Friday, 11 January 2019

How the EEA option was killed

As most will know, I was an EEA advocate. The window for that kind of Brexit is now closed. We poisoned the well. I can;t say exactly when the option died but I think Nick Boles's Norway then Canada nonsense killed it stone dead.

Such an approach sounds superficially pragmatic but like most things it falls over on detail. The whole point of staying in the EEA is to avoid erecting complex barriers to trade. Without such a foundation then third country controls apply. If the destination is then to leave the EEA inside a decade then one might simply ask "what is the point?".

Such a plan is also completely impractical. It makes several assumptions about the ease of moving to the EEA failing to acknowledge that the EEA would need extensive configuration for the UK and require a number of add ons to make it work. In that regard, the latter day EEA advocates are every bit as dishonest as the ERG - downplaying the complexity and building their plans on a foundation of fantasy. Naturally Norway then Canada as an idea got short shrift from the PM of Norway.

Telling us that he had listened to critics, Boles then went back to the drawing board to produce "Norway Plus". As with all Brexit concoctions the "plus" is entirely nebulous, but largely indicating a customs union that somehow isn't a customs union. There are ways around doing it that way but you need to have a command of how the system works - which none of its advocates do.

This then throws up a huge question mark as to how it can be incorporated into the stack when to be in Efta you can't be in a customs union. This leads to more convoluted talk about a special derogation for the UK from Efta or an alternate pillar. This to me misses half the point in that it leaves us with a foot in both camps when really if we are to go in the Efta direction it should be with a view to contributing to the life of Efta as a full and committed member with a view to strengthening its independence from the EU.

From a geostrategic perspective this makes the most sense in that there are obvious merits to being a counterweight to the EU. It also softens the blow of leaving and avoids the cliff edge business will experience when excluded from services markets and facing the full brunt of EU official controls.

Alas, it was not to be. The Remainers lied through their teeth about it, refused to compromise and poisoned the well, all the while the Brexit blob did their own bit to sabotage the option at every turn through their respective propaganda channels. Though the option is the most sensible and most pragmatic, it still does not enjoy popular support. It's a niche corner of the debate.

Even now, whenever I make mention of the EEA option, a Brexiter will pipe up with the mantra that "Norway is not Brexit". Such inconquerable stupidity is impossible to combat when the option has so little exposure and no credible advocates in the public eye. Stephen Kinnock for a time made a half decent go of it, but his name further toxified the option for obvious reasons, even though he was, to a point, well intentioned.

The final nail, though, was Norway plus. Parliament is not trusted in the slightest and Brexiters believe that a close relationship (or at this point any relationship at all) is a means to park Brexit so as to rejoin at a later date. This idea has taken hold to the point where the petition for no deal has reached 325,000 signatures. Depressingly, such a body blow to the UK is probably the fastest route to a reaccession application whereas Efta would end up a permanent home since there would be no economic or political imperative to rejoin.

Being that Norway Plus is an even bigger ask that just "Norway", tying us to EU trade policy, it was never going to win over any Brexiter in parliament having set their hearts on a "free trade" agenda. The same reason Brexiters are militantly opposed to May's deal. The debate has fixated on tariffs and FTAs and if there's a wrong end of the stick they will grasp it with both hands. For an EEA option to succeed it had to have competent defenders and cross party support. It also needed the support of high profile leavers. Boles and his gang have made that impossible.

This has not been at all helped by the opposition whose own muddle leads them down the path of political triangulation. Labour does not want to lose its northern working class base, so in the belief that freedom of movement cannot be controlled within the EEA, and a systemic misapprehension of what a customs union does, they have set their stall up against the EEA, while demanding a largely pointless customs union.

Now we're in an even bigger mess since Theresa May, also conscious to end freedom of movement at all costs, but also keen to avoid border controls has conspired to cook up another customs union that isn't a customs union (which actually is). What she hopes the media won't notice (which they probably won't) is that a customs union does next to nothing to ease border friction. Official controls are nothing to do with customs unions.

Were we able to disregard the politics of Brexit and the inherent misconceptions, EEA would be an entirely viable, completely logical and eventually beneficial way to manage the process. It keeps the business end of trade integration but politically we are free agents able to forge our own relationships elsewhere. Politics, though, very much intrudes and there is no outright majority for anything.

Now though, talk of a plan B is not only too little, too late, MPs don't seem to have read the writing on the wall. The EU has had enough. Negotiations are over. The deal we can have is the deal on the table. The book is closed. MPs on all sides, though, seem to think that we can vote down the deal and go back to Brussels with yet more half understood notions, going round in yet more circles, not listening to what we are told.

At this point I have every sympathy with the EU. Were it that the UK had an unambiguous idea of what it did want, and a workable, viable proposal, with majority backing, there would perhaps be a reason to entertain a reset. That, though is not the case. The government is still fumbling around in a muddle and knows only what it doesn't want. The British government has a track record of not hearing what it is told and failing completely to understand the EU's position. Further talks are simply not productive. The EU wants to see the back of this.

This singular fact has escaped the attention of MPs who think there is no risk attached to voting down Mrs May's deal and they can keep buggering about. They also seem to think that their tinkering with amendments can prevent an accidental Brexit. They have misled themselves, beliging that we can unilaterally rewrite the rules of Article 50. They will, therefore, vote down Mrs May's deal which presents an imminent risk of leaving with no deal at all.

Central to this is the dysfunction of parliament, but also our media. Though MPs have research staff and the resources at their disposal to get good answers, they have failed to adequately utilise them. Instead their understanding of the technical issues comes from gossip. They rely on our media whose own understanding of the issues is weak and is responsible for much of the errors surrounding the EEA option. It doesn't particularly help that the newspapers themselves have abandoned any obligation to inform and are willing participants in disseminating disinformation.

The media has been unable to adequately report on the consequences of no deal, often trivialising or sensationalsing them, and the right wing press pretends there are no issues at all. The lack of urgency, therefore, has allowed the situation to drift and only now is there is sense of panic. At every test both our politics and our media has failed.

At the root of this, though, is something more fundamental. On every level our political establishment has been operating in the dark since day one. It is oft said that Brexiters are ignorant of the EU and how it functions but EU ignorance is near universal. The EU as a governance operating system was installed slowly, by stealth and its mechanisms were designed by commission officials to a deliberately ambiguous blueprint. To understand how we get out requires under understanding of what it is that we've got ourselves into.

Being that those still in parliament who ratified the Lisbon treaty never bothered to read it, much less understand it, have never really understood its constituent parts. Ratifying it was largely a giant tribal virtue signal and its full implications were never fully debated and public debate was muted. Opposition came from the same eurosceptic obsessives because they saw it for what it was. MPs looked at the direction from which opposition was coming and elected to ignore it.

Being that MPs were only too happy to hand over powers to Brussels, they have never taken the time to understand the system and they haven't now since most of them have focussed much of their effort on preventing Brexit from occurring. There was never any sincere effort to understand the EEA option because they were never willing to countenance any alternative. In respect of that, the Brexit headbangers are right. Those MPs who have converted to the EEA option are largely remainers who see EEA as a damage limitation exercise rather that a springboard to something more ambitious.

What afflicts Westminster is a smallness of thinking. Remainers just want the status quo because it doesn't disturb the status quo and allows them to carry on as before, free to indulge themselves in their own narcissistic delusions while Leaver MPs, many of them carpetbaggers have no idea what to do with Brexit now that they have it.

Free trade is a late addition to the Brexit cause and is largely a post-hoc justification - and a weak one at that. To them the buccaneering global Britain mantras seems like a big vision but without detail and a plan it's just a pipedream. Dropping out of the EU just to jet off round the world signing identikit FTAs is not only a regression from our current position, it's also lacking in ambition. The tories have a completely two dimensional idea of what trade is and a massively inflated sense of national importance.

The big idea behind Brexit is not free trade. Rather it is an attempt to reclaim government for the people. The Brexit debacle shows why that is necessary. Sweeping trade liberalisation measures as proposed by the Tories involves opening ourselves up to the full force of global competition with few safeguards. To do so involves sweeping aside the concerns of citizens on everything from competition through to food standards.

Brexit as is stands on a foundation of intellectual sand, and depressingly, Brexit has no competent defenders in the public eye. They have no idea what is regulated or what they would regulate differently or how any of it can bring any remedy to the social and economic problems we face. None of the nostrums about deregulation or tinkering with tariffs is of any major benefit - especially so when divergence from our nearest and largest markets puts up barriers to it.

Brexit rams a lot of stark issues into the pubic eye and highlights the need for urgent and radical change. Remainers preferred it before the referendum when they were able to ignore the acute issues and set their own political priorities, and they would really rather not think about any of this. Now that it;s happening, not unreasonably they expect that the Brexiters might have some convincing answers. And they really don't. It is, therefore, no surprise that the incumbent establishment has gone into hyperdrive to stop Brexit.

Being that they have at times come very close to succeeding, the details of Brexit and indeed the consequences slip to the edges as this becomes a culture war between those who want to be an independent country and those who do not. With such an odious establishment imbued with a sense of its own superiority, and the belief they have the god given right to overrule voters, Brexit has become a fight to the death where there is simply no room for compromise and no basis for trust. Politically, this is a civil war, and only when we are standing in the ruins will anyone be interested in a pan.

Now that the EEA option is dead, there is really only two possible outcomes. Either Mrs May will somehow bulldoze her deal through at the last minute or we leave without a deal. Our democracy is in no shape to tolerate Brexit being stopped. Leavers have waited a long time and worked hard for their prize and have had to defend it every step of the way. Should their hard won victory be stolen from them by an establishment held in deep contempt then we unleash all hell.

It is not impossible that if Mrs May's deal passes then we could pivot to a version of the EEA, but the combination of the withdrawal agreement and an FTA with all the trimmings is in some ways preferable. The impact of leaving the single market is serious but there are then more opportunities for democratic renewal and fewer constraints on what national and local democracy can do. We will regret the loss of trade but it's tolerable. I can't see any customs union lasting forever, especially as the technology to phase it out develops.

The one ting I am certain of here is that if there is no deal then our political woes are only just beginning. No doubt every faction will be on the warpath and looking for someone to blame. I won't be blaming any single faction. It will be a failure of our media, our politics, our institutions and our leaders. We all all carry some responsibility for our predicament. That is part of democracy. The people bear the consequences of their choices. It is not the function of our politics to protect us from ourselves as authoritarians like David Lammy would have it. We are not children.

Ironically, such a failure of politics would exemplify why change was necessary. The fact that it could come to this is perhaps an indication of why it must. Our politics is not fit for purpose, it lacks the talent and the knowledge to manage change effectively and it resists democracy to the death. We should also not forget that it was this parliament that introduced  this liability in the first place by taking us not Lisbon without consent. They did this to is. Whatever comes after must ensure they never get the chance again.

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