Sunday, 25 September 2016

Brexit: hear all, trust nothing

For all the bluster and bravado, most of what we are seeing is theatre. Unhelpful noise. What we do know is that the government does not yet have a position and can make no clear commitments just yet. And though scorn is rightly heaped on Brexiteers for not having a clue, the remainer clique on Twitter are still locked into a hard Brexit narrative and a paradigm that hasn't shifted beyond the stunted bilateralism of yore.

What is forgotten in all this though is that the EU and member states are not much better off either. Signals may pass back and forth but this is a parallel universe to what is being hammered out in the back offices. I rather expect the task is going to be so complex that negotiations around member states preferences are going to play second fiddle to any solution that works and is considered legal within the existing framework. In some respects they're hoisted by their own petard.

They might very well say that they intend to take a tough line on this or that but when it involves opening up yet more messy talks over something that would otherwise be settled, we can expect the power brokers within the EU to squash the minnows and put them back in their place. This isn't going to be the feeding frenzy anyone thinks it is.

For that reason the EEA is the UKs best bet in that it creates the fewest opportunities for trouble makers to redefine it. Though various sources continue to insist the EEA has been ruled out, Mrs May keeps yanking on the leash and I rather suspect that nothing is off the table as yet.

The truth of the matter is that there are simply too many areas to put under the microscope. Some things will have to be sold as seen and some things will be too well established and too mature to even think about severing without a very long period of planning and reflection.

As much as anything this is a vast exercise in project management at the very best we can expect is a framework for transitioning out of the EU. There is no change of hitting it all in one go. There is no WTO option and no reason to believe the EU will wish to devote the best of its trade resources to building a bespoke framework for Britain that will end up much like the one already in existence. 

It is for this this reason I have largely tuned out the Twitter debate between various self-appointed experts. External demands from third countries, the concerns of business and the complexity of the task will dictate the path more than the politicians. Since nobody is in the mood for economic self-harm we can expect a timid agreement even if the rhetoric is bold. Warning shots and refusals just don't seem very credible right now. It is not within their gift to be telling us what the score is just yet. Their own experts have to go through the same process as ours.

To my mind all the logic points to an EEA agreement and Mrs May would have to be steadfastly pro-economic suicide to consider anything else. She has given no outward sign that she is keen on such a destination and so unless she is taking criminally bad advice (which is a possibility) she won't try for a full divorce in one go. In the end though, I think she will have her own sources of expertise. She will not be listening to the Twitterers or the hack-o-sphere. More than likely she will be taking the advice of political strategists working out how to sell chalk as cheese.

Brexiteers have sold Brexit as a clean slate. It's a little naive to believe it is. Though Brexit may be a political reboot, it is far from a clean slate. There are international rules and regulations, single market considerations and masses of contract law and quasi regulation that will restrict our choices for at least a decade. There is no sudden renaissance of fishing for starters. Whichever way Mrs May turns, somebody will be calling it a betrayal. With so many options closing down by the day the biggest job will be selling a Brexit deal that satisfies nobody.

For the time being we just have to watch and wait and see the debate unfold and gradually see the hard Brexit fantasies fall apart. In the meantime the debate is going nowhere. Nothing has changed since this time last month and nothing will be different by the end of October. Nothing said will be set in stone and the EEA will still inescapably be the only rational path. It's just a matter of time until Mrs May reaches that conclusion herself.

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