Sunday, 23 June 2019

Brexit: a journey without a destination

After nearly half a century of EU membership our systems of government have been transformed beyond recognition. We are forever subject to new rules having no idea where they come from, no ability to remove them and no meaningful say in their development. Be it 50mph speed limits or the smoking ban or the supremely irritating cookies permission check on websites.

Sometimes they are measures taken by our own government but very often there is a hidden EU dimension where you need to know where to look to find it. Though the Energy Act of 2008 is notionally a piece of UK law, much of it is there to meet EU and international obligations. The chain of accountability is blurred and as ever, there is insufficient scrutiny, realism or scepticism applied. The British parliament is very often just an implementing agent for the EU supreme government.

By way of implementing EU directives on everything from planning to government procurement, we have overwritten the previous culture of government with something quite alien which silently removes democratic inputs. I was brought up to believe that democracy is not a spectator sport, but whatever this system we have is, ie. not democracy, most certainly is a spectator sport. We can comment on it, complain about it, but not influence it.

Many believe that Brexit is the ultimate remedy for this. If only that were true. It might have been had we left two decades ago but those now running the apparatus of government, to a larger extent, have never known it working any other way - and most see not immediate need to change it. Introducing democracy into a well oiled and relatively efficient system of governing is mightily inconvenient.

That silent transformation will be the lasting legacy of EU membership, where correcting it requires firstly that we understand precisely what was done to us and why, and then have an idea of what it is we actually want to change. On both counts the Brexit movement has failed to adequately fill in the blanks.

The average Brexiter (and those who ought to know better) seem to think that Brexit of itself is a rebirth of democracy and self rule, but unless we uninstall the EU software, all we are really doing is handing over the management of the system to authoritarian technocrats based in London rather than Brussels. Taking back control it is not - and there is little to suggest that "faceless unelected bureaucrats" in London would do things any different or better. The mentality is uniform throughout.

Then, as much as EU membership comes with restraints on the exercise of sovereignty, so too does participating in the nexus of international organisations, where we soon bump into the reality that the EU is many respects is only a middle man drafting implementing instruments for global conventions and Brexit by no means gives us a free hand unless we reconsider a number of international treaties and agreements.

This is a factor that has not yet been acknowledged by the public Brexit debate, largely because it cannot cope with having an extra dimension added to it. Remainers generally aren't remotely interested and Brexiters do not like the narrative upset that Brussels is the source of all evil - and that Brexit is the wonder drug that will set us free once and for all.

These are realities the Brexiters would have bumped into had they put any serious thought into what comes next. We hear all the usual platitudes about returning powers to the regions and decentralising power, but the nature of modern international relations is binding commitments which compel local and national governments to act inside a predetermined set of parameters. Unless there is a recognition that the people are sovereign, with a system to ensure governments cannot sign up to such treaties without explicit consent, it won't take very long for us to be back where we started.

This is where the remainers have a germ of a point. Brexit headbangers rail against the undemocratic EU, but where exactly is the democracy in the WTO? Remainers, though, are not quite honest here. WTO rulings/articles do not have direct effect nor are they especially binding in the way that the supranational EU is, but part of the reason the USA is blocking the WTO is because there are fears the WTO is becoming something it explicitly said it wouldn't be. They have a point. It started as a system of trade governance but there is now considerable mission creep - especially in the realms of international development and the slow infusion of the climate change agenda.

It should also be noted that the WTO does not work in isolation. It has multiple partnerships with other international organisations ranging from the International Maritime Organisation through to the International Telecommunications Union. E-Commerce and IP concerns are becoming central concerns in trade, leaving the tariff obsessed Brexiters playing in the shallow end of trade.

What we see emerging is a global network of agenda setting organisations, whose activities are even more obscured than those of the EU, where lobbyists and super-NGOs operate with virtually no public scrutiny. Thanks to Brexit, the WTO is the more famous of these bodies, but prior to 2016, most would be only dimly aware of its existence and couldn't tell you with any clarity what it actually does. The WTO, though, is only the tip of the iceberg.

As with most international bodies, if you want your voice heard, you have to participate and play by the rules. Though many of international conventions are not legally binding as such, if you want to press home your own international initiatives, you don't really have a choice but to comply. This is the essence of soft power in the international arena. I will if you will.

The danger here is that without the EU as a focus for our Whitehall technocracy, it will simply redirect its attentions to global bodies and in twenty years or so we will be having all the exact same arguments about sovereignty and national identity etc. There is that famous Peter Shore speech doing the rounds among Brexiters in which he asks if Australia would allow Japan to make their rules. As it happens, there is a debate in Australian politics very similar to our own Brexit psychodrama regarding the adoption on rules and standards, many of which go beyond the realms of trade governance. This is very much a global dilemma. I was recently directed to this report which estimates 55% of Australian standards adopted in 2016-17 were adoptions of international standards.

Then we must look at who is setting the rules at the global level. For now the EU is the dominant actor, not least in terms of its regulatory expertise and its trade clout. One way or another, the EU will be influential in terms of UK technical governance whether we have a deal with them or not.

Among the Brexiters there is a two dimensional view that one is either in the EU and regulated by the EU or one is a free agent with unrestrained national sovereignty able to act unilaterally without international consequences. This is prevalent among the Brexit headbangers who believe that no deal is the only means of leaving which satisfies the referendum mandate. Three hundred areas of sectoral cooperation and integration can be jettisoned over night without alternate arrangements and so far as they are concerned, trade in goods and services function as normal - provided we can get a quickie deal on tariffs.

This is the fundamental self-deception of Brexiters whose failure to acknowledge the realities of global governance may well see all their best hopes for Brexit fall flat. As much as the UK needs a coherent plan for democratic reform internally, taking into account the inherent conflicts with intergovernmentalism, and unless there is an intellectual foundation for our post Brexit strategy, then we find ourselves reacting to brushfires we could and should have anticipated, but didn't, and then walk into every ambush set for us.

In the absence of an intellectual foundation, having failed to properly examine the issues, the debate in respect of what happens post-Brexit is hopelessly naive, believing the UK can deregulate with reckless abandon and set its own standards, subsidising and bailing out wherever we see fit, as though it carries no penalty in terms of access to EU markets.

As far as Brexit goes, it goes along way toward repatriating the decision making where the respective trade offs will be debated by our own politics, but very often our choices will be few and unpalatable. By botching Brexit in the first instance (leaving without a deal), the UK will rapidly find itself making concession after concession to the point where we find ourselves adopting EU rules verbatim and will likely end up as quasi-members of the CFP and CAP along with much else which will poor cold water on the ambitions of Brexiters who thought Brexit was a window for industrial and social renewal.

As ever, the central fault in Brexiter thinking is the belief that Brexit is a singular event rather than a process, believing that once the event has occurred we are free agents in the open seas. This strand of thought does not recognise the necessity for regulatory harmonisation and cooperation nor does it see the utility in trade cooperation. They are working to entirely obsolete notions as though the rest of the world went into stasis when we joined the EU and when we rejoin the world we simply pick up where we left off. Consequently we are undertaking a journey with no destination and no plan that will survive first contact with reality.

Ultimately the Brexiters have been fighting their crusade for so long they have forgotten what it is they really want to achieve. Brexit in and of itself has become the holy grail and one suspects the moment we do actually leave, many of its crusaders will down tools to whinge about something else. We've seen that already in that what was left of Ukip abandoned any interest in Brexit to focus entirely on grunting about Muslims. It's only because we haven't actually left yet that the movement has a second lease of life. There is no apparent interest in shaping Britain toward any loftier objectives, largely because there aren't any. So long as they can say we are out of the EU then it's mission accomplished.

Being that there is no post-Brexit agenda, and certainly nothing that acknowledges the real world, there is a goodly chance this is all for nought. Until we address what was done to us, and set about reversing it, then the establishment will go into damage control mode and will see to it that though we are out of the EU, the power will still remain in the hands of the unaccountable few.

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