Tuesday, 20 November 2018

Brexit's missed opportunity

I have long suspected May would have to cave in to the EU and breach at least one of her red lines in order to secure a deal. I previously took the view that the smart thing to do would be to accept the backstop but have a plan in mind to make damn sure it never gets activated. The problem, though, that having ruled our Efta, any future package is going to have to replicate the effects of the backstop in full to avoid its activation.

What it looks like to me is that the backstop makes so many stipulations to quite deliberately put us in the position where the the backstop must be activated and when that happens it will be permanent.

That then leaves us with a deal that leaves us tied to a whole raft of EU governance with direct ECJ applicability but with none of the present trade advantages of the single market. This allows the EU to keep the UK on a tight leash, preventing us from diverging in any meaningful way or exercising national sovereignty while also being able to cannibalise UK market share in everything from financial services to manufacturing. It's an ambush.

Faced with the obliteration of no deal, with May now probably having an inclination as to how bad it would be, she has likely arrived at the view that she has no choice. In broader philosophical terms no Prime Minister of any country would willingly sign up to such an ambush but it;s either that or go down in history as the PM who smashed the British economy. As it happens, the effect is much the same only May is opting for slow bleed rather than sudden death.

This is where the ERG Brexiters have failed badly. They could give May a get out of jail free card if they have a viable alternative. But they don't. They are instead clinging on to a number of entirely bogus notions - none of which stand against the barrage of scrutiny. They are a busted flush.

They could, if they wanted to, pivot to Efta EEA and that would make it easier for Theresa May to pivot to it, but they won't do that because they are in thrall to a number of obsolete ideas about deregulation and still wedded to the empty rhetoric of "Global Britain". Mrs May, therefore, has to choose between two equally unappealing destinations.

As to whether the deal makes it through parliament is anyone's guess. I rather suspect it will. Parliament is remain inclined and though they hate the deal there are enough of them sufficiently anti-no deal to reluctantly sign off on it. Meanwhile, among the remain commentariat, Efta will take a temporary leave of absence from this reality because it suits them to pretend there is no alternative which strengthens their case for remaining. Or so they think.

Whether or not signing the deal kills off the Efta option in terms of the future relationship I do not know. It certainly complicates matters. It would have been easier had we set upon that path to begin with. But then who am I kidding?

Efta EEA is eminently sensible in that, though it binds us to a degree of EU regulation, it does (unlike May's deal) safeguard jobs and trade. It is far from the glorious return of sovereignty but it is a starter for ten. and there is at least a firewall between us and the ECJ. Still though the Brexit blob trot out the same old complaints still oblivious to the fact that any future agreement will involve some level of regulatory subordination and if we are not in Efta then the ECJ will call the shots and we will adopt the rules verbatim.

In ordinary circumstances Efta would be a no-brainer and the logic of it when measured against the alternatives wins hands down. There are two problems though. Remainers, leavers and the EA are all determined to skirt around the fact that there are controls on freedom of movement in the EEA. everyone is determined to believe that substantial reform of it is not possible.

There are two routes to ending freedom of movement in the EEA. We can either follow the Liechtenstein precedent (Article 112) or we can work with the other Efta members to work up a new proposal. Efta with the addition of the UK is a power in its own right, giving us more leverage than we would have standing alone.

Nobody, though, is thinking long term or in terms and still determined to view Brexit as an event rather than a process. Everybody seems to think it can all be wrapped up and finalised in a few years when the the truth of the matter is that any relationship with the EU will be an evolving continuum.

The second major problem is that even though the weight of argument points to Efta, the grassroots leavers have bought the ERG propaganda wholesale, believing that technological unicorns solve the Irish problem and that no deal is some form of mythical "world trade deal" and our ticket to economic renaissance. Nothing is going to persuade them otherwise. Not the EU notices to stakeholders, not expert testimony, and certainly nothing produce by the UK civil service. All trust in media is gone too.

But then the remainers are every bit as intransigent and two dimensional. There has evolved a claque of remain inclined Brexitologists who have made a massive meal of the Northern Ireland issue, turning it into a cottage industry and even the brighter ones are still massively overstating the significance of the custom union. Between the EEA and the Union Customs Code, enough of the bases are covered for Northern Ireland and anything outstanding can be dealt with in an NI specific protocol.

Central to this is a total lack of understanding of what the EEA is. They haven;t explored it and they don;t want to know how it works or how it can be developed. They simply reach of the cliches, assuming the EEA is the Norway model, failing to understand that no two EEA states have exactly the same configuration. This is why they continue to bleat "but Norway still has customs checks".

Worse still the EEA Efta option has been tarnished well ahead of the game. A mythology built up around it during the referendum and little can be done to overturn it, not least when the BBC "reality check" hacks continue to reinforce the myths. Even when faced with May's deal where we actually do accept the rules with no say and with direct ECJ effect, they will still say the same of the EEA. It didn't help that remainers immediately after the referendum reached for the option, not because they thought it was a good idea, but because they saw it as a way to put the genie back in the bottle. This makes leavers instantly suspicious.

So here we are, amidst a perfect storm or arrogance, ignorance and intransigence. In all likelihood, give or take a bit of drama, resistance to the deal will buckle. We may see a bit of manufactured shuttle diplomacy to give may a fabricated handbag moment, carefully orchestrated with the EU, and this will be beamed into televisions up and down the land and the public will believe it just as they believed David Cameron used the veto.

I take the view that if May signs the deal then we will move on to the next depressing inevitability as May (or whoever replaces her) goes down the path of an FTA, further walking into the ambush and solidifying the grip of the so-called backstop. There could be the opportunity to pivot to Efta, but I see the same boneheaded obstinacy even when we reach the moment of truth. It is therefore in our best interests to walk away, whereby the consequences of no deal will dissolve the resistance to Efta, not least because the ERG Tories will stand discredited and disgraced. We can only progress when those pieces are off the board.

Sadly we won't walk away. I know this because anything I think could, should or will happen generally doesn't. There is enough of a track record of Westminster/media incompetence to expect the worst and if they can find a way to make things worse than they need to be, they will. Short of a miracle we are destined to become a vassal state colony of the EU for as long as it exists or until the establishment in the UK is dislodged.

The opportunity missed here is that the UK could have slotted into the Efta community and resumed cordial relations with the EU while being free to seek trade opportunities elsewhere, taking up a leadership role in Efta and a number of other forums. We'd have secured a viable all round compromise that allows us to settle the question and move on from the European question. Instead we will likely enter a new, more toxic phase where nobody is satisfied and nothing is resolved.

This is why it was necessary to have a Brexit plan and face up the the uncomfortable realities of trade in the modern age. This is something Rees-Mogg and his merry band of miscreants refused to do from the get go, preferring instead to weave a mendacious fiction that has led us all up a blind alley. They will seek to deflect the blame on to the EU and Theresa May, but it is their intransigence and dishonesty that has engineered this series of events and in the end May will do the only thing she could do. The fault is theirs and theirs alone.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Whatever it takes, Britain will be free

Should Theresa May sign the deal on offer, Britain will be a colony of the EU. When that happens there will really only be one man to blame. Nigel Farage.

Ukip wasn't always centred on immigration. There was even a time it didn't want to talk about immigration at all. I think was in 2005 or thereabouts, I was at the Ukip conference in Scarborough. Nobody on the platform really mentioned immigration until they took questions from the floor.

Eventually somebody asked the inevitable question and there was audible clucking from the floor. The membership were acutely aware that the media were present and did not want to do anything that would tarnish Ukip as a racist party. I don't recall what was said but Farage wasn't comfortable giving a reply. He skirted around it. It wasn't until the BNP started hoovering up votes in the North that Ukip pivoted to immigration just to sweep up the votes at the euro-elections. It worked. But it wasn't a good idea. 

One can easily argue it was the move that landed Ukip as a feature of mainstream politics. Arguably the only way to grab media attention was to become the bogeyman. But in so doing Farage sacrificed sustained growth of an anti-EU movement to rapidly bloat it as an anti-immigration populist party - almost to the point where leaving the EU was a peripheral policy. Fast forward to today and we now find there are two miserable consequences of this.

It is only in the last three years that the so-called Norway option has been out of favour with eurosceptics. Rejoining Efta was always a eurosceptic talking point and Norway was always held aloft as an example of how it could be done. Being though that Farage had wedded the cause to immigration control, those arguing for it are a growing, but outspoken minority.

Having taken the one viable avenue off the table, we are now faced with the grim reality that any comprehensive agreement with the EU will leave the ECJ as the supreme authority over trade and regulatory affairs. Here Theresa May has done the electoral calculus and believes that she can fudge Brexit just so long as freedom of movement comes to an end. She might very well get away with it too. 

Here the Brexiters can wail all they like but the government will press ahead with it, most likely with the backing of the establishment, largely because the Brexit camp have no workable alternatives. Having ruled out the EEA option the cupboard is bare and they are left to hold a crumbling line in pushing for no deal. 

This again is the fault of Farage. By rights, with Vote Leave having been an artificial establishment construct with no grassroots support, the designation for lead campaign should have gone to Ukip. Ukip should have been ready to drop everything and pivot into a nationwide campaigning machine. That didn't happen.  

It didn't happen because Ukip simply lacked the expertise, the talent and organisational ability required to pull it off. The 2016 Ukip was a talentless rabble largely a consequence of Farage having surrounded himself with acolytes and yes men. This allowed the radical wing of the Tories to swoop in and hijack the campaign to push for their hard economic right revolution. That Ukip have simply gone along with it speaks to the lack of strategic acumen. Little do they realise that their movement was stolen from them.

Though the original sin was that of Farage, the movement as a whole is guilt of failing to plan. Having won the referendum, leavers should be calling the shots but since they didn't have a plan and cannot muster a single issue literate spokesman, they are left to stamp their feet in impotent rage as their accomplishment is stolen from them. All the while, their tactical mistakes could very well lose us the prize. 

Having persuaded themselves that only no deal honours the referendum, the Brexiters now push for an option so extreme that remainers who ordinarily would have reluctantly gone along with Brexit are now more vocal and motivated than ever. Though they recognise May's deal for the monster that it is, they will back it if push comes to shove. 

It is difficult to say which way this goes now. The deal on the table does not enjoy much in the way of parliamentary support, but it could still squeak through with some skilful parliamentary manoeuvring. The establishment can convince itself that the 2016 vote has worn out and so long as they throw us the bone of limits on freedom of movement they can go back to business as usual. 

We then know exactly rhetoric they will deploy. Matthew Parris has probably already written it: "Brexiters complain that their Brexit wasn't delivered - but there was no Brexit that could deliver on their promises of unicorns". That then closes the book on the issue and they will ensure leavers take the blame for our predicament. We are then back to square one. 

In fact, the establishment will grow to like the vassal state deal more than membership in that it doesn't mess with the status quo, but it neuters leavers very nicely in that they can simply say we have left the EU and this is as good as it gets. I suppose our crucial error was pushing for a referendum at all. One largely suspects that the establishment would always collude with the EU to keep us on a tight leash. If voting made a difference they wouldn't let us do it.

One could actually get quite depressed about this but then I remind myself that one way or another Britain will be free of the EU. They can fudge Brexit but we will simply chalk it up as yet another betrayal in a long line of establishment stitch-ups over Europe. They may be able to bury it for a while but they can't kill it, and the referendum has certainly been an excellent recruiting agent for the cause. This is essentially a battle of wills between democrats and the establishment. There is no doubt about it. We will win eventually.

Over the course of the Brexit saga I must have had a thousand conversations about the EU. Most of them repetitive and dull as dishwater. Remainers tell me that what's wrong in this country is not the fault of the EU. To a point they are right. The EU is not the cause of our problem, rather it us a symptom of it.

We have a democracy-phobic establishment caught up in its own sense of infallibility and moral fortitude. It is dazzled by the bright shining lights of the EU believing it to be the alpha and omega of internationalism and liberalism. It suits their vanity. They never hesitate to hand over powers because the ends justify the means. The EU will adopt every passing humanitarian fad and our politicians fall for it every time. It is pure, unadulterated narcissism.

At the heart of this is a paternalistic establishment which believes in the supremacy of technocracy over democracy. The most they can understand is GDP as the sole measure of wealth and wellbeing. Everything else comes a distant second. They are not going to let people like us make our own choices. 

This shows in the way they have responded to Brexit. Brexit to them is just a massive inconvenience - a disruption to the schedules programme. Their politics isn't about ideas. It's just about taking office and having their go at telling people what to do and imposing their values on us. They take us for fools which is why they think they can fudge Brexit. 

They have, however, made a fatal miscalculation. We see right through it. Moreover, they have run out of political authority and they are simply not equipped to produce solutions for a number of ever more acute problems. The centre cannot hold.

Were you to tune into a James O'Brien radio show (the new Lord Haw-Haw) you'll here him disingenuously asking "What is it we want to be free from? clean beaches and workers rights and freedom to live and work anywhere in Europe?". Or words to that effect. But the urge to be free is the urge to free ourselves from our establishment - to decide for ourselves who and what comes into the country and on what terms. Presently we are held hostage not by Brussels, but by our own establishment.

In any debate with a europhile you can point out that the EU is not a democracy. They then point out that the UK has its own democratic deficiencies as though that somehow excused it. But no Brexiter is going to argue that point. We know our system is not democratic and that is the problem. Not only will our politicians not do as instructed, they have put their powers away in the Brussels locker to ensure that they couldn't even if they wanted to. 

The struggle for democracy is a thousand year long story in Britain. The battle is never won but the trend is toward ever more democracy. For a time we have settled on this system of Westminster representative democracy, which as it happens is not democracy at all and is wholly obsolete. As much as it is obsolete it is also broken. It perpetuates the bubble effect whereby its values are alien to our own. If then we are to make major reforms to our democracy, so that the wishes of the people are heard, respected and implemented, then leaving the EU is a prerequisite.

Here the establishment will fight tooth and nail to prevent it. It wouldn't be much of an establishment if it didn't. Being that it won't honour the referendum result is all the proof you need that we are not a democracy. It further underscores the need to remove them not least because if we don't they will continue to give powers away. May's deal ultimately surrenders the last of our sovereignty and they will cave into it just so long as it keeps them in power. 

Our struggle for democracy is a long war. Brexit was D-Day. All we did, though, was establish a beachhead. We face a long and bloody battle to victory and the enemy won't go without a fight. They will use every weapon they have. Through the incompetence of the Brexit blob in London it looks like our D-Day is turning into our own Market Garden. We could very well lose this battle, but the war goes on.   

Friday, 16 November 2018

The Great Brexit Betrayal

A reader asks "Will there ever be the realisation that the Brexit job is being badly done because it was a bad idea to begin with?".

The answer is no because it isn't a bad idea. It's a very seriously good idea to resolve a political issue which has fragmented British politics for decades. It's a wholly positive thing to realise that the mistakes made by previous generations of politicians need correction. Britain has never been at ease with EU membership and we've only been able to stay in this long through a series of opt outs and fudges made by our politicians, largely as a nod to the fact they were doing this to us without consent.

Part of the reason it's being done badly is also the reason Brexit was necessary. The essential problem we have from both Labour and the Tories is that neither are prepared to embrace the principle of Brexit - which is primarily the repatriation of political authority over competences given to Brussels.

They have more or less grasped that we need a deal to mitigate the economic costs of doing so, but being so devoid of principles they are prepared to sacrifice sovereignty for GDP. Not at any point have they attempted to balance the dilemma.

This is what happens when the establishment is in thrall to bland managerialism believing that the function of the economy is to supply government with money. They don't understand Brexit because they do not understand that we would prioritise differently. That primarily is the cultural gulf between us and them. They say we should remain so that we can instead address other problems, failing to realise that they and their twisted priorities ARE the central problem.

It is their belief that their top down paternal centralist spending agenda must be safeguarded and democracy can be allowed just so long as it does not disturb their agenda and upset their priorities. They reel off a list of things we *could* be doing if we weren't busy with Brexit. Why sure we could, but we won't. And they expect us to trust them when they say they really really will fix things this time if only we give them another chance.

They want to remain because remaining is the easy thing to do. Brexit is a hassle, Brexit is a disruption, Brexit is boring, and most of all Brexit is far outside of their comfort zone. Normally all this complicated stuff about logistics and trade is taken care of by the little grey people while they bicker about welfare handouts. They are not used to thinking in strategic terms about the direction of the country and our place in the world.

Brexit has caught them totally off guard. They don't like or understand Brexit. they reach for simplistic answers; it was the Russians, it was the bus, the people are thick, the people just don't like foreigners. They tell themselves all sorts of things - that's it's really just NHS waiting times or austerity so we'll see an array of spending gestures and sticking plasters thinking that will be enough of a decoy to allow them to fudge Brexit. 

This is ultimately their style of government. There's no big ideas about how to bring down energy prices. The structure of the energy market is largely dictated by Brussels. The system of targets and quotas largely dictate they type of generation and the details are all worked out by the civil service. It a lot of ways we have replicated the EU system, of government where after the instructions from Brussels have landed, civil servants and private consultants work up a proposal and then it is put to the house for rubber stamping. 

Our politics is no longer in the business of researching and innovating in policy. It waits to be told what to do and the job of politics is merely to find ways to finance it. Politics then becomes a scrap over funding peppered with the odd hobby horse initiative to ban something. For all that remainers have wailed about us becoming a "rule taker" what exactly do they think parliament has been for the last forty years? 

That we have marginal technical input at the EU level and some power of veto is really neither here nor there. The fact is that our own politics is not setting the agenda or the priorities. You cannot, therefore, say that we have meaningful democracy.

You can always tell in any Brexit the ones who don't understand the EU. They speak of it as though it were a separate entity running in parallel to our own government rather than an intrinsic part of it. That's why they don't understand the extent of its influence thus do not admit it. This is the essential misapprehension that leads to remainers claiming we do not need to leave the EU in order to reshape the order of the UK and our institutions. They are oblivious to the invisible bars and the constraints on the exercise of vital powers.

The 2016 referendum was as much an opinion poll on the establishment as it was a vote on EU membership. The two issues, though, are not unconnected. There is a reason why our politics is a hollow sham. There is a reason it has lost much of its intellectual prowess and gravitas. There is a reason we have seen an atrophy of institutional skills. The real business of policy and governance is not done in Westminster. In part this is what has killed our politics. Lobbyists, NGOs and unions now focus their attention on Brussels rather than London. They have learned to cut out the middleman.

The cumulative effect of all this is that the levers of power in London are not attached to anything. Our votes are increasingly meaningless and our politics becomes ever less substantial. Politics then becomes a circuit between television studio and meeting room.

Here you only have to look at the committee system. I've watched a fair few of them over the course of Brexit. Ambitious wonks and academics use them for their own personal YouTube PR and politicians use them for grandstanding, but nothing they touch on ever translates into policy and their conclusions and recommendations don't feed into anything. It is a total waste of everyone's time. Throughout, the system is totally robbed of its vitality, inquisitiveness and urgency. 

The Brexit deal on offer does not honour Brexit. Theresa May has instead produced a piece of electoral calculus. She thinks so long as we retake fishing and end freedom of movement we won't make a fuss. The non-regression clauses mean she can say that rights are protected - thinking this will buy off some of the dissent on the Labour benches. 

Meanwhile, Labour enters the same bidding war, unable to say what they would do differently, unable to even explain how they would protect jobs. Labour want a permanent customs union (not even knowing what it does) because they've calculated that Labour voters are only interested in handouts and don't care a jot about trade. What we see is bluff and bravado but there's no thinking going on. Nobody is is asking whether the deal actually honours the fundamental sentiment of Brexit. 

Essentially both parties don't mind if we remain an occupied territory and will gladly compromise UK sovereignty territory just so long as they don't have to lift a finger. They care not for principle. They are bereft of imagination, ambition and integrity. They are only interested in whatever it takes to limp across the finish line at the next election. They are not remotely interested in delivering Brexit and they never were. 

Essentially they are anxious to get back to business as usual. They think that come Brexit day, the new agreement will slot into place, the trucks keep rolling and so long as that happens and they keep the worst of it out of the headlines they can go back to their usual routine of grandstanding and virtue signalling. The less brexity Brexit is, the happier they will be.

We have yet to see how this plays out. We do not know if the deal will make it through parliament. It does not enjoy much support so we can expect a full establishment media propaganda campaign and maybe a few shuttle trips to Brussels for some last minute theatre, fabricating a great victory, which the Tory establishment will praise - as ever they do, and parliament will fall into line. That's usually how they pull off a euro-scam.

They can try it. It might even work. For a time. If they do, though, they will have signed their own collective death warrant. Our relationship with the EU is one betrayal after another - and time and again they lie without shame. This time they will discover that there are limits to our patience. Our votes will go elsewhere.

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Throughout the course of the last two years I've had to put up with fellow leavers telling me that "soft Brexit is not Brexit". This is the view that any formal agreement with the EU encompassing the sort of enhanced regulatory cooperation required for the continued functioning of trade as we now enjoy it, is a betrayal of Brexit.

This certainly makes it difficult to take the likes of Steve Baker or Brendan O'Neill remotely seriously when they would say that an agreement of any kind is BRINO. These are people who have in no way applied themselves to the issues and refused to accept the reality that modern trade is complex and that all complex trade accords have ramifications for the exercise of sovereignty.

Were we to conduct all of our future trade relationships according to their narrow definitions then there would be no cooperation on standards and regulations of any kind and we would simply limit our trade to general purpose agreements on tariffs. We would not, therefore, enjoy any of the benefits of enhanced cooperation. We would be one of only a few nations to take such an isolationist approach.

This intransigent wailing, though, is what brings us to where we are today. We could have joined Efta with a view to retaining the EEA. But then according to the Spiked morons and the ERG etc, that's not leaving the EU. Yes, you read that right. Leaving a bloc and joining another one that isn't the EU is not Brexit!

Instead of engaging in the reality of modern trade they instead tell us that we can have either a simple FTA where the EU out of the kindness of its heart agrees to unilaterally relax its third country controls for the UK in defiance of all known WTO conventions, or better still, be can delete all formal trade relations with the EU and consequently the entirely world and everything will be fine.

It's one thing to say this but they then went one further to mount a massive propaganda campaign to convince the general public that no deal is a walk in the park and without grave economic consequence, and of course anybody who says different is just part of the establishment pushing a project fear agenda.

As fundamentally dishonest as that is, to then say that any deal is a betrayal is also a lie. As is the oft repeated assertion that 17.4m people voted for no deal at all. I certainly didn't vote with a view to terminating all formal relations with the EU. So being that Brexiters themselves are not playing an honest game, they can hardly expect the government to do so either.

So then having wailed and bitterly complained about the EEA Efta option, poor old Mrs May was left to reconcile the irreconcilable with whatever tools were left at her disposal, which in this case is a mish-mash of regulatory measures borrowed from the Swiss model along with a form of UK wide customs union not found anywhere else in the EU's external relations. Being that we have ruled out Efta as an independent system of arbitration the supreme arbiter was only ever going to be the ECJ.

By now, most who have applied themselves to the subject have worked out that when you do large volumes of trade with a regulatory superpower, there is an element of rule taking. That is necessary for the functioning of trade and naturally the EU would seek to preserve the integrity of its own regulatory and customs systems.

What matters, therefore, is not especially the type and scope of rules we adopt, rather it is the mode of adoption, the level of consultation, the level of veto and the means of arbitration. Without the EEA Efta system that was always going to be automatic adoption of rules verbatim with direct ECJ effect.

The Brexiteers can't have been ignorant to this. They've been told enough times. The fact that Mrs May's deal is a stinker plays entirely into their hands in that they never wanted a deal to begin with. It has now put even me in the position of preferring no deal at all to the one on offer. Bizarrely I am now urging the ERG to get a move on and oust May.

I do not, though, think this is something to celebrate. If this is to be the outcome of Brexit then it is a spectacular failure of Brexiters, the government and the EU from which nobody wins except for those seeking to to hoover up assets in the ensuing firesale. Leaving in this manner means that Brexit will take a massive toll on the British economy and diminish the UK's international standing. We'll have paid far more for Brexit than we ever needed to and when it happens, reality will very rapidly close in on the "free trade" delusions of the Tory right. It will be a high price for their education.

Of course, it is fair to say that the EU hasn't played this at all well either. They have been entirely rigid as much out of petulance (with a hint of vindictiveness) as concern for the EU frontier in Ireland. even remainers sympathetic to the EUs position are saying this is a dreadful deal.

Now though, the window for negotiation has closed. A detailed agreement had to be worked out, one side had to give in and it wasn't going to be the EU. May capitulated as indeed I expected she would. She doesn't have much choice in the matter. Though it is primarily the fault of the ERG that the deal looks the way it does, it must still be assessed on its own merits.

The purpose of a soft Brexit was to mitigate the economic harm while repatriating political authority and restoring sovereignty as far as is practical and necessary. Here there are a number of entirely legitimate concerns about something like the EEA which goes far beyond trade governance and the flanking policies therein are still highly undesirable. What matters though is the safeguards and ability to veto, which would be greater for the UK as a member of Efta.

Never once did I argue that the EEA was ideal, only that it was tolerable and in the first instance it deals with the primary objective of leaving the EU and its political institutions. We'd get most of what we want while also quelling the resistance from the remain camp. Having set about the hardest Brexit possible, the ERG have done nothing to reassure business while also hardening remain resolve to the point where the balance of opinion creeps in their favour. This is essentially what has allowed Mrs May and the EU to put remain back on the agenda. Another ERG tactical blunder.

Instead of the EEA though, we now have a Brexit deal nobody wants, a weakened mandate and the deal itself is not only not soft Brexit, it is barely Brexit at all. The Brexit deal on offer dilutes the departure while still cutting us out of the EU marketplace and hobbling our ability to trade independently. It's a hard Brexit on us but a soft Brexit for them. It is a monster and nobody sane could recommend it.

The purpose of making the sort of concessions that would be required by the EEA would be to safeguard trade and jobs. This deal does not do that and at the same time does not restore competences back to the UK. This is as vassal state as vassal state gets. We would be a colony of the EU. Though it disgusts me to say it, Boris Johnson is right. There is no question of accepting this deal. By every measure it is bad.

Being that we are where we are, the once pivotal details no longer matter. This has elevated to high politics. The UK cannot and must not dilute its territorial sovereignty. It must not bind its own trade policy. It must not allow our social and environmental rules to be dictated. It must not allow the jurisdiction of a foreign court and it must not allow the creation of a separate class of citizens rights withing our own territory. The deal has to be ruled out because it defies the very purpose of Brexit. The remaining options then are remaining, or leaving without a deal.

But then remaining really isn't an option. Any way you cut it, the 2016 referendum, fought for and won over twenty years, stands as a political artefact. The noise of propaganda cannot erase it. If we do not leave or if we sign a vassal state deal, it will leave a stain on our democracy and there will be bloody hell to pay. If we remain or sign this deal we'll be saying to the people of the United Kingdom, who have waited all this time to have a voice, that their votes weren't worth a damn and they will remain voiceless. In so doing we destroy all trust. THAT is more dangerous than no deal Brexit. Like it or not, we have to leave now.

Sorry EU, we're just not that into you.

A foul-natured piece by Fintan O'Toole appears today in the Guardian. A typically cliche ridden delve into the British psyche. To the self-loathing Guardianista this probably passes as insight but it's actually just a long sneer at the British.

It basically boils down to the wearisome stereotype that leavers are Colonel Blimp types mourning the loss of empire and yadda yadda yadda. You don't need me to elaborate because it's not remotely original and you've seen it time and time again. You can read it yourself if you're that bored. His theory is that "In the dark imagination of English reactionaries, Britain is always a defeated nation – and the EU is the imaginary invader". Tedious. 

I do not discount that Britain's psyche is very much influenced by its military accomplishments. We do take some small pride in our role in World War Two and yes we do see the Falklands War as part of that long tradition. We have a sense of destiny. We are a proud nation, we value independence and we will fight to defend British sovereign territory. I fail to see why that is a great sin but yes, it is precisely that sense of nationhood that influences our own attitudes to Europe and the EU.

O'Toole has it that we never got over winning the war while the rest of Europe has moved on. To a point that's true. We're fascinated by it. It's a national obsession. For me especially. Every summer I manage at least three airshows because Britain has a vibrant warbird preservation scene and we do love our Spitfires. If ever the government decided to cut the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight we would crucify the minister responsible. We would not stand for it.

I'm similarly obsessed with D-Day. Only recently I toured the beaches of Normandy. I have a collection Second World War model tanks on top of my fridge. The books I own that aren't obscure texts on the WTO and international development are mostly war books. I visit the Fleet Air Arm museum at least twice a year, and Bovington Tank Museum whenever I get the chance. 

Similarly I an super proud of my uncle who served in the Falklands in the same way I am awestruck by Normandy veterans. These people are bloody heroes to me and in each case they accomplished something. This is the stuff I was raised on. The war cast a long shadow, and still the countryside of Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire are speckled with airfields, each at one time home to fleets of four engine bombers. It's still part of our surroundings. 

The names Finningley, Leeming, Elvington, Pocklington, Waddington, Scampton are not just the names of sleepy English villages. These are the bases of of fighting men and their legendary fighting machines. Not only did they play their part in the fight against Hitler they were also at the front line in the Cold War. 

We have a dozen air museums around the country - home to Lightnings, Buccaneers, Tornados, Javelins, Meteors and Vulcans. Testaments to British aerospace prowess and our role in guarding against the red menace. Certainly the British have a lot more to be proud of than a wire-haired mick penning quasi-racist poison for the Guardian.

As to our perceptions of Europe, mainly the places we know are synonymous with British air raids or Allied military victories. The only place I can think of in France not famous for a bloody battle is a Formula 1 racetrack. So yes, our wars shape our perceptions and political attitudes. 

All of this feeds into the belief that Britain is the guardian of European liberty. We stood ready to fight the Russians if they ever invaded Europe. We were the unsinkable aircraft carrier off the shore of France. Is their a hint of self-delusion there? Oh yes! Of course there is. But it is sincere. All of this contributes to a sense that Britain's military, political and economic independence is a matter of existential importance for Europe.    

As O'Toole illustrates, though, to the French and Germans, the EU represents a reconciliation, and for Germany a change to rid itself of its moral stains. For Eastern Europe it is symbolic of arriving in the West, escaping the Soviet sphere. For them it has real meaning. Britain, not so much. Relevance cannot be manufactured.  

Says O'Toole "England had no deep imaginative commitment to the European project. As an idea, the EU had a distinctly weak grip on English allegiance. It was always understood by most people as a more or less grudging concession to reality, a matter for resigned acceptance rather than joyous embrace". I could not disagree. 

And that there, separated out from O'Toole's prejudice and tired cliche, is really the whole rationale for Brexit. We're not mourning the loss of empire, we're just not that into you. We don't see a valid rationale for the transfer of political authority, and though we may in 1975 have resigned ourselves to the reality that trade integration was necessary, we've never really been all that keen on the supranationalism.

For decades now, our own political establishment has sought to downplay that aspect of le grand project. We took "ever closer union" as a motto, a statement of friendship. The political entity, though, read it as a root command in its operating system. Forty years on and it is increasingly difficult to conceal. 

It is perhaps because we are forever reminded of our military accomplishments that we do fetishise sovereignty, independence and democracy. We may have invented our own post-hoc justifications for fighting World War Two as Peter Hichens describes in his recent book, but all the same, these are notions at the core of eurosceptic philosophy. There are worse things to fetishise and the Eu is a direct threat to them through the weight of it bureaucratic incursions. 

But in terms of being hung up on the past, it is the Europhiles labouring under a superstition that without their political vanity project they would once again be at each others' throats. Unlike Britain, I suppose, they have good reason to think that. If anyone can't move past World War Two it is the europhiles clinging on to their blue flags and purple passports.

Britain, though, has recognised that we are heading into into a new age. We are almost twenty years into a new century of hyperglobalisaton where the tides of influence and power are shifting. We no longer feel that "pooled sovereignty" (ie the transfer of political authority) is in the national interest. It is necessary to have control over our domestic laws and there was never a particularly good rationale for giving it up. 

Concluding his piece, O'Toole says "Peter Shore MP, the most persistent Labour party critic of Europe, during the 1975 referendum took up this theme: “What the advocates of membership are saying … is that we are finished as a country; that the long and famous story of the British nation and people has ended; that we are now so weak and powerless that we must accept terms and conditions, penalties and limitations almost as though we had suffered defeat in a war.” It was a masochistic rhetoric that would return in full force as the Brexit negotiations failed to produce the promised miracles".

It's actually interesting that between Peter Shore, Michael Foot and Tony Benn, the central euroscepetic philosophy has not changed in all this time. The economic justifications for exit waxed and waned over the years between protectionism and economic liberalism, but the core idea that we should be able to initiate, repeal and reform our own laws is an idea that refuses to die along with the idea that the EU is no respecter of democratic will. 

Having made the choice to once again become a sovereign independent nation, the EU has issued an ultimatum. We can have trade but we cannot have democracy or sovereignty over our own affairs. And yes, our defeatist political class would have us resign to it. It really is as though we must accept terms and conditions, penalties and limitations almost as though we had suffered defeat in a war. All because we have the nerve to think we can and should be an independent country.

Being that, as we speak, the Prime Minster is taking to the airwaves to drum up support for yet another sell out to Europe, that "masochistic" rhetoric has returned in full force. We expect and demand that the 2016 verdict be implemented. Here we discover that the invader is not imaginary. The invader is the very European idea that democracy cannot be trusted and must be second guessed. In respect of that we are indeed an occupied territory. One would have thought that an Irishman would know that feeling better than anyone. 

Thursday, 15 November 2018

It's time to walk away

On Tuesday I watched the International Trade Committee. The second session was devoted to the regional consultation process for future trade agreements. Obviously Northern Ireland was a main theme. The accepted view was that more trade happens between Northern Ireland and the British mainland than between NI and the Republic.

This falls apart slightly in that it depends entirely on what your are recording as trade and how you're measuring it, but on a hunch it rings true. The point, one made by ultra Brexiters, is that it accounts for a tiny fraction of the UK's overall trade and, rightly, they argue that it should not be beyond our imaginations to devise an accord to address it.

Northern Ireland, though, has turned out to be the EU's ace in the hole where the tail very much wags the dog. The technical fix to a very large extent binds the whole of the UK in such a way that there is a substantial loss of territorial sovereignty signing up to permanent rules in a way that no other nation ever has. It is at odds with the fundamental principles of Brexit.

Given that both sides have strongly warned against being a "rule taker" nobody, if they are intellectually consistent can argue in favour of this deal. We would be accepting the rules verbatim, the interpretation of which would be decided by the ECJ and the deal essentially amounts to a perpetual vassal state with even fewer rights and trade preferences than transition period. It is not hyperbole to say that this deal is the worst imaginable deal.

Not coincidentally, Mrs May has now alluded to the fact that if it isn't this deal then remaining is an option, as indeed have the EU. One could be forgiven for thinking it is entirely deliberate and that they have gone out of their way to engineer a deal so offensive that everyone hates it. We will now see a pincer movement between the political establishment and the media to bludgeon us into either submitting to the deal or calling the whole thing off. They are counting on the mushy middle to conclude that it simply isn't worth it.

As tinfoil hat theory it has just the right ring of duplicity to be be true. It has all the hallmarks of the typical establishment stitch up that has defined every pivotal moment in our relationship with the EU. One betrayal after another. The very reason this issue continues to fester. 

We are now at the final crossroads. The options are now clear. No deal, this deal or remaining. Remainers will say they told us so. That Brexit fails because there is no "better deal" and there is no alternative to the EU. We either accept vassalage, calamity or simply throw in the towel. The choice before us is that we either accept the deal in which case all of our political energies go into installing the EU as a colonial master or simply remain and pretend none of this ever happened.

The gambit here is that if we remain, the establishment can then take it as a mandate to carry on as normal. They will say we tried our best but the Brexiter "fantasies" couldn't be delivered, the plebs were taken in by charlatans and we have prevented a disaster. They will defy democracy and and pat themselves on the back for doing it. Those who wanted to leave who are opposed to the EU on principle will remain voiceless.

If, however, we accept the deal, we will go through a spell of adjustment and then things will settle down only we will have lost our EU trade and the ability to optimise our own third country trade relations. There will be a barrage of generally negative news whereby remainers again wag the finger and say they told us so and that we were better off in the EU. They will then start the long game to rejoin. 

Any political effort by leavers by this point will be marginalised in that the establishment will say "the isolationists are still banging on about Europe even though we have left!" even though in every material sense we will still be EU supplicants and second class citizens in our own country. 

The establishment has gamed this quite well. They think this is pretty clever. And to a point it is. That's what I would do if I was a duplicitous remainer scumbag. There's a problem though. This whole process has created a new generation of leavers. they will remember this betrayal in the same way we remember Maastricht and Lisbon. 

The message is clear. If voting made a difference they wouldn't let us do it. They will play the long game and make sure we don't get another say until the deck is stacked in their favour. It's transparent as transparent gets. The whole thing is a con and they have no intention of honouring the verdict of the people. They never did. 

If the establishment wins - ie if we remain or sign up to vassalage, those of us who have campaigned for so long to bring about a referendum and win it by legitimate means will simply conclude that voting cannot change anything. Here I must be candid. 

This won't be said on Twitter because debate is heavily policed and warnings are interpreted as threats. This isn't a threat, rather it is a concern. If they do this to us then there will be another Jo Cox style slaying. Possibly even a spate of them. That will result in an iron curtain going up between the establishment and the public. MP surgeries will have bodyguards and x-ray scans, Westminster will have to quadruple security. What we will then see is more self-righteous authoritarianism and more calls to police independent media and public debate.

The establishment may have won the long war on the matter of EU rule, but it will be a rule without legitimacy and they will start a culture war more toxic than anything we have seen before. The social contract will be shredded. The state will make an enemy of its people. We will also see a surge of populism and and it will start winning seats everywhere. They can keep us in the EU but they cannot stop us hating it and them. We'll have seen it for what it is. Control. 

Unless the UK leaves now politics gets uglier and darker than ever. I had hoped to avoid the economic turmoil by way of a negotiated and amicable departure. Both our establishment and the EU have taken that off the table (with a little help from the ultra Brexiters). So we no now left with the choice of lancing the boil and going through the process of recovery, allowing for a new political settlement to emerge, or we allow the establishment to park Brexit, patch up the status quo and limp on with the same failing economic order. Neither is attractive but at least Brexit is productive. 

Here we need to call the EU's bluff. We need to walk away. We will not submit to leash for the sake of the EU's border control. We won't put up a border. If the EU wants one then that's on them. We will not subordinate our democracy to their technocracy. Why should we compromise our territorial integrity? Why should we cave into blackmail? They had a window to reach an amicable agreement, they could have flexed were there the political will, but now they have overreached because they are blinded by their own technocratic dogma.

Our cowardly and miserable establishment doesn't understand the Brexit sentiment. They think they can fob us off with this deal because it ends freedom of movement. They think that's all it takes because they think that's all that matters to us. That, I suppose, was Farage's tactical error, using the immigration issue as a shortcut. But it's about more than that. 

It is about the fundamental sovereignty of the British people. That has to come before trade regulations, tariffs and product standards. This is about who and what we are as a country and our demand that we should not be further subsumed into the Brussels apparatus. No more castration of our politics. It is fundamentally about democracy. 

The basic test is whether the deal on the table (or indeed EU membership) allows the British public to exercise their political authority to reform economic and social policy through our own democratic institutions. It doesn't and it never will. Being that the choice is now to leave without a deal or not leaving at all, we have no choice but to throw it back in their faces. If we sign this deal we are flushing our democracy down the toilet.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

I'd have settled for a compromise, but this is capitulation

I've flip-flopped on a number of issues over the course of this blog. At one time I was ambivalent about freedom of movement and broadly in favour of it, but settled on the notion that the current form of it must end. I've been adamant that a no deal Brexit is a very bad thing, but at the same time almost willing it to happen. The one constant is that I think the EEA represents the best available compromise.

Sometimes my position can change by the day. Yesterday, albeit without having seen the gory details, I was reluctantly supportive of the deal as it was rumoured to be. Today I am implacable opposed to it and I think if it's this or no deal then, miserable as it is, no deal is what it has to be.

I make no apology for my flip-floppery though. I can say with some pride that I have attempted to explore every avenue of Brexit in full and attempted to reconcile the issues in ways few other have. The issues are not always clear cut, it's difficult stuff and some of the trade-offs cause me to question some of my longest standing views. Sometimes you have to argue the opposite case just as a thought exercise. What I have detested most in both remainers and leavers is fixed positions unwilling to explore other possibilities and alternative ideas.

This has caused me many a fall out with Brexiters who have taken an absolutist line on everything and have made no attempt to understand the issues or even entertain the idea that they might on some level be wrong.

In part, the reason I do this blog is is that writing about something is the process of understanding something. Very often I don't fully understand my own impulses and ideas until I have brought structure to them. I publish my thoughts in the hope that you may take some benefit from seeing the thought process.

Blogging Brexit is difficult in that there are so many unknowns and much of what I do is speculation. It is informed speculation but even informed speculation from the best of us can be wildly wrong, especially where political predictions are concerned. There are plenty of times I have been wrong and probably more often than not. Predictions are indeed a mugs game. As the process evolves, though, more of the unknowns become known. This is how our thinking evolves.

Central to this whole dilemma is that the UK exists as an entity in a world of complex international agreements - bilateral and multilateral. Each bring their own benefits but also constraints on what is generally understood as sovereignty.

The globalist liberal believes in the maximum facilitation of trade and freedom of capital and subsequently goods and people. This comes with considerable economic benefits. It also comes with problems. The other side of the argument are those who fetishise national sovereignty who, like me believe it is essential to the defence and exercise of democracy.

One can take that view and be broadly in favour of international cooperation but stop short of supranationalism, which though described as pooling sovereignty, is in fact the transfer of political authority. That is my beef with the EU. The more power it has the less power the people have. That is the principle at stake.

That principle, though has to be reconciled with the real world where trade superpowers set the regulatory agenda, frictionless trade does not happen without regulatory harmonisation, and as a smaller economy, less powerful than the EU, and the EU as our single largest trade partner will continue to call the shots in one form or another. Trade gravity is one of the few unarguable truths in economics.

That then presents us with a number of unpalatable choices and dilemmas when the ideal balance is not available to us. We therefore have to evaluate the remaining options and that is not easy. This is easy for remainers who tend to view this entirely through an economic prism. It is far more difficult to crack when you factor in the political, cultural and democratic concerns.

Remainers will generally compartmentalise. Speaking from experience, they tend to fetishise the economy over all other concerns, not least because the current economic settlement works in their favour. They argue that the economic settlement (the EU) is not the cause of the political and social dysfunction in the UK. That is a more difficult question address.

Remainers will say that much of what is done to us is primarily the actions of the UK government. That is their conceptual error. The EU is the UK government and Westminster is the national administration putting into effect measures and legislation agreed at the EU and global level. What appears to be domestic law is very often the implementation of directives and conventions.

This can dictate anything from product labelling through to the structure of utility markets through to labour rights, waste disposal and public transport. There are many tiers of invisible but important aspects of governance that place obligations on national and local authorities and directs large parts of their spending and the manner in which they execute policy.

Over the four decades of EU membership we have seen a radical transformation of governance which has become more proscribed, more remote, more centralised and more immune to democratic inputs. Gradually the value of voting and democratic participation is diminished and our ability to innovate in policy is reduced.

We Brexiters therefore take the view that political authority must be returned to its proper place be that Westminster or at the local level. Pragmatists can compromise on common standards and conventions for the free movement of goods, and only the most obtuse would seriously object to common trade governance. What is intolerable is integration, standardisation and harmonisation for its own sake or for the sake of the European ideal to homogenise. It transfers authority to Brussels over things can and should be decided domestically.

It is by that measure we must assess any withdrawal agreement with the EU. Being that the purpose of Brexit is to repatriate political authority then we must also be able to meaningfully diverge and design our own laws according to our own values and economic objectives. We should, therefore, be seeking a balance between our commercial interests and restoration of democratic control.

Trade, however, is more complex than cross-border trade in goods, and as much as it is governed by the EU it is also governed by a series of regional and global rules. We may wish to simplify relations but there is no simplifying the inherently complex. We uphold certain shared values and standards and we agree not to engage in anti-competitive practices. These are the values which underpin a global order we have created and participated in for some seventy years.

It therefore stands to reason that any enhanced treaty with our nearest trade partners and closest allies would extend beyond the remit of food safety controls, banking rules and transboundary anti-pollution measures. The Prime Minister is right to say that we desire a deep and special partnership.

The operative word there is partnership. We respect their sovereignty and vice versa. So can that be said of the withdrawal agreement? Absolutely not. Primarily the UK seeks to restore control over who and what comes into the UK and on what terms. As part of a full and permanent customs union there are extraordinary constraints on UK policy. This also comes with a number of non-divergence obligations and further commitments to implement EU social and environmental law with the ECJ as the ultimate arbiter.

Intellectually, democratically and morally this is not consistent with Brexit. Rather than attempting to reconcile the issues it simply removes us from the decision-making apparatus while locking us into many of the tiers of governance that are not required for the functioning of trade. We should also note that this agreement is only the withdrawal agreement and there is to be a future trade component of the relationship which will also concede to more regulatory measures again with the ECJ as supreme authority.

There is every advantage to having a deep and comprehensive economic and social partnership with the EU. The concessions we make though must be in the mutual interest and where possible preserve jobs and trade. It is actually a feat of legal engineering that Theresa May has managed to concede to just about everything except those measures that will protect trade. Not only does it unplug us from single market participation, it prevents us from exploring mitigating policies and agreements with other countries.

Being that I have attempted to reconcile the issues and have strongly argued against leaving without a deal I am not being obstinate by saying this is BRINO. Few can say they have invested more energy in comprehending the issues and unlike the Ultras I do see the need for compromise. But this isn't compromise. Not only is it a capitulation, it goes further than that to make the UK a supplicant.

Being that that the case, the so-called WTO option, which I had previously considered unthinkable, now seems infinitely preferable. We did not do this thing for £350m a week to play with. We did not do this thing for Boris Johnson's "bumper trade deals". We did this to return powers to their rightful place to address the democratic deficit here in the UK so that once again our democracy means something. Should we agree to this deal we defeat the purpose and the spirit of Brexit. What the EU is saying here is that in or out of the EU, if we want trade with the EU then we must do away with democracy.

I have repeatedly stated that the UK could not survive as a trading nation by relying on the WTO Option. The Leave Alliance said "It would be an unmitigated disaster, and no responsible government should allow it". There is but one caveat though. If the ultimatum is between trade or democracy, then we must choose democracy. If this is the only deal then Theresa May was right. No deal really is better than a bad deal.

The devil's in the detail - and it stinks

We really wanted to give Theresa May the benefit of the doubt. The devil, however, is in the detail. The NI protocol. If you add it all up, it's a full and permanent customs unions with all the trimmings including the common commercial policy with permanent lock-ins on a raft of regulatory measures. Worse than EEA by a country mile.

The sleight of hand is that it remains in place until "alternative arrangements" are agreed for Northern Ireland knowing full well that if existing EU CU law is applied in full as the baseline then there is no legally viable alternative. Once it's done, it's done.

The basic test is whether the deal allows the UK to repatriate political authority and frees us to reform economic and social policy through our own democratic institutions. It doesn't. We stay aligned across the full spectrum with the ECJ as the supreme authority. We don't like to use the term BRINO because ultra Brexiters will wail and say any deal is BRINO, but if it walks like a duck...

We take the view that the only reason we would sign up to binding commitments in this way is to minimise the economic harm. But being that we would be outside of the EEA thus subject to standard third country controls, we remain subject to EU political control but without any of the economic benefits. We lose UK services access and free movement of goods and by being further locked into the EU regime we lose any of the necessary autonomy to mitigate.

Here May has conceded on her red lines to put the ECJ in charge of a whole raft of policy areas allowing it to countermand any policy decision the UK might make. A full and deep customs union very much does place asymmetric limitations on UK external policy. We detest the overused term "vassal state" but that's really what this smells like.

When The Leave Alliance proposed the EEA option we took the view that there was a hard separation between the ECJ and the UK. It removes ECJ direct authority. We took the view that that the EEA would mitigate the worst economic impacts, staying aligned only in those areas relevant to European trade while maximising our liberty to trade independently. We understood that there would be compromises but at the very least those compromises would safeguard jobs and trade. This deal does not do that. 

The root dilemma of globalisation is trade versus sovereignty. We recognised there would be binding constraints on the exercise of sovereignty but we did so with the view that we were maximising our trade with the EU by doing so. This deal is the mirror opposite. It is all the impediments to sovereignty while the EU is able to cannibalise UK market share and we cannot pursue a full and active independent trade policy. 

Theresa May said no deal is better than a bad deal. We struggled to imagine any deal worse than no deal but if anyone could accomplish such a feat it was Theresa May. Our view has always been that every effort should be made to ensure we do not leave without a deal but we are left to wonder why we would submit to a deal which gives the EU control but does not safeguard jobs.

A customs union is of limited use in this regard. The majority of third country controls related to regulatory concerns and are not alleviated by a customs union. The extended regulatory provisions for Northern Ireland will likely become the baseline for the whole UK but unlike Norway we would have no role in the process. This really is "fax democracy". 

More crucially, any deal should not be judged strictly by which rules are adopted. What matters is the mode of adoption and the systems of arbitration. There is also the question of safeguards and exit procedures. It is on these questions the deal must be judge, in which we are not remotely satisfied. Likely we will adopt rules verbatim without the safeguards and opt outs afforded by the EEA Efta system.

In the coming days we will see attempts to characterise this deal as an amalgam of the Turkey option or the Swiss option. It is neither. It is an incoherent Frankenstein deal that in no way satisfies the objectives of Brexit, fails to honour promises and doesn't even mitigate the economic disruption. 

Unlike may of our fellow leavers we have kept an open mind and stayed open to the possibility that Theresa May would stick to her guns. In the final analysis, though, she has completely and utterly folded, handing away our every advantage to produce a deal even we would find it too obnoxious to ratify. This deal stinks. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The deal we deserve

I don't envy any MP having to make the call whether to support the deal said to be on the table. Not least least since nobody has actually seen it. Never in the field of British politics has so much been written by so many about so little. If it does exist, though, it is likely to sub-optimal - but it was never really going to be any other way. This question is fundamentally is a balance between principle and harm reduction.

I start from the basis that no deal is a very bad thing. Repairing the damage could result in a web of asymmetric agreements in the EU's favour and any future administration, probably even weaker than this one, would feel there was no choice but to accede to EU demands.

There question, therefore, is whether it would be worse than the withdrawal agreement on offer. And the answer is probably yes. Here you have to look at what we'd be signing up to. I don't imagine the rumoured deal is much different in substance to the draft we saw in March. The technicalities may differ but in essence it is the same beast.

So what is it? Put simply it is the bare bones of trade governance, enough for the EU to relax its third country controls along its frontier in Ireland. Here we have MP and professional moron, Steve Baker, remarking "Quite how the Withdrawal Agreement has gone from 130 pages in March to over 500 now, I don’t know".

Well I do. Trade governance by its very nature is complicated and wide ranging and there are a number of legacy issues that cannot be left unaddressed. Trade cannot operate in a legal limbo and we have political and moral obligations as a departing member. 

In respect of that, there are a number of areas where the EU retains the right to interpret its own rules and retains exclusivity over decision making - particularly in respect of controls on goods in Northern Ireland. This is a dilution of UK sovereignty. The question for me is to what extent does it particularly matter? Sub-optimal yes, but tolerable. 

As to the rumoured UK wide customs union, more than likely ti will come with aspects of the Union Customs Code and a myriad of other customs stipulations. It will have an impact on the scope of future trade policy but by no means prevent us from having an independent trade policy. The trade debate is far too hung up on tariffs when the real cost of doing business is non tariff barriers. We already enjoy minimal tariffs with much of the world. The difference is likely to be marginal. Turkey still does FTAs and even with zero tariffs so does Singapore. 

Essentially the agreement is a piece of legal technology to achieve a number of mutually agreed ends. You don't have to like it (I certainly don't) but within the confines of reality this is how these things are done. EEA Efta was a better approach being that it is a whole UK solution that does not require a customs union, but Brexiters wailed about that and they will wail about this even more.

A typical example is Chloe Fuckwit from the Taxpayer's Alliance. She grunts "I really don't think politicians understand the scale of anger there will be in the country if they try to keep Britain in the EU by the back door. People aren't stupid. You can call it Brexit, but if we've signed up to be a rule taker from Brussels, we're chained to the EU".

This is where I think Brexiters are unfair to Theresa May. In her own flailing and inept way she has tried to honour the spirit of the referendum. She ruled out the EEA because she bought into the mythology surrounding it, largely thanks to her advisers. Having done so she was left to reconcile the technical issues with the available remaining options. The deal as we now understand it is really the only way to crack the nut. 

The fact is that the EU is our single largest trade partner, the gravity model in goods applies, and regulatory harmonisation is the bedrock of frictionless trade. Boris Johnson et al routinely gloss over these facts of life to tell us that a simple FTA is sufficient in nature for the whole relationship with the EU. This is the persistent Brexiter lie.

What we have not seen in discussion since Barnier rejected Chequers is what the core trade relationship will look like. We have to assume that the baseline is a standard comprehensive FTA along the lines of Canada or Japan, government by the same strata of WTO rules. Clearly this is insufficient if we are to avoid customs problems at Calais and elsewhere. May will need to commit to rudimentary regulatory harmonisation at the very least - as can be found in EU FTAs. Japan, for instance, has now adopted UNECE automotive regulations in full.

Once we have secured a withdrawal agreement, it is likely that in transition the EU will be able to go further than previously stated for maximum facilitation of trade in Calais. We probably cannot say the same for services. It will, though, result in a degree of "rule taking" and the main topic of discussion will be the extent of ECJ influence and the kind of arbitration systems therein. It won't be Chequers, but when added to the Northern Ireland backstop (assuming it is activated) it will be a Frankenstein variant which Brexiters will say amounts to the same thing.

Following on from that we will see the relationship evolve with further rule taking to restore a degree of market participation along with a string of supplementary bilateral agreements so that what we end up with is not entirely dissimilar to Switzerland but without the Efta advantages. One way or another the UK will still be caught in a tangled web of complex EU red tape because that is the nature of the beast and that is how it goes when you are the junior partner in an agreement with the EU. 

There is only really one window left to avoid this and that is to agree to the backstop as is but make damn sure it never gets activated and then join Efta and adapt the EEA agreement. Brexiters will likely see this as an attempt to rejoin the EU and that is what their propaganda will say. They will still have some traction in that the worst effects of Brexit will be held off by the "vassal state" transition. They will probably succeed in once again defeating the option.

But is this "BRINO"? No. Even with a labyrinthine array of binding agreements, out of the EU is out of the EU. Even with extensive adoption of EU rules on goods and trade, it is still only a fraction of the EU acquis and still based on global standards, Codex, UNECE, ISO etc. It's going to be messier, it won't be "full sovereignty" (insofar as such a thing exists) and it will mean massive job killing red tape for business. It's either that or no deal at all and lose the vast majority of our trade with the EU.

What we are left with is really the consequence of Brexiters failing to produce a plan and ruling out all of the viable alternatives and ducking the difficult questions leaving poor old Theresa May to reconcile the irreconcilable while taking abuse from both sides. The Brexiters opted out of the adult discussion and they even resigned their cabinet posts. They opted out so in my view they don't get to wail about the outcome if they don't like it. 

Brexit was always a matter of choosing from a limited array of modes for the new relationship. By ruling out the Efta EEA option we have chosen vassalage over partnership. The only alternative is isolation under WTO rules and a collapse of UK exports. Every option has its trade offs but the Brexiters refused to engage thus it was decided for them. This is exactly why The Leave Alliance said we needed a plan from the outset.

The idealist in me wishes things were different. But they aren't. There are bitter pills to swallow. The nihilist in me is hoping for a no deal precisely because it will humiliate the Tory right and the Brexiters while also bringing misery to the remainers. A political version of a high school gun massacre. But the adult in me says that this deal, imperfect though it is, is about the best balance of obligations we can get given the constraints we have placed on ourselves. If Brexiters hate it, it is more their own fault than that of Theresa May. 

All on track at the WTO

I just watched the UK's ambassador to the WTO, Julian Braithwaite, giving evidence to the International Trade Committee in respect of the separation process at the WTO. He gave a cautious but upbeat performance. It didn't tell us anything we don't know. ie much of what we see written about this process is pure histrionics. Uncertified schedules will not meaningfully impact any of our future negotiations and the Article 28 process will ring-fence any active concerns. There are roadblocks to the UK's accession to the Government Procurement Agreement but nothing at all insurmountable.

Nothing said here is anything we didn't anticipate and certainly there is no cause for alarm. Everything appears to be on track but the finer details still all depend on what the final relationship with the EU looks like. What we did not get to hear, though, is very much about the process of rolling over our bilateral agreements and any progress on that score. I'm surprised there isn't more concern in respect of this being that nothing, as I understand it, is in the bag.

What strikes me about this, much like every other committee meeting I've watched throughout this process, is how much of a waste of time it is. MPs present don't really know what it is they are hearing, they're barely even listening and true to form ask largely useless and irrelevant questions. In this case the replies from Julian Braithwaite were at least interesting. The history of the appellate body dispute fills in a few gaps but it's not remotely pertinent. Parliament does have a singular talent for wasting people's time.

It would have been useful to ask questions about our wider Geneva participation, particularly since Julian Braithwaite is tasked with anything from the WTO to the ITU and all points between. It's all very well having a conventional trade policy with a to do list of FTAs but the UK will have to go the extra mile in exploiting the other avenues in the Geneva system. This is an aspect of trade and regulatory diplomacy our MPs are completely ignorant of.

All the same, the one utility of this meeting is that it should put to bed some of the tedious dramatising of the WTO process which is exploited unreasonably to paint Brexit as a failure. Scepticism is one thing but the relentless negativity is uncalled for. There will be Brexit dramas but they are not to be found in the WTO... for now. 

Cultivated ignorance

`Fintan O'Toole is quite jaunty today
When future historians try to understand how Britain ended up with a choice between chaos and becoming a satellite of the European Union, one question will stump them. Were these people telling deliberate lies or were they merely staggeringly ignorant? Where does mendacity stop and idiocy begin? Historians generally have to assume that people in power have a basic grasp of what they are doing, that their actions are intentional. They may use deception as a tactic and they may be deluded in what they think they can achieve. But they must, at least at the beginning, have some grasp on reality – otherwise they would not have achieved power. Yet, for the poor historians trying to make sense of Brexit, this assumption will be mistaken.
He goes on to write a who's who of Brexitmongery which I could easily expand upon because the list is extensive. I would make special mention of Suzanne Evans, Andrea Leadsom, Kate Hoey, Gisela Stuart, John Redwood, Peter Lilley and Steve Baker. These are not by any estimation clever people. But being thick is not really the issue here. What we are looking at here is a cultivated ignorance. 

There are two prevailing factors in Brexit ignorance. When it comes to the technicalities they are both complex and boring. You are doing quite well if you've you've managed to work out what rules of origin are and if you've managed to work our exactly how they work then in Brexitology you walk among the gods. As to working out what forms and certifications are needed for the transport of goods, why would anyone know that unless they did it for a living? Nobody sane would want to know and this is all far beyond the ken of your average politician.

But then nobody else really knows how it all works either. I have a better grasp than most but there is still more to learn. There are no experts on trade simply because the field is too big for any one person to grasp it all. The way we imagine it works is not the way it does work and unless you understand the rationale the logical can seem distinctly illogical and even irrational. 

Typically the ultra Brexiter likes to bleat on about "mutual recognition of standards". That's not how it works but it is entirely reasonable to assume that's how it should work and it seems unreasonable that two western powers with a discerning consumer base would not agree to recognise each other's standards. Moreover, if it could be made to work like that then it's nice and simple. Half the problem with the EU is its lack of legitimacy not least because even its own advocates have no idea how it functions in practice. 

Here it is somewhat unfair to pick on Brexiters in that the remainers are not on the spot. They don't need to explain how it works. They just know that it continues to work if we stay in the EU. Were they pressed they would have similar comprehension issues. The Brexiters, though, are the ones pressing for change so it is for them to explain how and why Brexit is an improvement. 

Here you bump into all kinds of problems if you've made Brexit an economic argument. Which the Brexiters have. They now have to prove it when none of the evidence is in their favour. There is no economic utility in deregulation, there is no "Brexit dividend" from saved financial contributions and there are no "bumper trade deals" that will in any way compensate for the loss of the single market. CANZUK is a non-starter, there is no restarting the Commonwealth and a US/UK deal does not look promising. 

For two years now, the Tory Brexit philosophy has been under a barrage of relentless criticism and not a single trade professional thinks they have credible ideas. Not one. All they have is a self-referential claque of toryboy "free market" thinks tanks creating a smokescreen of jargon and bluster. It was intellectually bankrupt from the beginning and it's certainly hitting the rocks now.

What's worse. They have no fallback position. They've made their promises of sunlit uplands and told us that getting a deal will be a walk in the park. They are not in a position to change tack and if they do the whole enterprise comes crashing in on them. All that's left to do is to hold the line just long enough to see it through to the bitter end. 

For sure, the Nadine Dorries's and Hoeys of this world are thick as a box of hammers and they will continue to believe that Brexit is a miracle cure but Johnson, Baker and Davis et al know full well the cupboard is bare when it comes to economic arguments. All they can do is lie. This is now a full blown propaganda war and the Tory Brexit apparatus is using tribalism to its full advantage. 

Here, though, O'Toole is only look in at a piece of the picture. Talent on the other side of the house isn't exactly brimming either. Emily Thornberry can no more describe the function of a customs union any more than I can tell you how the Large Hadron Collider works. Institutional knowledge of the EU throughout is minimal. 

The question for future historians, therefore, is how can our parliament have transferred so much political authority to a remote entity it does not scrutinise, does not understand and does not engage with in any meaningful way. Partly there is a domestic political atrophy but a large part of it is that politicians are only too happy to offload anything complicated to Brussels. 

For years our politicians have been telling us that the influence of the EU is benign and barely a factor in domestic affairs and they believe it because the extent is obscured by way of domestic law bringing EU law into effect. This is a whole tier of invisible governance they are barely aware exists. Only now that we are leaving with so much at risk has it become apparent just how much the EU does have directive control over.

Being that neither our politicians or our media are keeping tabs on the EU or in any way holding it to account, and lacking the knowledge to adequately interrogate it, there is no possible way that this pillar of our government can possibly be legitimate. The institutional ignorance of the EU makes its own case for leaving it.

This blog has long remarked that Brexit is far from the cause of our political dysfunction - rather it has exposed it. It has pulled back the curtain to reveal a political class devoid of knowledge, vitality, curiosity and gravitas. How we got here will be the real puzzle for historians and somehow I doubt that EU membership is incidental to this hollowing out of our politics.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Coasting over the cliff

The rationale for leaving the EU has not changed in decades. It is as sound now as it was in 1975. If you know what democracy is then you know the EU is not a democracy. You know it is a sovereignty leeching technocracy and if you've looked in any detail at the functioning of the EU then no amount of a remainer sophistry is going to persuade you otherwise.

Unlike Tory Brexiters I do not pretend that Brexit is an economically positive move. I cannot credibly argue that case nor would I seek to. I do, however, think it is a necessary precursor to far reaching reform of British democracy. The EU underpins a political and economic status quo and meaningful change is not possible without removing the EU element.

I take the view that the test of a democracy is the ability of peoples to organise and force change and that system must be able to respond in good time. To win even marginal reforms of EU policy can take a matter of years. Reforms to posted worker rules and fishing discards took the better part of a decade. That to me is intolerable and inadequate.

Brexit, therefore, is the process of returning political authority to its rightful place. Unless that political authority rests with the British public then we cannot say that our system of government is democratic. Brexit is also a corrective. Political authority was passed to the EU without consultation or consent. We undo what was done to us without having a say.

These arguments, though, were not at the forefront of the Brexit debate. Vote Leave turned the referendum into a tawdry campaign centred on financial contributions and immigration. In doing so they elected not to exploit three open goals. The first being that the EU steadfastly refused to contemplate meaningful reform. The second being that our own establishment wouldn't even ask for meaningful reform, and the third being that our prime minister, having secured nothing of value, proceeded to lie about it.

To say that the reforms were bogus and to exploit those open goals would have meant the largely Tory Vote Leave outfit attacking a Tory prime minister. Being tribal animals they would never do this. They instead co-opted the referendum to put themselves in pole position to push a programme of radical economic right policies for which there is no mandate under the 2016 referendum - which was nothing more or less than an instruction to leave the EU.

The question of how we leave was then an open book, especially since Vote Leave declined to outline a plan of any kind. It  stands to reason though, that any exit must be compatible with the intellectual objectives of the leave movement, which primarily is control of our own laws and the removal of EU political authority.

Here though, the principles of Brexit bump into the realities of the world as we find it in which regulatory harmonisation is a precursor to frictionless trade and in this the EU is the regional regulatory superpower. Trading with the EU requires a number of compromises. We must also be mindful that the vote was won by a narrow margin because even though the economic concerns are subordinate to the principle, they are not by any means irrelevant.

There are those who would disagree with me who think we should leave at all costs and any price is worth paying. In spirit I stand with them but in practice we need a deal and I don't think we should suffer more than we have to to secure our objectives.

The problem, though is that all of the compromises are to some extent unpalatable. An FTA essentially leaves Northern Ireland inside the EU customs territory and subject to EU rules without a say and though customs formalities along the Irish Sea can be kept to a minimum, the DUP, rightly in my view, are dissatisfied with any deal that dilutes UK sovereign territory. The Prime Minister is also of that view even though she has, foolishly, boxed us into that corner.

There are then only two intellectually coherent approaches. Either we retain the EEA which does require some serious compromise from leavers or no deal at all whereby the UK calls the EU bluff and we find an alternative solution to the Irish border outside of the confines of Article 50. Economically this option is, to put it lightly, economically undesirable.

Being that Mrs May took the EEA off the table some time ago and with the likes of Nick Boles further discrediting the option, a Norway type settlement has never looked more remote and though it is my preferred solution (if suboptimal) I have given up any hope of it becoming a reality. It has faced a pincer movement between the leave and remain extremes each reciting the same mythology which has been impossible to overcome, not least due to the idleness of politicians and the ineptitude of the media. They poisoned the well some time ago.

With that option off the table I am somewhat ambivalent to the whole thing now. Insofar as it matters, Northern Ireland being tied to food safety rules and EU customs procedures is hardly anything worth going to the barricades over. It's really a matter for Northern Ireland to reconcile. As to a UK wide customs union I still fail to see what that would accomplish. It is certainly not intellectually in keeping with the intellectual basis for leaving.

With politics being what it is though, it would seem that any compromise is likely to hit the rocks and face opposition from at least one of the factions. Designing a mutually agreeable solution that could garner the assent of parliament was always a tall order. For the EEA to have worked it would have required decisive leadership or for parliament to assert its sovereignty.

Mostly though, with one or two honourable exceptions, our MPs have been inept. They have failed to assert their own authority at every turn and now events are setting the course for us, which on present from looks like we are crashing out without a deal and barring an unprecedented shift in parliamentary dynamics, there is little to prevent it from occurring.

Being that I have written extensively on why this would be a very bad thing, I really should be taking it more seriously but I think the window of opportunity to turn it around has closed. The fever has to burn itself out and we are not going to see any sense at all until there are observable consequences. Only then, when the ultra Brexiters stand discredited and the current administration ejected, will there be any kind of narrative coherence which ought to dictate our next moves. At that point EEA Efta will look a lot more attractive than it does now. That will be the last opportunity to revive the option.

Until then we have to tolerate the immense tedium of Article 50 bickering, the political infighting and rows and then the equally horrifying and amusing plunge over the cliff. I say amusing because the far extremes of both sides will get an enormous dose of what they've had coming for a while. Their arrogance and petulance will be richly rewarded. The public too will find there are consequences for electing any quasi-sentient hatstand with a red or blue rosette.

Whichever way this goes now, we are on the eve of a political reckoning. It is one long overdue and the consequence of thirty years of misrule and political debasement. This is payback for all the issues we have swept under the carpet and politics is about to become quite ugly. This is judgement day for the British establishment. This is why I won't lift a finger to prevent the inevitable. If an orderly exit is not possible then let there be disorder. We need to put this to bed once and for all.