Thursday, 5 July 2018

Free trade fever has to burn itself out

If Twitter is anything to go by then Brexiters are livid over Theresa May's trade proposal. Which of course they would be, because it attempts, in its own boneheaded way, to square the circle of Northern Ireland and maintain frictionless trade. If you're a Tory Brexiter, however, none of the problems exist and the EU could unilaterally relax all of its frontier controls on a whim for the sole benefit of the UK irrespective of WTO law. 

Consequently they are squealing "betrayal" at the top of their lungs. Having persuaded themselves that WTO rules alone are sufficient to maintain single market participation, having their hearts set on striking bumper trade deals with the rest of the world, there is no persuading them of anything. They will now call any agreement with a Brussels a betrayal. Theresa May cannot appease the unappeasable.

Back in the real world, the single market is an integrated system of rules and if you want to trade on the same terms then you have to be a member of it. This is why Mrs May's plan is not going to work. It's an amalgam of already rejected ideas and the choice is what it has always been. Either the EEA or an FTA in which the UK becomes a third country resulting in a wet border with Northern Ireland - thus weakening the Union. 

May is doing whatever she can to maintain single market trade while trying to keep her promises to the Brexiteers - which simply cannot be done. She knows they will crucify her if she does accept the EEA so she's trying this instead - where they will crucify her anyway. 

The next phase of the game really depends on how rapidly the EU responds. The rumour mill has it that they will hold fire on May's plan. They won't say yes, and they won't say no, keeping it live over the summer, while they prepare for a no deal. They've given up expecting anything they can work with so the plan is to buy time to make the arrangements to handle the UK crashing out.

Since the plan is not loved by Brexiters, and denounced as unworkable by anyone who understands how the system works, we can expect weeks of internal bickering. The way it goes, there are too many divisions for there to be any internal political agreement. We need a political crisis to bring people to their senses. Maybe this is what it will take for people finally to focus on what they need to do.

What irks the Brexiters especially about the plan is that it severely limits the potential for a deal with the USA. Regulatory alignment with the EU creates a myriad of problems for external trade which forces us us into a binary choice. We either maintain single market trade or we jettison it in the hope of securing a deal with the USA. 

Precisely why we would want to lose out on an enhanced relationship with the EU in favour of a threadbare agreement with the ever unpredictable USA beats me. With President Trump all over the shop it seems unwise to put any stock in what he says. 

The Brexiteers are impervious to these such details. This is all an article of faith for them and "free trade" is the new religion. Striking deals is quick and easy and the world is chomping at the bit to do business with us. Nothing I or anyone can say will disabuse them of this notion. This is tribal politics at its very worst. 

This is not helped by way of the ultra Brexit propaganda machine working overtime and the BBC giving the Tory think tanks cross platform exposure to spout their dogma - virtually unchallenged by clueless presenters.

For all that I can write explainers and engage individually with Brexiters on Twitter, it doesn't seem to make a dent. Trade is a deeply technical discipline which involves navigating tiers of complex rules and regulatory systems which for which those who don't understand them serve no apparent purpose. Trade ignorance is a runaway juggernaut that won't stop until it hits the wall - where we all become casualties. This free trade fever that has infected the Tory right will just have to burn itself out of its own accord. It will, however, have to suffer serial humiliations before it does.

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