Thursday, 17 January 2019

Brexit: victims of our collective delusions


The easiest thing in the world to do is write critiques of the EU. In essence it has become the engine of globalisation but more so; the vanguard of global technocracy, using its trade clout to bring about an expansive global system of rules which increasingly mute the exercise of national sovereignty.

The problem critics face is that this level of stability and integration has obvious merits. Individual freedoms are the byproduct of commercial freedoms as the EU has shown. This is the strongest and most persuasive argument for remainers.

Leavers, though, face is a more difficult dilemma. The desire for a departure from the EU based on the principles of sovereignty and self-rule bump into the everyday reality that much of our exports only exist because of a high level of trade harmonisation. The refusal to incorporate this reality into their thinking, believing that much will function as it always has, is why they do not anticipate the seismic shock that Brexit, especially in the event of no deal, will inevitably bring.

Much of our commerce works within a system of rules where unless you were in some way exposed to them through employment or politics, you would never know they were there. Ordinarily intelligent people have no concept of the multiple tiers of invisible governance that facilitates trade in goods and services.

Brexiters believe that any warning is media connivance with the forces of Remain and that any expert testimony is the bias of a privileged and entitled class who don't want oiks interfering with the running of government. That much is absolutely true. There are no public trade experts (that I know of) who favour Brexit. If you look at it solely through that professional prism, any objective mind would conclude that Brexit is not a good idea - or at the very least would conclude that the alternatives offered up by the leading Brexiteers lack accuracy and substance.

There is, of course, plentiful reason to disregard to ignore expertise. Trade experts like any other clique form their own respective groupthinks and collective blindness. Their professional function is to examine means to promote trade and stimulate growth. There is, though, far more to life than GDP and is is more to societal well being. We must also note that GDP is also a poor measure of success. Here I turn to a fascinating article by Geoff Gilbert of Bilaterals.org.
The conventional wisdom says that if you oppose free trade, you must support protectionism or economic nationalism. This is misleading. There is no such thing as “free” trade. People create all of the systems that govern our political economy. These systems inevitably favor certain human activities over others, and we can design them to act any way that we want. The important question is: For whom are trade policies “free”? Put another way: Who do trade policies favor?
“Free” trade is free only for capital owners: the plutocratic few who own and control multinational corporations. When countries enter into free trade agreements, the governments of both countries effectively agree that their laws will not favor businesses from their country over businesses from any other countries. The main way that free trade does this is by attempting to reduce all tariffs to as close to 0 percent as possible, to eliminate import quotas that countries can use to limit the amount and types of goods imported from specified countries, and to discourage countries from more directly subsidizing their own businesses. 
Far from promoting freedom for everyone, “free” trade empowers multinationals from the global North to control the world political economy in two important ways. First, free trade facilitates global North multinationals to maintain the unequal trade they established with the global South during colonialism. This increases inequalities of power and wealth between global North and global South. Second, free trade empowers global North multinationals to plan the world economy alongside global South multinationals, the junior partners of the global North multinationals, and to pit working-class people in the global North and global South against one another.
The whole article is worth a read and though written from a US perspective, much the same can be said of the EU. I alluded to this dynamic earlier in the week commenting how Nigeria was suspicious of EU free trade deals and how India is taking its own protectionist measures to stimulate its own domestic industrial development and to protect their own internal market.

It can easily be argued that the aggressive trade policies of the USA and the EU have done a great deal to destabilise Africa, undermining development by dumping their own surpluses. It can also be argued that this is a driver of mass migration which could very well be an existential threat to the EU.

There is also the question of who makes the rules. Though EU regulations are generally assumed to be of EU origin, many of them simply enact global treaties, standards and conventions forged in largely unknown global bodies, reported on by few and barely understood. These are very much hives of corporate lobbying, corruption and maladministration. The WTO is far from the vanilla enterprise its advocates believe it to be. Meanwhile the EU itself is the hellmouth of corporate lobbying. We are witnessing the privatisation of regulation. 

This is barely acknowledged in the public debate. Remainers see EU is a big blue blob of virtue on the other side of the channel because the media would never scrutinise EU in the way it chases after every Westminster triviality. There is no meaningful scrutiny of it, which allows such infantile perceptions of it to evolve. To their minds, says Sam Hooper, Brussels is a refulgent land exclusively populated by altruistic public servants workin’ and co-operatin’ across national borders for the Greater Good, while Britain is a parochial and benighted place, land of Gammons and the Evil Tor-ees.

Leavers, rightly, despair are the naivety and lexiters are aghast at self-styled left wing progressives who worship at the altar of this profoundly neoliberal enterprise. Remainers speak of how the EU enshrines their rights but EU freedoms are primarily corporate freedoms. Those "rights" remainers wail about are for the convenience of business so it can replace workers on a whim and toss them aside without consequence. The "protections" are mere PR padding. Only real democracy can safeguard rights.

The problem leavers must confront, though, is that many of these malign forces are only partially remedied by Brexit. Unfortunately the EU does not stop existing after we leave. It is entirely capable of exerting its influence and any relationship with the EU necessarily requires conforming to its various regulations and processes if we wish to maintain our comprehensive commercial relationship with it.

I despair on a daily basis the level of debate among Brexiters who simply assume that German car makers will race to our rescue and push the EU into relaxing its system of controls we have developed jointly over the last three decades. The unwillingness to confront the technical dilemmas, believing it can all be resolved politically fails to understand the nature of the beast. It can and does break its own rules, but in the case of the UK, there is a certain churlish desire to ensure that the UK suffers.

In spirit, I am with the no dealers. I very much understand the impulse to give Brussels the two fingered salute. But then by the same token, the consequences of doing so are too grave for such a cavalier approach. It is also wholly unnecessary.

To my mind, Britain has obligations. Agreements and plans have been made and cheques have been signed. It is not in our interests to harm the EU. It is not in our political or economic interests to do so. A withdrawal agreement to deal with the legacy issues accumulated from forty years of membership necessary and it follows that such an agreement will have binding commitments. Some will be a bitter pill to swallow. As much as it is necessary to uphold our international reputation, it is also necessary if we wish to proceed to the next stage of the game and negotiate a replacement framework.

The end point of the Brexit process is to return political authority over who and what comes into the country. That much in theory can be done overnight, but when immediately putting us on to a crisis footing, the urgency of the situation may force us into choices we would not otherwise make, forcing the exact exposure to global forces we seek to guard against. We must therefore act with care.

The realities of modern trade dictate that absolute sovereignty will always be a chimera. The Brexit process, therefore should focus on that which is immediately important. We are never going to tick all of the boxes and some will never be satisfied. It is useless to try. Though leaving the EU is the primary objective in the process, we must still take into account the practical realities of this undertaking not least because it has ramifications for our standing in the world after Brexit. A weakened UK with a tarnished reputation will struggle to recover its position.

The question of whether we should leave the EU is a no brainer. Trade and commerce must always be subordinate to democracy and it is intolerable that so much is done to us without a people's veto and no domestic scrutiny. The question of how we leave, though, is one that requires pragmatism and realism. On that score, the Brexiters have vacated the field. They cannot, therefore, be surprised if the remainers take charge. Leaving without a deal may be the expedient route, but to pander to the ideologues is a failure of statecraft which the nation will not forgive. 

No comments:

Post a comment