Wednesday, 12 December 2018

It's game over for the ERG


Mrs May is victorious. For all the wailing the Ultras couldn't pull it off and now they're spent. The acres of press speculation were all for naught. So much time utterly wasted. This has been a Westminster bubble preoccupation - and elsewhere there is little appetite for a change of leadership.

Now, though, they reckon May has no chance of getting the deal through. I think she can - and Brussels will give her a hand. May has reasserted her authority and she has more backing that the bubble thinks she does. The country wants this settled. There is no appetite for dragging it out over what are seen as arcane points of detail. A deal is a deal.

The upside is that the second referendum and the unilateral revocation are dead. All that effort has gone into those options and they have got nowhere other than to have made a lot of noise and confuse the issues. It also means no deal is averted. The process of exiting the EU continues and though I'm no fan of this deal, that's a good thing.

It was little short of a month ago when this blog called for Theresa May to walk away. I had hoped that if this deal could be killed then there would be another window of opportunity for the Efta option. For the time being, though, that optionis stone dead. Parliament has been unable to to form up around an alternative. It really is May's deal or no deal.

On that point, even prior to the referendum The Leave Alliance view was that "unequivocally, that the UK could not survive as a trading nation by relying on the WTO Option. It would be an unmitigated disaster, and no responsible government should allow it". In the cold light of day that is still my view. Moreover, if there is a serious danger of leaving without a deal, I fully expect parliament to mobilise to ensure there is no Brexit at all.

The point I would stress here is that Brexit was always going to be a process rather than an event and it was never going to be done in one go. This was the whole reason for selecting the EEA as an avenue for departure. That reality has not changed and there's the obvious point that there is no fixed solution to this. Our European relations are a continuum. 

Many look upon the so-called WTO Option as a final fix but it can never be the case that we have no formal relations with our nearest and largest trade partner - especially as an ally. A no deal Brexit would not be sustainable and we would have to reconstruct relations over time. This would likely not play to our favour. At least this way, we are formally leaving the EU with channels open to continue evolving the relationship.

The narrative in the bubble is that the political declaration is nonbinding - but in international politics these declarations do mean something and they create obligations. If they didn't we wouldn't bother with them at all. We should also note that we have time to devise alternatives to ensure that the backstop never comes into play. The options are few and the Ultras will wail but by then, most will have realised that wailing is all they do. 

There has also been a lot of misdirected hyperventilation over the deal itself. I am guilty of such myself. For all that the deal leaves us with an unnecessary customs union, it does leave the single market. Though I would prefer it the other way around, given my critiques of the EU, a harder Brexit such as this is more in line with even my own views. It ends the EU's direct influence over our internal markets and ends freedom of movement. 

As to the non-regression clauses, as a matter of continuity we are already naturalising most EU law and ofg what the EU has asked of us, it only really enshrines our obligations under existing global conventions on trade and the environment. We have a lot of work to do before we get round to tinkering with such rules anyway. In the longer term the UK will bump into the constraints of the EU relationship but eventually the EU will not see it as a political imperative to retain that kind of influence. Much of their concern comes on the back of what a radical takeover of the Tories would do.

The bottom line is that the deal does two things. It gets us out of the EU and averts an unmitigated disaster. It will still hit us harder than an EEA Brexit but that will all depend on what the trade relationship looks like - which will probably go further than an FTA insofar as it can. As to whether Brexit is brexity enough, we should not underestimate the political fact that we will formally be out of the EU so far as the rest of the world sees it. 

If I thought for a moment that a no deal Brexit was salvageable I would not be backing this deal. I don't deny that there are mitigating measures but if your central policy revolves around damage limitation and civil contingency measures then it's not a very good one. It becomes a zero sum game for both sides and full of acrimony and pettiness which is not where we want to be with out closest allies. The pettiness from Spain over Gibraltar gives us a taste of what that would look like.

On this I actually wish I could join in with the Brexiter foot-stamping demanding a no deal Brexit but I cannot do so convincingly because I do believe it would be disaster. The mitigation measures mooted by the ultras deal on with keeping trade in goods rolling but it says nothing of the intricate and critical regulatory systems upon which so much depends. I do not dispute that Brexiters knew what they were voting for but I say with absolute certainty that most of them do not understand the full implications or the granularity of EU integration. 

We are not unplugging from a mere trade deal or an alliance. The EU in ever sense is a system of government and in advocating instant termination we would be breaking a number of important arrangements on anything from energy to national security. If even half of the scare stories are true - and there is every reason to believe they are, then we have more problems that we can possibly cope with. It is beyond the absorptive capacity of government. Whatever financial dividend from Brexit there may be (which was always a fiction) it will be spent on emergency measures. 

On this I don't hope to persuade Brexiters of anything. The EU has made its legal position clear on what happens without a deal and I am inclined to take them at their word. Brexiters, though, insist that this is all bluff and German and French industry will bring pressure to bear on the EU to force concessions. I'm not willing to bet the farm and the fishing boat on that assessment. Having written over a million words on Brexit and trade and waded through FTAs and agreements in order to understand the system I will go with my own analysis over that of a naive Brexiter. 

This is not a matter of rune-reading and economic forecasting. This is more a case of physics than astrology. If the EU says we have no rights within a particular market then that does have quantifiable implications for our services and exports. If airline repair organisations are no longer certified then aircraft repaired by them are uninsurable to fly. If safety equipment is no longer certified work can not go ahead. Without visa arrangements technicians cannot be dispatched to perform repairs. These may be peripheral issues to moving lorries between Dover and Calais but they mount up to a magnitude more economic activity. There is so much more to trade than logistics.

It's so very tempting to give the EU the two-fingered salute and tell them where to shove their deal. I would so love to do that but for the UK to do so alone, in peacetime, in respect of a relatively benign alliance would set in motion a series of volatile events where the UK would not enjoy much room for manoeuvre. The EU is, after all, a trade and regulatory superpower and one quite capable of boxing us in if we give it cause to. We are also not operating in a vacuum. There is an international legal order to observe and Brexit does not give us the free hand many think it does.

When it comes down to it I am not prepared to stake the future of the country on wildly naive bravado from ordinary leavers and certainly not on the issue illiterate and thoroughly dishonest shtick from the Ultras. Nor am I in a rush to give way to my own nihilism that says let it all burn. The stakes are too high. 

I am of the view that a negotiated Brexit at worst puts us in a limbo but one from which we can recover at a later date where we are then in an optimal position to promote a new model for Europe. The writing is on the wall for the EU. As a trade arena few can deny its benefits but in the end it is the political integration that will destroy it. From the outside we have the ability to build support for a new framework for European relations - possibly involving Efta - but we can't do that if we're a bankrupt dysfunctional mess.

I do not discount the future possibility of the UK taking its place in Efta but for now now we have poisoned the well. It does not enjoy backing of leavers and while we are still inside the Article 50 framework and remainers still smell an opportunity to remain, they won't back it either. It's on the backburner and will remain there until the transition is over. The support for it in the Commons is too little, too late. 

Before the UK can move forward we need a sense of political coherence and a unity of purpose. For a time that is impossible and a no deal Brexit would exacerbate many of the economic stresses that contributed to the Brexit vote. We therefore need to see this process through and get ourselves to the other side before we can take stock. 

I am fully aware of the flaws in Theresa May's deal but it is the deal all the same. The EU is not going to reopen the books on it for a new leader - especially when the UK is still negotiating with itself. It would have been nice to have a dog in the fight in yesterday's leadership contest but the Brexiters to this day still do not have a coherent and deliverable plan and that was always the problem.

In the end the ERG proved to be toothless, gutless and hypocritical. At any point in the last two years they could have made their move but they never had the numbers for their extreme agenda and they knew it. They were always going to fold. They could, had they the political foresight, have killed the remain movement stone dead by adopting a pragmatic plan, but instead chose to push it right to the wire with an agenda no moderate could support. Never once did they give us a vision or a realistic alternative and May's deal is ultimately the consequence of their own intransigence.

The battle for the outcome of Brexit was well before the referendum. Battles are won or lost before they even begin. It's all a matter of preparation. Eurosceptics never agreed what form the future relationship should take and most never gave it a moment's thought. It took until well after the referendum before lead Brexiters could even get their heads round the notion of non-tariff barriers. Brexit's thought leaders have repeatedly proven themselves out of their depth and resorted to buster and bluff in place of argument. Every opportunity along the way to take the initiative was squandered and every avoidable mistake was made. 

At some point we have to take ownership of those mistakes and stop pretending it can be done some other way. There were other ways to crack the nut but Brexiters wanted it all their own way immediately, never once bowing to reality and demanding the impossible. This deal is the culmination of that supreme arrogance. I had hoped for better but now we are out of options and it's the only deal on the table. Brexiters are advised to take the win they have while they have it.

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