into defence integration with the EU. It’s a reminder that however compelling the logic of cooperation, it will encounter opposition from the stubbornly unteachable, which in turn will undermine trust in the UK’s reliability.

Learning the facts of life  

Yet the logic is compelling, and exerts a remorseless pressure. The fundamental point concerns the interconnectedness of the UK and the EU, which didn’t cease to exist because of Brexit. It is an interconnectedness which takes numerous forms, certainly not just in relation to security and defence, but trade, supply chains, culture, education, science, and families. Some of that is to do with the simple fact of being in geographical proximity; some of it is because of the fact of the UK having been a member of the EU, or its predecessors, for almost fifty years, leaving a deep legacy of integration. Brexiters gave no thought to the implications of any of this, and seemed to imagine that many of the conveniences of membership would just carry on as before, despite leaving, whilst relationships with the rest of the world outside the EU, and perhaps even the social mores and values of life before the EEC, could just be picked up as if they had been pickled in aspic since 1973.

The consequence is that Britain is now a learner in the world that it created for itself with Brexit, and a very slow learner at that. The lessons of interconnected defence are being taught the most quickly because the Russian invasion of Ukraine was such a seismic event that even the dullest of pupils couldn’t ignore it. Similarly, galvanized by his self-imposed political imperative to ‘stop the boats’, Rishi Sunak is about to agree a deal, possibly to be signed today, to share information with Frontex, the EU’s border protection agency. It turns out that international irregular migration flows can’t be dealt with at national level, something underscored just yesterday by the news that Europol have dismantled a major gang involved in cross-channel people-smuggling. Who knew?

The same tutorials are being given in other domains. Reality just keeps intruding on Brexiter fantasies. Thus, despite some die-hard Brexiter bumptiousness, it has become obvious from impartial analysis that ‘doing our own trade deals’ is not just of virtually no economic value but is a lot more complicated than the early ‘sign up to anything’ approach that led to the agreements with Australia and New Zealand. At all events, UK trade remains strongly connected to the EU. The lessons about the interconnected nature of regulation are also gradually being learnt. Sometimes, as with the effective abandonment of the UKCA mark, it happens through the laborious process of trial and error. Sometimes, as with this week’s news that UK officials are lobbying the EU to tighten its financial services regulation, it happens through the belated realization that what the EU does actually has a huge effect on Britain and, in this particular case, that robust regulation serves a useful purpose. Once again, who knew?

Cookery lessons

A currently widely-reported example of these dawning realities is Rishi Sunak’s sudden attention to food security, and his newfound interest in farming generally. Much of that interest is no doubt motivated by widespread reports that Tory support in its rural English heartlands is imploding, many of the roots of which lie in Brexit, in (at least) four ways.

First, there is the issue of the increased barriers to trading with the EU, which have added substantial costs to UK food exports, with more costs to come with the introduction of full import controls this year. Second there is the adverse impact on farmers of the new post-Brexit trade deals. Third, there is the impact of freedom of movement of labour having ended. And, fourth, there is the continuing saga of the replacement for the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) system of payments and support. Clearly all of these are inter-related, as the problems faced by farmers reduce UK production, thus aggravating food insecurity (something also brought into focus by the Ukraine war), and, alongside the increased costs of trade with the EU, this contributes to food price inflation and supply disruptions for consumers.

The replacement of CAP is a particularly sorry story. Here is something which was the bête noire of British Eurosceptics since the 1970s and so the one area, above all, for which they should have been prepared for when they finally achieved Brexit. Instead, the introduction of the confusing Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) was botched and chaotic, leading to endless reviews and delays, changes, and much of the promised financial support has never materialized. Even by Brexit standards it is a convoluted story, but the basic fact is that there is still no fully-functioning replacement for the CAP, or even any strategic clarity about whether the aim is to incentivize food production or countryside stewardship.

Computer club

If farming and food security is a case study in post-Brexit Britain’s slow schooling in reality, it also provides illustrations of one of the most significant, if least discussed, aspects of the theme of interconnectedness. A recent article by TC Callis in Kent and Surrey Bylines, discussing the introduction of import controls, drew attention, amongst other things, to how Brexit deprived the UK of access to relevant EU databases. It is a point I have stressed repeatedly in the past, but one which rarely features in media coverage of the issue. Indeed, even now, reports of the dangers of food crime under plans to shift testing facilities from Dover to inland Sevington ignore this issue. But Callis explains how food crime and other risks have been exacerbated by loss of full access to the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) and, as I’ve pointed out before (although I failed to mention RASFF), there is a whole ecosystem of databases in this sphere, including the EU’s Animal Disease Information System (ADIS) and Trade Control Expert System (TRACES), to which the UK no longer has full access.

Such issues of data-sharing are part of the crucial, if unglamorous, infrastructure which, along with much regulatory infrastructure, keeps daily life going. A litter of acronyms, they are like the hardware and software of the computers we all use but which few people know or care about so long as they work. In the economic sphere, it is lack of access to the EU REACH database that has meant the UK having to develop a separate system, increasing costs in the chemicals industry*, and the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) is set to be another (as discussed in previous posts). In both these cases, linkage of the UK and EU databases may well be the ultimate outcome, underlining both the pointlessness of duplication as well as the persistent logic of integration and interconnectedness  

In the policing and criminal justice sphere, as with food and diseases, there is a complex EU eco-system of which the UK is no longer a part even though, of course, crime and other security threats to the UK are not confined to national borders. So we remain connected to Europe as regards these threats, but at best semi-connected as regards the means of meeting them. Thus some cooperation, albeit on reduced terms, continues, for example with EUROPOL and EUROJUST, but the UK has lost access to the Schengen Information System II (SIS II) and the European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS), significantly undermining policing.

Notably, it is database access which is central to the deal, mentioned above, that Sunak is doing with the EU over cooperation with Frontex, notably the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR). However that has another implication, which also applies to those EU security databases - like DNA, criminal records, fingerprints and air passenger lists – to which the UK has already negotiated post-Brexit access: it makes it highly unlikely that the UK could abandon the data protection standards of GDPR**. So, in this sense, interconnectedness in one domain begets interconnectedness in others.

Messy work

What we are seeing across all these areas, and many others, is therefore a very complex and untidy picture, which is almost impossible to summarise, or to characterize in any one way. It consists of a series of ad hoc accommodations, sometimes entailing duplication (e.g. UK REACH), sometimes entailing piecemeal deals with the EU (e.g. EUROSUR), sometimes simply meaning loss of functionality or capacity (e.g. SIS II). It should not be forgotten that all of these accommodations come at a financial cost, fragmented in ways which make it impossible to quantify, all of which used to be rolled into the UK’s budgetary contribution to the EU, in return for which we used to have full access to everything rather than to a jumble of patches.

To add to the complexity, almost none of these issues are static, with new systems – whether they be data management systems, regulatory systems, or sector-specific systems like farming support – being rolled out, each with varying transition or implementation periods. Likewise, to the extent that these developments involve recalibrations and redefinitions in particular aspects of the UK-EU relationship, they are also evolutionary rather than static. It is obviously also the case that the pace and scale of change in any particular area varies according to economic or political exigency, which is why the case of defence has a particular momentum just now, but they are all in flux to some degree or another.

But for all that the overall picture is messy and hard to characterize, in almost all cases the direction of travel is the same in pointing to integration. The well-documented tendency to non-divergence in regulation is an aspect of that, but non-divergence really only codes continuation of existing integration. The wider picture is one of closening relationships with the EU, either in the sense of reversing some of the distances initially created by Brexit (e.g. the Frontex deal or, not discussed in this post, rejoining Horizon), even if in clumsy or sub-optimal ways, or in the sense of moving to a greater degree of integration than existed even as an EU member (defence being potentially by far the most important example). For Brexiters, all this betokens the failure to ‘do Brexit properly’, but what it really shows is the failure of Brexit as a concept, or at least as a realistic policy.

A slow and unwilling pupil

There have been many faces of Brexit over the years. The gurning anger of Farage. The blustering buffoonery of Johnson. The psychotic glitter of Braverman. The vapid pipsqueakery of Grimes. The blokeish thuggery of Banks. The creepy unctuousness of Gove. The mad narcissism of Cummings. The born-again zealotry of Truss. The porcine truculence of Frost. The smug spitefulness of Rees-Mogg.

They all still exist, but the dominant image, now, is that of a lumpen, sulky, schoolboy dullard. Kept in for an umpteenth detention, tongue-between-teeth, he ponderously repeats the basic textbook exercises that his juniors mastered long ago, and with painful slowness comes to realize that the things his teachers had been trying to drum in to him for years past are, indeed, true.


*Some of these costs have been reduced by recent government changes to the UK REACH system, although, as is typically the case with regulation, this involves trade-offs in terms of creating higher levels of risk.

**Were the UK to do so, the EU would almost certainly withdraw recognition of the UK data protection system, and that would have the effect of locking us out of those EU databases to which we still have full access, as well as having profoundly damaging consequences for the commercial use of data. It remains an open question whether the measures in the current UK Data Protection and Digital Information Bill will constitute sufficient divergence from EU GDPR to lead the EU to revoke its 2021 adequacy decision about the UK regime.

Friday 16 February 2024

Brexit, Brexitism, and the Trump and Russian threats

In the Brexit debate, discussion of its geo-political damage has often been the poor relation of that of its economic damage. It’s easy to understand why, as the economic damage is more tangible and, to a degree, more quantifiable. The latest evidence of that came this week in a new analysis by Goldman Sachs, the significance of which is that, for the first time, it drew together all of the different counterfactual models, with the headline finding being that that UK GDP is now 5% lower than it would have been without Brexit.

However, ultimately, the geo-political damage may be even more important and more likely to lead to a softening, or even reversal, of Brexit. That isn’t because Brexit is the cause of all Britain’s geo-political problems, any more than EU membership would resolve them, but because Brexit has created additional problems whilst doing nothing at all to help those which would exist anyway.

Geo-politics does not just mean defence, and certainly not just defence in its traditional military meanings, but includes those things along with the wider panoply of security, soft power, diplomacy, and international relations. Thus configured, it is climate change which presents the biggest set of geo-political challenges for Britain, as for every other country, but, for all the urgency of that, those relating to war in its various forms have a particular immediacy.

That immediacy has been ratcheted up several notches by Donald Trump’s latest comments about Russia and NATO, including that he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to members not reaching the 2% of GDP defence spending target. That would be a direct violation of the basic principle of mutual defence, leading the NATO Secretary-General to say that the comments “undermine all of our security”.

This comes at a time when, of course, there is a real possibility of a second Trump Presidency and, if that comes about, there are now multiple signs that it would be (even) more extreme than the first one, and far less constrained. The liberal Conservative historian and journalist Anne Applebaum has argued that Trump would “abandon NATO”, even if not formally leaving it. Whether or not that proves true, there can be no doubt of the close affinities between Trump and Putin, something in plain sight last week when Tucker Carlson – who has been described as “perhaps the highest-profile proponent of ‘Trumpism’” – conducted a sycophantic interview with the Russian leader.

General background

I’ve written at length before about the nexus of geo-political issues around Brexit, Trump and Russia, initially when ‘previewing the geo-political costs of Brexit’ at the time of Putin’s poison attacks in Salisbury in March 2018, and then in March 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Much that is in those two posts still stands, and I will avoid repeating them save to briefly draw out three general points.

First, Brexit necessarily fractured the central tenet of UK geo-political strategy by destroying its role as a US-EU bridge. Burning one end of that bridge was bound to fray the other end, under any US Presidency, and the Northern Ireland aspects of Brexit were always potentially liable to cause further tensions in UK-US relations. Equally, whilst a Trump Presidency would have been difficult for the UK even without Brexit, and will be if it recurs, it is a particular delusion of Brexiters that Trump regards Brexit Britain with some kind of special affection. In fact, whilst he may be happy to heap praise on sycophants like Nigel Farage, the idea that he has any interest in what happens to the UK, or even any loyalty to such court jesters, is preposterous.

Secondly, Brexiters showed a crucial strategic ignorance in configuring NATO as the only international organization needed to meet Britain’s security and defence needs, and the EU as entirely irrelevant to these, when, in fact, the two have become increasingly intertwined. That has become even more obvious since the invasion of Ukraine, which also showed the absurdity of the Brexiters’ vision of ‘Global Britain’ and its associated ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’. As the revised Integrated Review of 2023 recognized, the European continent remains the UK’s primary defence theatre and, within that theatre, Russia its sole, but considerable, threat.

Thirdly, even without delving into the murky question of direct Russian interference in the Referendum (a question which could only really be answered by the intelligence services, who were not asked to do so for the 2021 ‘Russia Report’), Brexit was undoubtedly welcome to Putin, and fully consistent with his longstanding attempts to destabilize both the UK and the EU. It is a point insufficiently made to the plastic patriots of Brexit just how comprehensively they played into his hands, even if it cannot be proved that they were his puppets.

The Russian threat and responses to it

These general points provide the background to the current situation. It is one in which the threat of Russia is undeniable. Putin may not have had the swift victory he expected in Ukraine but may salvage something he will be able to claim as victory, especially if a Trump presidency withdraws US support to Kiev, or even without that, if Republican resistance to such support persists. Nor has prosecution of the war prevented continuing Russian aggression, both overt and covert, elsewhere in Europe.

For example, last year, NATO intercepted over 300 Russian planes threatening its airspace, mainly over the Baltic states, with the RAF responsible for at least 50 of these interceptions. Meanwhile, Russian interference and influence in Kosovo and Serbia, Moldova, Bosnia, and Montenegro continued. Just this week Moscow put the Estonian Prime Minister on a so-called ‘wanted list’, as part of its ongoing attempts to bully and intimidate its neighbours. And whilst the 2021 Russia Report may not have delved into the Brexit referendum, it gave no room to doubt the extent of Russian activity in political disinformation campaigns against the UK, whilst as recently as last December the intelligence authorities revealed the ongoing nature of Russian cyber-attacks.

All of this, and more, is what underlies the recent upsurge of concern about the possibility of a major conflict on European soil, including Grant Shapps’ reference to this now being a “pre-war generation” in his first speech as Defence Secretary. Personally, I don’t take Shapps seriously as Defence Secretary or in any other capacity, but I do take seriously the warnings of the Chief of the General Staff. Such warnings certainly should not be dismissed as coming from blimpish or self-interested military ‘brass hats’; for example, the left-wing journalist Paul Mason has been vocal in making the case for Britain to re-arm in the face of the threat from Putin’s Russia.

Moreover, the same warnings are being sounded in several other European countries, building upon pre-existing concerns about Russian aggression, concerns which led, amongst other things, to Sweden and Finland seeking NATO membership. The last barrier to Sweden’s application, approval by Hungary, looks close to being cleared, and the country is already participating in NATO exercises as well as preparing its citizens for the possibility of all-out war. Finland’s membership has already begun, and is being actively operated, with that country, too, being in an advanced stage of readiness for war. Meanwhile, Germany has embarked on a major rearmament programme whilst Poland has doubled the size of its armed forces (£) in recent years and looks set to continue to prioritize defence under its new government. Given these, and similar, developments, British political and military leaders have if anything been rather slow to prepare the public for the threat we face.

The Trumpist-Putinist-Brexitist axis

However, Britain’s capacity to prepare is hobbled, and not just by the fact that we are economically struggling, the more so because of Brexit. It is also because there is a very powerful, if contradictory, axis which undermines attempts to do so.

On the one hand, there are those on the populist right like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson (despite his professed support for Ukraine), and Nigel Farage who are openly supportive of Trump’s re-election, and, at least in the case of Farage, public admirers of Putin. They have been joined this week in their support of Trump by John Hayes, a less well-known but highly influential right-wing Tory MP, and it’s noteworthy, in itself, just how many Tories are lining up to offer such endorsements in what is, after all, a foreign election.

On the other hand, there is the unreconstructed old hard left, including Jeremy Corbyn and the Stop the War Coalition, elements of which are “among the worst disseminators of Kremlin propaganda in the UK”. These are not the words of a ‘Centrist’, still less a Conservative, but of the radical journalist George Monbiot, and the veteran campaigner Peter Tatchell has made similar points.

Spanning these two groups is the peculiar, and peculiarly influential and well-connected, one of the Revolutionary Communist Party turned Libertarians who coalesce around Spiked, which constantly mocks and undermines the warnings about Russia, including these most recent ones.  

It is not a coincidence that all three of these groupings are also pro-Brexit and anti-EU. What links Brexitists, Trump, and Putin is a shared hatred of any notion of a liberal, rules-based international order. And whilst it would be fatuous to deny the many criticisms of that notion, and what it has meant in practice, most disgracefully as regards the Iraq War, it is far more fatuous, if not downright evil, to suggest that illiberal, lawless international disorder would be preferable. Yet, although they would never put it in those terms, that is precisely what all those groupings would prefer, albeit for wildly different reasons. Some dream of a global powerplay between Great Nations led by Strong Men, some of the chaos upon which disaster capitalists can thrive, some of the final collapse of capitalism under the weight of its own contradictions to usher in a socialist utopia.

Actually, they only differ wildly in what they ultimately want. They are identical in what they see as the route to getting it: if all the cards are thrown up in the air, then it becomes possible that they may be made to land at the desired outcome. What gets left out of that analysis is the fact that amongst those ‘cards’ are the lives of millions of people which will be disrupted, deformed, and destroyed in the process; the dead, the maimed, the tortured, the dispossessed, the damaged, the broken. And whilst historical parallels are never exact, we’ve seen all this before in Europe. The same utopian dreams, the same subjugation of means to ends, the same grand power-plays in which ordinary lives are just collateral damage in the service of great dreams and causes.

The logic of integration

In this context, Brexit is only a minor event, but with a European war now being widely discussed as a serious possibility it takes on a new importance. Of course, such a war is by no means inevitable, but it is the decisions taken in the period after possibility and before inevitability which are crucial. Those decisions are quite as acute for the EU as for the UK. It isn’t that staying in the EU would have made them go away, and the EU is deeply divided between countries (£), including the Baltic states, Finland, Sweden, Poland and some of the Balkan states, which are acutely aware of the Russian threat and preparing to meet it, and those, including Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia, which are in various ways allies or appeasers of the Putin regime.

Yet such divisions would exist, and probably to a greater extent, if the EU did not exist. And, either way, the UK would have to have a relationship with what is, after all, its own continent. Brexiters may wax lyrical about the days when Britain ‘stood alone’, but forget that this wasn’t its choice, and was its moment of maximum peril precisely because of its isolation. In fact, the EU does exist, so what is that relationship to be? At the very least, there is now a stronger case than ever for a deep UK-EU security and defence pact – something always envisaged by the Political Declaration that accompanied the Withdrawal Agreement, but which got sacrificed by the Johnson-Frost antagonistic ‘sovereignty-first’ negotiations  –  and, unlike any proposals Britain might make to deepen trade and economic relationships, this is an area where the UK genuinely has something to offer the EU.

This is because, despite cuts in personnel numbers, especially army personnel, and despite some recent high-profile equipment failures, the UK still has profound defence capabilities – not in the sense of a capacity to be ‘Global Britain’, but in the context of a European conflict. It remains the world’s sixth military power, and the most powerful in Europe (not including Russia), with on some estimates the best special forces in the world, and has a substantial cyber-war and intelligence capacity, probably second only to the US as a regards signals intelligence. There is far too much self-congratulatory guff about Britain’s ‘world-leading’ capabilities in all kinds of sectors and, no doubt, much hyperbole about its military capacity, but that capacity is real and, importantly, provides a base that could rapidly be built upon, though the longer that is put off the harder it will become.

At the same time, the UK is never going to be strong enough to go it alone, and whilst it has much to offer the EU it has as much or more to gain from cooperation, perhaps even integration, with the EU. The idea of an EU army, for so long the imaginary bugbear of Eurosceptics, has recently been re-proposed by the Italian government, although the reactions from other EU members make it unlikely to gain traction for now, and the barriers to such an entity are technical as well as political. However, post-Ukraine there has been an intensification of integrative measures, and an exercise last October involving the forces of nine EU countries was for the first time conducted from an EU operational headquarters, as part of an attempt to enable the EU to act independently of NATO.

This seems set to be the direction of travel for the EU and, if so, the argument for UK involvement, and ever-deepening involvement at that, becomes stronger, the more so if Trump does come to power. That’s speculative, but it is justifiable given that we have already witnessed the way that the Ukraine war served to improve what at the time were very acrimonious UK-EU relations. In the event of actual hostilities breaking out the logic would surely become stronger still and if, in that scenario, the US failed to meet its NATO commitments it might become irresistible. For it is difficult to over-state just how profound the impact of such hostilities would be, not just in terms of military operations and alliances but for everyday life.

What would war mean for Britain?

During the Cold War it was generally assumed that if there was a conflict with Russia it would be a nuclear one. Einstein supposedly said that whilst he didn’t know what weapons would be used in World War Three, he knew that those used in World War Four would be sticks and stones. Within that climate of Armageddon, many if not most of us became fatalistic: if war happened, survival was highly unlikely and perhaps not to be desired anyway. The kind of advice offered by the infamous 1976 ‘Protect and Survive’ pamphlet, which included making a shelter from a large table surrounded by furniture and bags of earth, seemed, to say the least, hopelessly optimistic.

However, nuclear war isn’t the scenario we are facing. Rather, it is one of forms of more or less conventional warfare, probably conducted mainly on Eastern European soil, though in a wider airspace, and also cyber and information warfare. For the UK, according to security expert Professor Anthony Glees, the consequences would include food, fuel and medicine shortages, rationing, and curfews. Glees also envisages that “a British Quisling government would be established, probably under a well-known domestic politician known to be sympathetic to Putin”. One wonders who he might have had in mind.

Perhaps this is unduly grim, but, on his first prediction, we have already seen with Ukraine, the pandemic, and Brexit the fragility of supply chains, and have ample evidence of how quickly such fragility engenders panic-buying, hoarding, and de facto rationing. As for Glees’ even grimmer second prediction, it is certainly obvious that, at the very least, the strange but powerful pro-Trump, pro-Putin alliance I identified above would be vocal in demanding British disengagement from the conflict.

Indeed, it is all too easy to anticipate that they would cry that here, finally, was the great Brexit dividend: what has conflict between Russia and the EU got to do with us? Once again appeasers would talk of quarrels in faraway countries, between people of whom we know nothing. It is equally easy to anticipate how, just as Johnson dismisses those who are alarmed by Trump as the ‘wokerati’, these voices would be declaring, in their various accents, that it was only the liberal/imperialist/globalist/Europhile elite who want conflict with Putin. So, even if such a war did not produce the Quisling government Glees anticipates, it would be enmeshed within the Brexit or Brexitist culture war, with Brexiters acting as Putin’s fifth column. Just in itself, this is a good reason why Brexitism needs to be driven to the margins of British politics.

The European ideal

To re-emphasize, none of this is to suggest that Brexit is the cause of the threats and challenges posed by Putin and Trump, or that those threats and challenges fall less heavily on the EU and its members. It’s more subtle than that. Brexit doesn’t prevent British military and other cooperation with the EU, but it makes it less straightforward and certainly doesn’t help it. Brexit certainly removes UK influence on the EU’s response to Russia, and to other geo-political threats. And to the ways that geo-politics impinges on supply chains, Brexit adds additional frictions.

But the biggest point is this. Brexit has put a fracture in the basic idea of ‘Europe’, expressed institutionally by the EU, as a defining bulwark of liberal democracy and freedom. The need for such a bulwark becomes more important if the US retreats further from what has been, warts and all, its global role in that respect (£). Any groans from Brexiters about democracy and sovereignty (as discussed in last week’s post) don’t negate the fact that EU membership entails commitment to the EU’s founding values of “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”. Nor is that fact negated by any whataboutery relating to Hungary, currently, or Poland, recently: such anomalies as there are don’t detract from the enormity of having united a continent around such values, every word of which stands in stark contrast to Russia, not to mention many other parts of the world.

The word ‘united’ is the key one. Brexiters may say that Britain need not belong to the EU to share its values in these respects. But sharing is not the same as uniting. There is, to coin a phrase from a different context, power in a union. Having witnessed the break-up of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the rise of the European Union, including the alacrity with which the one-time Warsaw Pact countries signed up for it, there’s probably no one who understands that as well as Vladimir Putin.

Friday 9 February 2024

Unpicking the defences of Brexit

Bemused by the ‘mysterious silence’ of the government about the benefits of Brexit, last weekend former Trade Secretary Peter Lilley bemoaned (£) that “the consequence of that silence is that the narrative about Brexit is being written by its opponents”. The mystery is easily solved: the benefits of Brexit are effectively non-existent and the failure of its promises is self-evident. And the formidable attempts by Brexiters to proclaim a narrative of success have foundered not because its opponents’ voices are louder but because the public, without much leadership but seeing the evidence accumulating before them, have seen that failure.

But it’s true that, as a result, Brexiters have increasingly found themselves having to defend their project rather than get away with airy promises, or bullish assertions of it being ‘the will of the people’. These attempts have become ever-more desperate and convoluted, and their very variety is, in itself, one of their most important defensive weapons. In the hands of the more adroit, or perhaps just the more opportunistic, Brexiters it enables them to continually shift from one line of argument to another, deliberately creating a swirl of disorientation.

A recent example is the discussion on GB News between Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nick Tyrone, which Tyrone described on his Week in Brexitland Substack. Tyrone did as good job as anyone could of responding to Rees-Mogg’s salvoes, the more so given the huge advantages his interlocutor had by virtue of being the host. But it is impossible to ‘win’ such encounters because they are intended to confuse rather than to clarify, and setting innumerable false hares running is one of the easiest ways of doing so. This doesn’t just apply to broadcast interviews. In any number of published comment pieces, Brexiters layer falsehoods upon half-truths upon questionable assumptions, in ways which can only be unpicked through line-by-line ‘fisking’, which is incredibly time-consuming, and not especially effective.

Nevertheless, it’s worth disaggregating and examining some of the commonest arguments currently used to defend Brexit, and especially those about sovereignty and democracy, which are the Brexiters’ last redoubts. Even so, despite being the longest ever post on this blog, it’s impossible to provide an exhaustive analysis.

Stonewalling and denial

These are the now boilerplate defences of Brexit, so commonly made as to not need specific links. They include the claim that ‘it hasn’t been done properly’, which comes in variants ranging from ascribing this to governmental incompetence, to blaming it on EU punishment, right through to positing betrayal by various actors up to and including ‘the deep State’.

All of these were virtually baked into Brexit, partly because it made utopian promises that could never come true, and partly because it thrives on narratives of betrayal, treachery and victimhood. So, like apologists for communism, Brexiters say it has either ‘never really been tried’ or that it has fallen victim to counter-revolutionaries and to renegades from the true path of purity.

Slightly more optimistic versions of the same thing are that ‘it hasn’t been done properly yet’, or that it ‘hasn’t had enough time’ for the benefits to be obvious. These claims are, by definition, impossible to refute, placing the utopia of Brexit in sight but always out of reach, like a mirage oasis. But one obvious rejoinder is that it wasn’t suggested before the referendum that the benefits would be long in coming, let alone the 20, 50 or even 100 years that some Brexiters have since spoken of.

Still, perhaps it is reasonable to apply the ‘David Frost test’ for what would constitute failure for Brexit. He suggested one piece of evidence of failure would be “if we are still debating this in five or six years’ time in the same way”. That was in June 2022, so the jury is still out, but there is no sign at all so far that Brexit is not going to be a failure in these terms.

One thing which all the defences of Brexit in this category share, albeit to varying extents, is that they render nonsensical attempts to make claims about the benefits of Brexit. That’s most obvious if Brexit has been comprehensively betrayed and is ‘Brexit in name only’ for, if so, how could there be any benefits? Even the much weaker defence that Brexit will take time to deliver benefits has an obvious circularity, whereby any sign of success shows it was right, whilst any absence of signs of success doesn’t show it was wrong. Heads I win, tails you lose.

Bathos and deflection

This category includes what is emerging as a favourite Brexit defence, that which does not necessarily deny that Brexit has been damaging, but constantly invokes the most extreme forecasts of how damaging it would be (or, often, garbled versions of those forecasts) so as to defend it on the bathetic grounds that it ‘hasn’t been as bad as the warnings’. It’s a line which can be traced back at least as far as David Davis’s 2018 assurance that Britain would not be “plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction” and its obvious flaw is that Brexit was meant to be something positive and desirable, rather than ‘not being cataclysmic’ or, even, ‘not being too bad’.

A related defence is to admit the evidence of (especially economic) damage that has occurred since Brexit, but to deflect blame for this away from Brexit to, typically, the pandemic, the Ukraine War or, more recently, conflict in the Middle East. This can readily be run alongside the ‘more time is needed’ line of argument, and has a similar circularity in enabling any supposed successes to be celebrated but any damage or lack of success discounted.

However, it differs from that line in that, whereas the promise of future success can never, strictly speaking, be disproved, the argument of damage being down to other factors can be, by reference to the specific effects of Brexit which have not been experienced by other countries. Thus, for all that Brexiters dismiss them, counterfactual economic models do, at least approximately, strip out Brexit effects from those of other factors.


Such counterfactuals seek to answer the real question, which is how does Brexit Britain compare with Britain had Brexit not happened. That question is evaded by another defence, that of the ‘whataboutery’ which makes comparisons with other countries, especially other EU countries, or with the EU as a whole.

The narrow version of this is to compare, especially, GDP growth so as to show (especially if the ‘right’ time periods are cherry-picked), that the UK is doing no worse than some such comparators. Again, this doesn’t meet the objection that Brexit was promised to be a positive. Moreover, when these comparisons show, as they sometimes can, the UK outperforming its comparators it doesn’t address the real question. At particular times, even when an EU member, the UK performed better than other members. So if there are times, now, that it does so this tells us nothing about Brexit, at least in the absence of a plausible explanation of how Brexit is responsible for it.

The Brexiters do not have such an explanation, since the things they claim for what would be explanations – regulatory divergence and major new trade deals – have, as they constantly complain, scarcely happened. On the other hand, anti-Brexiters can plausibly explain why the UK performs less well than the counterfactual of Brexit not having happened, primarily in terms of the increased barriers to trade with the EU and the loss of freedom of movement of people.

The broader version of whataboutery is to point to events in the EU – not just in terms of economic performance, but actual or alleged crises over things like irregular migration, or Hungary, or, currently, the farmers’ protests – to say ‘look what a mess they are in’. This in turn links to the endless predictions, both before and since Brexit, that the EU is about to collapse entirely.

This kind of whataboutery is nonsense at multiple levels, as well as being incompatible with the idea that the EU is a powerful bully that is able to ‘punish’ us. Firstly, it’s nonsense because few of those who oppose Brexit have ever believed that the EU is some kind of nirvana. Secondly, even if the EU were in crisis, or collapsed, that doesn’t make Britain any better off. Indeed, given geographical proximity, and economic and political connections, any instability and suffering the EU endures are likely to have a profound negative impact on Britain, whilst Britain no longer has any influence upon what happens within and to the EU.

Lies, half-truths and exaggerations

This category could be expanded to fill a whole post, so here I will only give a few of the commonest or most egregious examples. Some are plainly ridiculous, such as Kemi Badenoch’s recent claim that “we have used our Brexit dividend to get the NHS more than a £1 billion more every single week than it had before Brexit” [emphasis in original tweet, where it was denoted by ‘*’ symbols]. Of course, there was no such dividend, and the NHS budget is, as it always was, purely a decision of the British government. The same applies to the similar, and more frequent, claim that the NHS has now received the £350 million a week proposed at the referendum, so Brexit has fulfilled that promise.

Equally untrue, although probably much more widely believed, are the claims that Brexit allowed the early roll out of vaccines (it didn’t: the UK was still operating under EU laws and regulations at the time) and that it allowed the UK to give support to Ukraine (it didn’t, and the UK had begun to do so ever since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, when still an EU member).

Other things in this category are more difficult to unpick, as they may contain some element of truth. Many of the Brexiter claims about trade deals are of this sort, because it’s true that neither CPTPP nor the Free Trade Agreements with Australia, New Zealand, and any which may follow, could have been done by the UK as an EU member. The half-truths and exaggeration relate to the benefits, which are paltry. In other cases, the claims are lies in all but name, most obviously the description of non-binding Memorandums of Understanding with individual US states as ‘trade agreements’, which they aren’t in the standard use of that term (plus they have little or no economic value, and could almost certainly have been made as an EU member anyway).

Likewise, most claims of regulatory independence are overblown, since they either aren’t practical to exercise, or make little difference, or are things which would be likely to have happened at some point as an EU member. I’ve written so much about these things before that I don’t have the strength to do so again and, for regular readers at least, probably don’t need to.

The last redoubts: sovereignty and democracy

What does warrant more attention is what have become the last redoubts of the Brexiter defence, and in some ways its strongest if only because they are the most intangible. Sovereignty and democracy are not, of course, the same thing, as sovereign states can be undemocratic. As regards sovereignty itself, Brexiters routinely deploy this as the central defence of Brexit, the more so given the evident lack of benefits and the mounting evidence of costs. For if sovereignty ‘has no price’, then these inconvenient truths can be ignored.

There is a particularly specious version of this defence, a recent example being furnished by Julia Hartley-Brewer, which argues or implies that people voted for Brexit knowing the damage it would cause, because the remain campaign told them (that this is the meaning of Hartley-Brewer’s tweet is borne out by her previous remarks). The obvious flaw is that the leave campaign thundered assurances to such voters that every single one of these warnings was part of ‘Project Fear’, and it defies belief that many voters believed the warnings but voted to leave anyway rather than doing so because they accepted the assurances that the warnings were false.

Indeed, more generally, it’s worth recalling how Brexit was sold. Yes, the slogan of ‘taking back control’, which may be taken as a proxy for ‘regaining sovereignty’, was central to the leave campaign, but it was proposed not as an abstract virtue but as a means of delivering concrete benefits, most obviously control of immigration to those who wanted that, but also benefits to the economy and, more expansively, to the totality of policy, which Brexiters said had been ceded to the EU. So it is dishonest now to propose ‘sovereignty’ as the justification of Brexit, detached from whether it has delivered these concrete benefits.

Flawed ideas of sovereignty

Alongside that dishonesty lies another, or, at least, an ignorance. Sovereignty has probably never meant untrammelled national freedom of action, and certainly doesn’t nowadays. This is why the regulatory independence of Brexit has proved so illusory. In practice, countries operate within a framework of international standards, whether they be derived from the EU or other trans-national bodies. More broadly, countries pool and/or cede sovereignty for purposes of defence, as with NATO, or for a whole variety of non-economic reasons which give rise to international treaties, conventions and, indeed, law.

Of course, Brexiters are constantly straining against those limits but, in doing so, are simply repeating the same flawed idea of sovereignty. The flaw isn’t just that countries can’t escape external constraints, it’s that to the extent they can do so it has negative consequences which they choose to avoid. That choice is, itself, an expression of sovereignty. Thus the idea that Spain, or Denmark, or Germany do not have sovereignty because they choose to be in the EU is as preposterous as the idea that the UK has gained sovereignty by leaving. Indeed, one of the most arresting moments in the entire Brexit process was when the government published the first Brexit White Paper in February 2017. For it contained the remarkable sentence: “Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that.” (para 2.1).

Interestingly, the hollowness of the sovereignty argument was again unwittingly revealed by Rees-Mogg just this week, when he was questioned by Lewis Goodall of the News Agents. He was asked about the PopCons’ ‘anti-institutional’ agenda for changing the structures and systems of government, and why, if this was so necessary, the Conservative government in which he had served had not done so. Rees-Mogg replied, “we had no ability to change the system until we left the European Union”, but went on to say that “they [structures and systems of government] were changed very effectively by Tony Blair”. To spell out the obvious: when Blair was Prime Minister, Britain was in the EU.

Flawed ideas of electoral democracy

It is here that the Brexiters very last line of defence comes in, emphasizing not just sovereignty but democratic sovereignty. It echoes the line that Tony Benn took to justify opposition to EEC membership in the 1970s in saying that ‘at least, now, you can vote out the politicians who make the laws that govern you’ (although it’s notable that Benn didn’t share the Brexiters’ naïve view of sovereignty). It was wheeled out by Rees-Mogg (in his interview with Tyrone) as if it were a sort of dialectical checkmate. But it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

To the extent it works at all, it rests on the premise that Britain is more democratic than the EU. How democratic Britain is can be debated, given, amongst other things, its arcane uncodified constitution, non-proportional voting system, unelected upper house, and extensive executive power underpinned by Royal Prerogative. So, too, can the democracy of the EU be debated. Perhaps it should indeed be constituted as a Federal State, with a constitution and an elected government, a United States of Europe, but such ideas were anathema to Brexiters, as they are to Eurosceptics in many EU states. There’s much more to be said about both debates than I have space for here but, at best, it’s a shaky premise.

Beyond that, the idea that, unlike before Brexit, British electors can now exert control over the policies and laws that govern them is fallacious. First, as with sovereignty, it ignores all those internationally derived regulations which, necessarily, continue to apply despite Brexit. Something similar could be said of the way that - as Liz Truss found, just as Harold Wilson did in the 1960s and James Callaghan in the 1970s - with or without Brexit ‘the markets’ put as much constraint on UK economic policy as, say, the EU did on that of Greece, and for much the same reasons. More generally, it massively overestimates the impact that EU membership had on Britain. We know, because of the extent of Retained EU Law (or what is now called Assimilated Law), that plenty of rules came from the EU, but these turn out to be rather dull and uncontentious things that few people care about or want to see scrapped. They aren’t the stuff of political controversy.

By contrast, the most controversial political issues of recent decades, from privatization and trade union restrictions in the 1980s and 1990s, to Iraq in the 2000s, to perennial battles over the extent of public spending, had little or nothing to do with EU membership (other, of course, than that of EU membership itself). Likewise, the big political issues of post-Brexit Britain remain similar to the big political issues of pre-Brexit Britain. So inflation, unemployment, tax rates, interest rates, the NHS, crime, education, defence, housing, immigration, and so on were and are what people vote about. But Brexit makes little difference to the policy options offered by political parties in these areas, and even if it may expand some options (certain taxes, perhaps) it reduces just as many (security data-sharing, say).

That’s even true for immigration policy because, although the UK has ended freedom of movement, the question of its overall total level was always subject to domestic choices as the government controlled non-EU immigration. Moreover, when an EU member, it was the UK’s choice not to use the controls on freedom of movement available to it, just as in 2004 it chose not to restrict free movement from newly acceded member states in Eastern Europe. On the Rees-Mogg argument, British voters could have changed both those things, so either they didn’t care enough or the idea of voter control of policy is flawed. On the other hand, as regards irregular migration, post-Brexit Britain no longer has the benefit of the Dublin regulations, and British voters can do nothing at all about that, even if they want to.

This also begins to show how the argument that Brexit gives electors control frequently rests on an entirely unrealistic idea of how electoral democracy work. Very occasionally, a single big issue may be defining, swaying large numbers of voters, but it has to be a very big issue. Even then, it doesn’t necessarily determine election results, or even change government policy (recall the Iraq War). For the most part, voters choose on the basis of the overall package of a party’s policy offer, their perceptions of its leadership and values, and similar ‘broad-brush’ considerations. Likewise, the record of an incumbent government is typically judged in the round, over many years and in relation to many issues. So when, to use the Rees-Mogg/ Tyrone clip again, Rees-Mogg says “if you didn’t like a tariff introduced by the EU, you had no means of stopping it” it is irrelevant. Elections aren’t fought or won at that level of specificity.

To be fair, presumably Rees-Mogg didn’t literally mean a single tariff, but trade policy generally. However, as an EU member, the UK could have held parliamentary votes on the ratification of EU trade deals, as other member states, or even regions, do (recall the Walloon vote against CETA), but it waived that right. On the other hand, parliamentary oversight of the UK’s post-Brexit trade deals is limited and lacks a statutory basis. Perhaps, if voters really cared about it, they could pressurise politicians, or even vote in elections, to make this oversight more rigorous. But, by the same token, they could have done the same to force pre-Brexit governments to hold votes on EU trade deals, and, indeed, to vote those deals down if they did not want them. In fact, voters were not interested in making this an electoral issue any more than, until the referendum, voters saw EU membership as a contentious or important issue. The underlying point is that a parliamentary democracy doesn’t give voters overarching control of policy any more than sovereignty bestows unconstrained freedom of action.

Flawed ideas of parliamentary democracy 

However, it's also doubtful to whether leading Brexiters understand, or are even committed to, parliamentary democracy at all. It was, after all, Johnson and Rees-Mogg who instigated the Prorogation of parliament in 2019. And just this week David Frost (£), recalling that period, wrote that “the problem there was Parliament deciding to act independently on Brexit, as if it were itself the government”, a reference, apparently, to the Benn Act, and perhaps to the Indicative Votes process.

So, apart from the irony of a placeman lawmaker, especially one of a distinction either nugatory or inordinately well-disguised, lecturing about democracy, it seems that Frost doesn’t understand the most basic fact of parliamentary democracy, which is that the government governs to the extent that it commands a majority. But it’s not actually a lack of understanding, it’s one of the dirty secrets at the heart of Brexit that, even as the Brexiters spout about democracy, what they have done is to substantially increase the power of the Executive at the expense of parliament, most obviously in the growth in the use of Statutory Instruments and ‘Henry VIII powers’.

There must also be more than a suspicion that when Brexiters rail against ‘unelected’ judges and civil servants they don’t grasp that whilst elections are central to democracy and its institutions they cannot and should not completely define them. Or, again, they do actually grasp this, and hate it, partly because of the constraints it places on the Executive and partly because what defines Brexiters, and populists generally, is not a commitment to parliamentary democracy but to a mythologised idea of ‘the will of the people’, mystically distilled and enacted by their leaders. 

For a brief period, the referendum result empowered them to use that slogan as a battle cry to bully and scarify their opponents. Now, with Brexit, in any form, so self-evidently unwanted by the majority of the people, and, in its actual form, so unloved by the minority who still want it, they are forced to ever-more contorted and untenable justifications.

Moving forward

At issue in all this is not a re-litigation of Brexit itself. Brexit has happened, so the real point is to set out and challenge at least some of the extraordinary array of arguments, some contradictory, some illogical, some dishonest, some just wrong, which Brexiters are still deploying.

With some exceptions, they have had to just about accept that Brexit has had many costs and no benefits, but they still seek to excuse that and still fall back on the more intangible claim to have restored sovereignty and democracy. But that too is flawed, not least because, apart from everything else I’ve written in this post, the very fact that Britain could and did vote to leave the EU shows that doing so was unnecessary on those grounds. Stripped of that final conceit, the Brexiters have nothing to protect them from the hard facts of their abject failure.

Exposing the many ways they try to conceal or deny that failure matters, not because of the past but because of the future. Having wreaked so much damage on our country, the Brexiters now want to do it one final disservice by preventing an honest appraisal of what they did, thus preventing us from finding any real solution to it.

Friday 2 February 2024

Brexit: a mug's eyeful

When I was a teenager, after much saving up from my ‘Saturday job’ money, I bought my first ever stereo device, a portable radio cassette player (younger readers may need to consult a dictionary). Not only did it have – gulp! – two speakers, but a whole array of controls, lights, and little graphs printed on it, as if precisely measuring all sorts of important sound variables.

It was my pride and joy until I showed it to my brother-in-law, a marketing manager, who took one look at it, laughed, and said “that’s what we call a mug’s eyeful”. I had never heard the expression, but he explained it meant something which was made to look impressive with all sorts of superficial features but, not only did they have no real function, they disguised the underlying shoddiness of the product itself. And, indeed, he was right. The only control that served any purpose was the volume knob, and that soon broke, although not as soon as the cassette player began to mangle tapes, the aerial snapped, and the carrying handle fell off.

To anyone with any understanding of what it meant, it was obvious from the outset that Brexit was a mug’s eyeful. All the things which it was promised would follow from ‘taking back control’ were as illusory as the supposedly sophisticated controls on my pitiful boombox. Meanwhile, all the technical-sounding explanations, from the UK’s trade deficit guaranteeing a great deal to semi-digested factoids about, for example, GATT Article XXIV, that were littered throughout the Brexit prospectus were as meaningless and misleading as the pathetic fake graphs on its stupid plastic case.

Damaged goods

It is now four years since the UK actually left the EU, and, despite the government producing a predictably misleading though highly glossy anniversary brochure extolling ‘Britain’s Brexit success’, it is obvious to all but the most dull-witted or obtuse of Brexiters that it has been a failure. Nigel Farage said as much months ago. And just this week, Ben Habib – the creepy Brexit Party ex-MEP now standing for Reform in the by-election caused by creepy Brexiter Tory Peter Bone’s scandal-ridden demisetweeted that those who voted for Brexit had “got nothing”. But of course, since they were the ones who sold this mug’s eyeful to a gullible public, they ascribe that failure to it not having been done properly. Thus Daniel Hannan, rather than apologise for his magniloquent visions of a post-Brexit utopia, discussed in last week’s post, can now only offer a threnody (£) for what might have been, but for “the Blob”, illustrated by a peculiar, and somewhat inaccurate, discussion of tariffs on Moroccan tomatoes.

And where once Brexiters petitioned for January 31 to be celebrated annually as ‘National Independence Day’, the best Roger Bootle, a one-time member of the ‘Economists for Brexit’ group, could come up with (£) was that it has not “brought the disaster that some other economists envisaged”. Underwhelming as that claim is, it was only achieved by the now-standard tricks of referring to parts of one of the pre-Brexit Treasury forecasts, whilst also dismissing as “elaborate guesswork” the various post-Brexit estimates of its costs.

Perhaps the nearest thing to an admission of their folly came in an article on the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) website, suggesting that “in retrospect, the libertarian argument supporting Brexit appears to have been fundamentally flawed in its understanding of the European Union’s nature and functions”. It’s the closest I’ve seen to a recognition that it’s not just that Brexit hasn’t led to the UK becoming ‘Singapore-on-Thames’, but that it was never likely to – something rarely acknowledged by either the libertarian Brexiters who wanted that outcome or, for that matter, by those anti-Brexiters who feared it was ‘the real agenda’ behind Brexit. It is also an interesting piece in revealing what to others is obvious, given their anti-state ideology, which is that libertarians never had any interest in the UK state ‘regaining sovereignty’, even though many of them opportunistically parroted that line.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, evidence of the damage of Brexit mounts up at an alarming, and possibly accelerating, rate. Recent examples are chronicled by Anthony Robinson for Yorkshire Bylines and Edwin Hayward in the New European, and I won’t try to cover them all here. But it is fitting that, around the time of this anniversary, the three biggest of them relate to very central parts of Brexit.

Trade in British and Canadian goods

The first is the stalling of the UK-Canada trade talks. This is important both in itself and for wider, partly symbolic, reasons. One of the things which I, and many other commentators, got wrong in the early days of the Brexit process was to think that it would prove very difficult, and perhaps impossible, for the UK to ‘roll over’ the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) made between the EU and various third countries, and especially do so on the same terms, and by the end of the transition period. In fact, this was largely achieved, usually maintaining similar terms and occasionally, as in the case of Japan, slightly improving them (although to little, if any, practical benefit according to the UK Trade Policy Observatory).

As regards Canada, a continuity agreement was reached in November 2020, but certain parts of it contained temporary provisions, the permanence of which formed part of negotiations for a new trade agreement to replace the continuity agreement, and it is these negotiations which have now broken down. This does not put an end to the continuity agreement in its entirety, although it was originally intended only to be an interim agreement, but it does mean that those parts which were temporary will lapse or have done so. The most high-profile example of the temporary provisions related to the quota for tariff-free exports of British cheese to Canada, which expired at the end of 2023, and to rules of origin for tariff application in the automotive sector, as well as, in rather more complicated ways, trade in beef and pork.

Along the lines that I suggested in my previous post, it is necessary to be careful not to treat this simply as a Brexit bad news story. After all, the main criticism of the new trade deals the UK has done with Australia and New Zealand was that, in its desire to demonstrate its ‘post-Brexit freedom’ the government had simply accepted any terms they were offered, regardless of their effects on, especially, British farmers. So this breakdown of talks with Canada, which was initiated by the UK, can be read as a sign of a less dogma-driven approach and, certainly, has been welcomed as the “right decision” by the National Farmers Union mainly because the alternative would have been to lower UK food standards, especially as regards hormones in beef, in exchange for tariff-free access for cheese.

Nevertheless, as the British Chambers of Commerce emphasised, it is a blow for British cheese exporters and also for car-makers, and a blow which is, specifically, a cost of Brexit since it was the continuity agreement which made temporary what, under the EU-Canada agreement, would have been permanent had Britain stayed in the EU. This may only be a small blow to the Brexiter claim that they would be able to rollover trade deals, but it is a much bigger blow to their proposition that, outside the EU, the UK could negotiate deals which fitted its specific interests rather than for those interests to be subordinated to, and diluted by, those of the EU and its members.

This matters, because the central plank of the Brexiters’ trade case is the freedom to have an independent trade policy, and it’s pretty much the only argument they have for not being in a customs union with the EU. The benefits of that freedom are never remotely going to outweigh the costs of leaving the EU single market – and it is a mystery why so many ‘free-trader’ Brexiters, like Bootle, continue to insist that those costs are very low, whilst also insisting that the benefits of trade deals could be high – but it’s not even clear that they outweigh the costs of having left the customs union.

It also matters in particular ways because the country in question is, specifically, Canada. On the one hand, that is significant symbolically given the idea held by ‘Ladybird Brexiters’ like Hannan, that Commonwealth countries and, especially, the ‘Dominions’, would fall over themselves to ‘renew old friendships’. That, and the associated ‘CANZUK’ fantasy, was based on a mixture of imperial nostalgia, ignorance about the modern nature of those countries, and quite breath-taking naivety about the tough realities of trade negotiations. On the other hand, it is significant practically, at least potentially, because Canada is a member of CPTPP and has yet to ratify Britain’s membership, something the Brexiters have made the centrepiece of their claims for the benefits of Brexit. As things stand, the Canadian government has said that this latest development will not affect CPTPP accession, but it is quite possible that it will revive opposition from Canadian farming lobbies to ratification.

Import controls on EU goods

The second big story is the next stage of the introduction of import controls on certain goods coming from the EU. It isn’t quite accurate to say, as some media reports do, that it is the beginning of such controls, because controls on some high-risk imports did start when the transition period ended. However, these latest controls on medium-risk goods, mainly cut flowers, fish, meat and dairy products, have been much delayed.

I discussed last week, as I have done in the past, what the likely consequences of their introduction will be, but one thing left hanging was what last week’s announcement about fruit and vegetables meant. My understanding now is that it moved most such produce into the medium-risk category, thus including it in the new paperwork requirements that started this week and the new inspection regime which will come into force at the end of April, but temporarily kept it as low-risk until the end of October, at which point fruit and vegetables, too, will require paperwork and be liable for inspection.

All of this will necessarily add to the costs of trade, and comes against a background in which already, according to a survey reported in the Financial Times this week (£), three-quarters of British firms who trade with the EU say that their sales and profitability have declined as a result of Brexit. The new controls will add to this burden, and, for consumers, adversely impact prices and choice, and probably shelf-life.

I also discussed last week why it is that import controls are necessary, despite some Brexiters still being unable to grasp this and, right on cue, up popped Jacob Rees-Mogg to squeak that introducing them is “totally stupid”, and that he had opposed doing so when Brexit Opportunities Minister (a post, be it noted, that no longer exists, and small wonder since it was the definition of a sinecure). That ignorance or dishonesty goes to the heart of why Britain was not ready to introduce the controls on time, for, astonishingly, it was not officially admitted by any government minister  –  Michael Gove – that they were inevitable until February 2020, after Britain had actually left the EU.

That in turn points to a deeper dishonesty. Anyone who understood the issue knew this from the moment that Theresa May explicitly confirmed that Brexit meant hard Brexit, in January 2017, and the government itself began to prepare for it from at least 2018. The reticence about telling the public was surely because, whilst there was even the thinnest chance of Brexit being abandoned, the government didn’t want to be open about what it meant.

Great Britain and Northern Ireland Internal Market goods

And finally, Northern Ireland, the hardy perennial of Brexit mess and dishonesty. That the Northern Ireland Assembly will resume sitting because the DUP have done a deal with the government is unalloyed good news. What that deal consists of and how it will play out in both practical and political terms is much less easy to assess, and no doubt I will write more about it in the future. Its detail was released by the government as a Command Paper entitled 'Safeguarding the Union' on Wednesday, parts of which need to be read in conjunction with a draft decision of the Joint Committee overseeing the Withdrawal Agreement (JCWA), released rather more quietly the evening before.

These documents are quite long and, in places, highly technical but my initial understanding* is that the changes are substantive in offering easements to border processes, especially on movements from Great Britain (GB) to Northern Ireland (NI). In very brief, the most important of these is to designate most goods (though not including most of those designated for further processing in Northern Ireland) moving between GB and NI as ‘low risk’, therefore exempting them from customs paperwork and removing routine checks if they come from companies signed up to the ‘Trusted Trader’ register and if they are destined never to leave NI.

Such goods will now be able to use the ‘green lane’ which, symbolically, but in a context where symbols greatly matter, is going to be renamed the UK Internal Market line. There is also some relaxation of processes and checks relating to products, including agrifood products, imported from the rest of the world so long as they are not at risk of entering the EU, and this also means that Northern Ireland will have the benefits (such as they are) of the UK’s independent trade policy.

However, the fundamental architecture of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework remains unchanged. This is important, since it explains why there is very little indication, at least so far, that the EU (or, especially important, Ireland) are or will be unhappy with what has been agreed, though there was just a hint yesterday that that could change. Indeed, much of the Command Paper seems to be a restatement of the ways in which the Windsor Framework acts to make the Protocol more workable with, in some cases, proposals to ‘enshrine’ these in UK law by amending various pieces of legislation including the EU (Withdrawal) Act and the Internal Market Act.

Even so, aspects of the changes mentioned in the Command Paper and fleshed out by the JCWA document do amount to legal changes in the Windsor Framework, at least according to Sir Jonathan Jones (the former head of the Government Legal Service who resigned over the potentially illegal clauses of the Internal Market Bill) who surely speaks with authority. Actually, that in itself is an indication that what is under way is occurring within the Windsor Framework and in conjunction with the EU, and the Command Paper is explicit that some of its proposals will need further JCWA agreement. In other words, we do not seem to be back to the days of the Internal Market Bill, or for that matter the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, where there had been proposals for the UK unilaterally to change the terms of what had been agreed with the EU.

At the same time, that de facto legal changes have been made to the Windsor Framework could be regarded as a victory for the DUP, who say it confounds critics who had said this was impossible, but such changes do not affect the fundamental fact of there still being an Irish Sea border, claims by DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson notwithstanding. Nor do they change the fact of Northern Ireland still being in the EU single market for goods. This means that there continues to be some opposition to the deal from within the DUP, and even more from other unionist parties, most notably Traditional Unionist Voice. Perhaps all these changes amount to is a ladder for the DUP to climb down, knowing full well how limited they are. Or perhaps the DUP have been gulled into believing them to be more significant than they are. Nor are these two possibilities mutually exclusive, since it may suit the DUP to accept them now but, in the future, to declare that they were deceived. In this and others senses, the long-run impact on Northern Irish politics remains unclear.

Regulation of goods

There is also a UK political dimension, since these changes entail the use of Statutory Instruments and some legislation, the crucial pieces of which were passed yesterday. This haste was presumably in order to get a swift resumption of the NI Assembly, but that may, as has happened before in the Brexit process, lead to very technical things having been agreed without anyone quite knowing what they mean in practice. There is a particular question, which is already exercising Brexiters (£), about whether the implication of it all may be to make future UK divergence from EU rules harder. This is because part of the deal means that parliament will have to be told if any future UK legislation has “significant adverse implications for Northern Ireland's place in the UK internal market”, as regulatory divergence related to goods surely would.

The government has denied that this prevents future divergence, and to the letter of the law I suppose that is true, since such legislation could still be passed regardless of what it means for Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market. But were that to happen, it would (or could) immediately re-open the issue of what checks are needed for the Sea border. Equally, it’s clear that the DUP believe the deal ensures that there will be no dynamic alignment of EU law and Northern Ireland law, yet it is hard to see how that can be true (as regards goods) under the basic terms of the Protocol, so again it suggests that what it will mean in practice is the UK as a whole staying aligned with such law so that unionists can depict the situation as simply one of Northern Ireland being the same as the rest of the UK whilst, effectively, still following EU law.

To add to the confusion, what I have not seen discussed anywhere yet is what all this means for any passive divergence from EU regulations. That, by definition, would happen without UK legislation being passed, yet it, too, could have implications for the need for border checks. Might we end up with de facto ‘dynamic alignment’, at least for goods, through the back door and, if so, why not gain the greater advantages of doing so by de jure dynamic alignment? Might we even end up with something not so far from the ‘common rule book’ for goods and agrifood envisaged by Theresa May’s ill-fated Chequers Proposal?

In all of this, it bears saying that, apart from those technical changes to the Windsor Framework being agreed with the EU through the JCWA, the legal changes envisaged are solely changes to UK law. Some of these, as noted above, simply make explicit what is already in the Windsor Framework. This is utterly pointless, since the UK is already bound to these by its agreement with the EU.

Pointless in a different way (in that neither is an existing treaty obligation) are the commitments to legislate for the government’s existing policy of making ‘Not For Sale in the EU’ labelling mandatory across the UK, and to ‘enshrine’ in an Act of Parliament that no government will be permitted to agree a new Protocol with an adverse effect on Northern Ireland’s position in the UK Internal Market. But such legislation is effectively meaningless, given that no parliament can bind its successor. So, as with much – but not quite all – of this ‘Safeguarding the Union’ deal announcement, there is a great deal of fluff and rather less to it than meets the eye.

If that gets the Assembly up-and-running again, then all to the good. But there is much in it which remains unclear, practically and politically. Four years since leaving the EU, and over seven years since deciding to do so, the question of what Brexit means for Northern Ireland can still not be said to have a settled answer.

Utterly defective goods

It’s said you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time. Brexit never fooled all of the people, and a poll this week found that only 13% of people think that Brexit has been more of a success than a failure. Even so, other polling shows that 33% still think Brexit was the right thing to do, the discrepancy presumably being explained by yet another recent poll showing that 26% think it was the right thing to do but that the government has handled it badly.

Given that a hardcore will no doubt always support Brexit, it’s that latter group, along with the many ‘don’t knows’ in all of these surveys, who are probably the key to where public opinion eventually settles. If and when these groups swing to the view that Brexit has not only failed but was never going to succeed the demand for a refund will grow, as will the demand for those who sold the public this mug’s eyeful to be held to account.


*For more detailed and, no doubt, better-informed analysis (though I don’t think it is incompatible with mine), see Professor Colin Murray’s post on the EU Law Analysis Blog.

Update (02/02/2024 at 10.40): One aspect of the Command Paper/ JCWA changes I was aware of, but didn’t discuss as I didn’t understand it, relates to Tariff-Rate Quotas (TRQs). This has since been explained by trade expert Sam Lowe in his latest Most Favoured Nation Substack. Interestingly, this somewhat contradicts what I said (and it was not my invention, it is what the NI Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said in the House of Commons) said about how the deal would enable NI to benefit from the UK’s independent trade policy. At least as regards TRQs, this seems not be true (see Lowe’s comments about the UK-Australia trade deal). Perhaps this is an example of what I warned of about how all this is being passed very quickly with MPs and others possibly not understanding all of the implications?

Update (02/02/24 at 15.15): An update my previous update! Sam Lowe has now amended his Substack post to explain that NI will be able to use the new TRQs in FTAs such as UK-Australia. A reminder of just how complex some of this stuff is, even to the experts!