Friday, 9 June 2017

Brexit: make or break time

Though I have yet to see anything concrete, an alliance with the DUP makes for some interesting developments. As I understand it the DUPs price for propping up a Conservative government is a promise that there can be no post-Brexit special status for Northern Ireland and a "frictionless border" is a sine qua non. Whether or not they can leverage that remains to be seen.

Of course, it is not beyond our imaginations to come up with something but that then has consequences for goods travelling to Great Britain. It really looks like the EEA is the only thing close to an adequate answer. It's the elephant in the room.

Having moved into the danger zone we are now at a point where that elephant can no longer be ignored. As much as Northern Ireland is a potentially explosive political issue, it is one that directly threatens the integrity of the UK has a whole - and unless we are willing to be pragmatic then there is an unthinkable can of worms to open. Choices have to be made, compromises have to be reached and we will have to prioritise. We cannot have it all - and we never could. That kind of thinking is why May has a hung parliament.

Sadly this means opening up the same tired debates about the EEA and the respective merits of staying in the single market. As a whole, understanding of the issues and knowledge of the single market is thin on the ground with all the zombie arguments refusing to die. In this we need some honesty and we're not going to get it. Everyone is looking for perfect when the best we can hope for is adequate.

In this we need to re-frame the debate. A "trade deal" of whatever configuration is not going to cut it. It will not be nearly comprehensive enough to ensure Irish needs are met - not least since the politics is fluid and the system will need to evolve. This again is why the EEA is our best bet.

What critics of the EEA miss is that the EEA agreement is not just an agreement on single market participation. It is an interface mechanism with its own institutional infrastructure for constant review and reform. It is structured for the purposes of entering special conditions, exemptions and reservations. Though we may be adopting an agreement that someone else has, there are mechanisms to tailor the agreement to the needs of the UK, be that enhanced controls over freedom of movement or better consultation on regulations (which we're adopting anyway). Because it is a system of continuous development it is not set in stone - and that works to our advantage.

Far from cobbling together a copy of the Norway set up we would simply be using the same framework and utilising the same conduits into the EU. Once we have transitioned into EEA status we then use the mechanisms and processes to further negotiate our exit issue by issue, leaving things that work untouched. To do otherwise would be to needlessly disengage only to have to renegotiate access in the future. We're going to have to leave the same way we went in. Gradually.

Being that we don't have time to design anything close to a fully comprehensive agreement, and if we want to remove some of the uncertainty, then we are better using an off the shelf package. It really is a no-brainer.

Opponents of the EEA really need to explain what the point of reinventing the wheel is. Why should we create unnecessary uncertainty to achieve much the same as what already exists? Moreover, the EU is not especially keen on a patchwork of agreements like Switzerland which need constant attention - where neither side is happy with it. More to the point, why add the complication to something which need not be complex? Effectively the EEA serves as a Brexit safe space with no cliff edges where the process of exit happens at a pace that doesn't disturb business.

When looking at the available options it would appear that the EEA is the instrument most people can live with. Scotland will want full single market participation and so will the forty eight per cent of the UK who voted to remain. There simply isn't a large enough majority for the hardline Brexit proposed by eurosceptic Tories. It would not bring the benefits they believe it does and a hard Brexit would be considered one of the greatest unforced political errors of all time.

That is what makes the coming phase more critical than ever. I do not think there is a mandate for a self-immolation Brexit but the Tory Brexit Taliban are still a considerable power and they will not back down without a fight the death. That is the debate that must happen now. We are up against some reckless and deeply stupid people who will stop at nothing to inflict the maximum pain possible. This could well be endgame. Any hint that May seeks to soften Brexit and the knives will be out for her.

Should that happen we might well be in real trouble. If Boris Johnson becomes prime minister there is nothing about the UK worth saving. There is no possibility of Britain achieving a successful Brexit with him in control. He is a know-nothing snake. The "moderate" wing of the Tories better have one hell of a plan B.

From now the debate is all about detail - and it will be derailed by a fatuous media which really doesn't understand the issues and, as with the election, people will be distracted by trivia. There is really only one central issue and that is maintaining maximum participation in the single market. Anything else means a decade long slump. This is now a matter of our national survival.

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