Sunday, 5 August 2018

There is plenty of Brexit noise, but we are evading the substantive questions

My favourite user function on Twitter is the mute button. It's useful for tuning out remainers because they really have nothing to say. Brexit throws up any number of complex questions which demand serious answers to which their reply is always "stop Brexit" which is really an answer to nothing in that the majority of people who bothered to vote in 2016 voted to leave and expect that instruction to be carried out.

Moreover I am not interested in re-fighting the referendum. The arguments are boring as indeed are debates as to why we voted to leave. It still stands as a political artefact that we did vote to leave and now a new battle for the future has broken out.

Instead of engaging in this debate the continuity Remain campaign has focuses all of its efforts on somehow delegitimatising the vote, failing to note that most of us made up our mind to leave long before Vote Leave was even invented. I can admit that Vote Leave was a shoddy and grubby organisation but it does not change the fact that registered voters, of their own volition, went to the polling booth and cast their vote. Unless someone can show the ballot boxes were tampered with then the vote is as legitimate as any vote in the UK is ever likely to be.

So the conversation now is between me and people who actually engage in the reality of our predicament, where leave or remain, we all have a common enemy; the ultra Brexiters. This really comes down to a question of what we hope to achieve by leaving the EU.

My view is much the same as it has always been. If European nations wish to pursue a federal Europe or even the continuation of whatever the hell the EU is now, then they should be left to get on with it and Britain should be an independent ally of it. I do not see it reforming in a meaningful way, I do not see that it can bend further to UK grievances and in the final analysis, I do not want the EU as a supreme government. I cannot be persuaded that it can ever be democratic.

Brexit, to me, therefore, is simply a matter of carefully uncoupling what was done to us and then when we have taken back control we can change things as and when the need arises. That is essentially the point of Brexit - to ensure that the public can affect meaningful change through their own parties, unions and democratic institutions. Too much policy from waste disposal to utilities is locked in and unreformable without going cap in hand to Brussels.

What Brexit is not, though, is a mandate to push forth the ideas of the far economic right. This is not a carte blanche to carry out a free market experiment on an unsuspecting public. I will oppose that school of thought as vehemently as I have fought to leave the EU. As much as I do not want a winner-takes-all society, the UK should not be a playground for speculators and disaster capitalists, not least since it will likely result in a populist socialist backlash that we take us back to the economic dark ages. If the Tories want unilateral disarmament of trade defences then let them put it in a manifesto and give the public a say in it.

The concern is that unilateral trade liberalisation is pretty much irreversible. Once you have opened up your domestic markets to unfair and subsidised competition and you destroy your domestic capabilities, not only are you more dependent on imports to a dangerous extent, you are vulnerable to price gouging. Moreover, what is done is not so easily undone. We could very easily destroy strategic national assets and in future have to rebuild at our own expense. We lose our institutional memory and our collective knowledge and have to start over.

This is not to say that protectionism is necessarily a good thing. It is simply that liberalisation should be carefully negotiated lest we have nothing to barter with in the future should we seek reciprocal liberalisation.

By leaving without a deal and embarking on this Tory flight of fancy we introduce a raft of urgent problems, most of which we are not presently equipped to handle. Domestic customs and regulatory systems need to be built from the ground up - and that requires extensive consultation, software, training and phased introduction. We are not presently in a position to run a modern and sophisticated customs system capable of dealing with the multitude of threats from terrorism to fake medicines. There are good reasons why lesser developed countries find it difficult to export into the EU.

In any rational setting most people would agree with me. It is somewhat more difficult, however, to get people to grasp these issues over Twitter, especially when there is so much suspicion around. Moreover rationality went out of the window some time ago. With so many determined to stop Brexit or interfere with it, it only hardens the resolve of leavers and increases their suspicion of any compromise. Brexit has become an end in itself rather than a means.

This is what the Tories are capitalising on. They want their WTO Brexit and because it is the fastest most certain departure, they know they have the backing of those worried that Brexit will be overturned. There is no patience and a somewhat justifiable belief that their votes will be betrayed. Being skilful propagandists the Tory establishment has successfully hijacked the Brexit movement - so successfully in fact, it has socialist MP, Kate Hoey, joining in the chorus for unfettered "free trade".

Here we see the full spectrum of Brexiters marching to the drumbeat of "free trade" without the first idea of what that entails and having even less idea of the consequences having convinced themselves that every warning is "project fear". We are supposedly leaving the EU to do away with Brussels bureaucracy, failing to note that regulatory divergence reintroduces a vast array of customs red tape that will prohibit the free movement of goods and services.

Meanwhile, for reasons that escape me, the Brexiters want "regulatory independence" to turn away from a £270bn a year market so that we can plug into smaller markets on the opposite side of the planet that can never sustain just-in-time supply chains. Fresh produce especially is not known for its resilience to long container voyages.

We are, therefore, back to the usual dilemma. We want to leave the political union of the EU but we wish to continue enhanced mutually preferential trade with it - and that means regulatory harmonisation and all the obligations that go with it. You don't have to like it, but the EU is still a regulatory superpower after we leave and leaving the EU does not mean the EU vanishes into the ether. It continues to be an entity with which we must contend.

What the ultra Brexiters want a simplified relationship with the EU where even a Tory cabinet minister can understand it. That, I'm afraid, is simply not going to happen. The single market framework regulates things that didn't even exist ten years ago. It covers everything from satellite bandwidths to maritime surveillance and electricity grid management. These are inherently complex subject areas all necessary for the functioning of cross border trade and cannot be simplified. This is technical regulation far beyond the basic understanding of the average voter.

These are areas of governance where the public shows precisely zero interest. They don't have to know, they don't need to know and democratising does not add any value. The reason regulators often do not conduct consultations is because there is very little uptake and little in the way of usable feedback. We have to accept that in the modern age there are some things that simply are not worth going to the barricades over.

When it comes to standards and regulations the only time people really care is when it comes down to the food we eat and nobody is in a hurry to relax those standards to accommodate Indian imports when their own food safety regime is not to be trusted. No responsible government should ever enter a mutual recognition agreement on food standards with India without a robust supervisory system and constant inspections.

Voters are highly selective in the things they value. Brexiters have long obsessed about fish and fishing, often holding antiquated and protectionist attitudes and romantic notions of catching all our own fish. The industry has not worked like that for some time and is now part of a global fisheries supply chain which would not in any way benefit from repatriation. Still, though, this preoccupies a corner of the debate, devoting huge intellectual resources to a sector barely worth a tenth of the UK sandwich industry (£8bn) which is directly threatened by a no deal Brexit.

None of this has ever really been explained to voters and as I have discovered it is largely pointless to even try. Consequently we are on course to ditch our most valuable markets to chase the Tory free trade unicorn. There is a certain pied-piper aspect to this.

None of this, though, gains any traction with populists like Brendan O'Neill who ought to know better. Brexit is simply a pawn in a culture war and as far as he is concerned, everybody who voted to leave voted for the most hostile exit possible and all for the same reasons. Dishonesty on stilts.

No amount of witless prattle from the revolutionary wing of Brexit is going to make all of these technical challenges go away and the issue of sovereignty and democracy is not so black and white when you factor in modern trade agreements and international conventions. Every trade deal requires some compromise and binding commitments.

Complicating this matter further is the ratchet effect. There is no such thing as a static agreement with the EU. All agreements are geared toward harmonisation and evolution toward full trade liberalisation. There has never been one designed to work in reverse not least because it is antithetical to open trade and the world is converging on global standards. So unless we are severing all trade relations with a view to closing off trade with the EU permanently we have to access the nearest and largest superpower will continue to have a profound influence on our technical legislation.

Further complicating matters, we find that even ordinary trade agreements are now seeking to include measures from the International Labour Organisation. This will influence domestic labour market regulation so as to facilitate trade in services and uphold mutually high labour conditions to ensure a level playing field. This is to offset the damage done by globalisation and regulatory arbitrage. Consequently there is no scenario where an enhanced trade relationship will not influence domestic laws that hitherto have always been an entirely domestic affair.

Whether or not globalisation means we are entering a post-sovereignty age is the next big question of our generation. Moreover, how do we usefully exercise it to gain the maximum benefits from trade while preserving what we value? Each of these decisions must be carefully considered lest we take the brakes off globalisation completely further eroding concepts of community, identity and nationality. Consequently unilateral trade liberalisation is in effect antithetical to the Brexit sentiment.

Meanwhile, those fabled WTO rules are very much a double edged sword. Much that many assume will remedied by Brexit will in fact continue to be a binding influence on our decision making and as the WTO matures, we will find the same questions of sovereignty once again arising.

Leaving the EU more than anything is a political statement that the UK wishes to remain a distinct legal personality in the world with the final say over what happens within its own borders. Modern trade, though, means there are grey areas where it is in the national interest to compromise and conform. It may be satisfying to feed the Treaties of the European Union into the shredder but eventually we will have to find something to replace them with and something that facilitates the freedoms that people and business demand.

This is really what the current Brexit debate should be about. Demanding that we leave without a deal is a demand to leave without answering any of the difficult questions which must eventually be decided by someone and if it isn't us then it will be decided by circumstances. For sure we can crash out now and open the gates to hell to the applause of hardliners, but it will fall to the next iteration of politics to rebuild bridges and forge a new relationship. Since there is no utility in burning our bridges I continue to ask why we would commit to such wanton self harm?

I have never made the case that membership of the single market is an ideal outcome for Brexit - only that it is a starter for ten and that, whatever relationship we have with the EU, it will continue to evolve. The EEA agreement makes the distinction between technical and political union ensuring we can continue to enjoy economic liberty as an independent country. It answers most of the difficult questions when the WTO option answers nothing and satisfies nobody. Brexiters may cheer but their celebrations will be short lived - especially for those who lose everything in the process. If we are going to do this then we owe it to the nation to ensure we do not visit a disaster upon ourselves.

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