Sunday, 14 April 2019

Britain must have an independent trade policy


James Kirkup, writing in the Spectator gives us a round up of why he thinks Brexiter trade delusions do not pass muster. This is the same Spectator that saw fit to publish Liam Halligan's piece entitled "No deal with the EU? Sounds like a good deal to me" and "Why a no-deal Brexit is nothing to fear" by David Collins - and many more like it along with apologia for Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

As it happens the Kirkup piece has a decent enough grounding in the Janet and John stuff (compared to the rest of the legacy media dross), though spoiling it beyond credibility by describing the EU as a free trade deal. But this really is the sort of discussion we should have been having many moons ago while the Spectator was polluting the debate with its poison.

A prestige vessel like the Spectator really ought to have shown better judgment but having done the bidding of their mates in the IEA and the Tory party, there is zero chance of its editors ever taking responsibility for the damage they have done. They will hide behind the excuse that they seek to publish a range of opinions. That may well be a laudable goal but at the same time the Spectator really ought to be setting an example by at least publishing material with a passing relationship with verifiable facts.

But none of that matters now. We have crossed the event horizon. The narratives are now so deeply entrenched that this kind of discussion is largely pointless. Brexit is now a revolutionary movement and these such populist orgies are never all that interested in the finer details. In the end, the propaganda won out. People still, sadly, place their faith in titles of good standing and prestige and the Spectator certainly played its own role in persuading the Tory grassroots that no deal was a viable outcome. 

As it happens, though, as readers of this blog will know, there are ample avenues for the UK to pursue an independent trade policy and so long as we do safeguard our trade with the EU by leaving with a deal we could very well have a more responsive trade policy interwoven with our foreign and international development policies and there is even a case to be made that a diversified approach to trade could be mutually beneficial to the UK and EU.

That case, however, is no longer worth making. It looks very much like we are leaving without a deal in which case we are in damage control mode and will be unable to finance an active trade and development policy. Moreover, good ideas simply won't see the light of day for as long as the political mainstream is dominated by the likes of the Spectator. If they get anywhere close to an interesting contribution it will be years late and thin gruel, much like Kirkup's latest effort.

We have to assume, though, that while it isn't explicitly stated in the article,  the article seeks to address the matter of the Tory demand that we avoid a customs union at all costs. That's something they are right about albeit for the wrong reasons. The textbook definition of a customs union would not stop us operating an independent trade policy, but a customs union with the EU would come with all the bells and whistles which very much would. 

What that means is full alignment with the Common Commercial Policy which would not only stop us operating independently, it would also leave us politically bound to the EU - impacting major areas of domestic policy and more broadly our foreign policy. We cannot expect that Brexit will give us an entirely free hand being that the nature of trade is interconnectedness, but a customs union with all the trimmings would leave us more of a supplicant than before.

This is fundamentally a question of who gets the final say over what happens in respect of our trade. As an EU member, the ECJ is always the supreme authority and with the definition of what constitutes trade ever expanding, requiring ever more European level coordination, we are drifting toward a scenario where nationally and locally we will have no meaningful democratic inputs on the laws we pass.

This is the question that lies at the heart of Brexit. The EU most certainly is a trade superpower but in whose interests and in what ways can it be held accountable. Those are questions that have never been satisfactorily addressed. The discussions on Brexit are less about trade as to what sort of place we want our country to be where the economics arguments are a secondary concern. But in order to bring about the society we wish to see (an argument not yet concluded) we lack the means to build it if every policy decision must first be cleared with Brussels.

The EU certainly does contribute to an economy where we have high availability of cheap goods and services but the price of this is a more transient society with less secure work where people are increasingly treated as commodities. This is undermining traditions, weakening communities, diluting local democracy, and increasingly basic expectations of life for many are now a pipedream. 

Whether or not Brexit really gives us the tools to address these issues is neither here nor there. Whether the EU is the exact culprit of our many maladies is yet another irrelevant question. Brexit has put these vital questions back on the political map and at the centre of public discourse after decades of a prevailing orthodoxy that "the science is settled" on our approach to economics and trade liberalisation, despite it leaving so many behind.

You'll get no argument from me that the Tory free trade dogma is wholly deluded, but that seems to be something of a moot point since it looks like the Tory party is not long for this world. The debate about whether we align with the USA or enter a visa arrangement with India is one still to come. For the first time in my lifetime these such issues will be the subject of public debate and lobbying by civil society. Trade no longer belongs to the wonks and the civil servants. It's been put back in the public domain where we have a greater chance of influencing it.

The net effect may well be a weaker Britain in the trade leagues, but one that is more agile, more responsive and able to forge sectoral alliances independently so as to table its own agendas. Market size is not the only governing factor and though larger states have greater leverage, the ultimate veto rests with parliament on who and what comes in. Of course there are trade offs but at least there is a debate about it. We then become responsible for our own decisions rather than government being something that is simply done to us with no warning. 

Brexit does mean the UK will have to get used to its new status as a mid ranking power, but one more able to shape its own external relations and one capable of defining its own cultural parameters, safeguarding that which makes this country a decent place to live. If this were just about trade then there is no real case for leaving the EU - but as any Brexiter will tell you, this isn't about trade. But trade is one of those instruments we have outsourced to Brussels without our consent and to the point where we, the public, have less control than ever. That above all is why we must have an independent trade policy. Brexit has always been a question of who governs us. 

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