Monday, 4 November 2019

Brexit: painted into a corner


The Tories are in full lie mode. They are lying because their biggest headache is the Brexit Party. Both the ERG Tories and the Brexit Party have spent the last year telling us that May's deal is not Brexit and now if they Tories want to save their own skin they need us to believe that Johnson's modified deal is substantially different.

One of the chief complaints from Mogg, Baker et al was the "vassal state" transition. That's still in there so they are now promising it will not go beyond 2020. Liz Truss tweets "We will not be extending the Brexit transition period beyond 2020. The British people have waited long enough for Brexit. We will be able to negotiate a good free trade deal with the EU and other partners in that timeframe."

But of course we won't be. Even if the future deal could be negotiated in a year, don't forget we wasted the entire first year of Article 50 talks because the government had no clue what it wanted and didn't understand the process. We can expect the same again, treading water while the Tories learn the basics. And they will learn the hard way we they first have to be argued with ad nauseum, deconstructing a great many myths they've programmed themselves with over the last five years.

Put simply, there is zero chance of a comprehensive future relationship being negotiated in one or even two years. There are 300 areas of technical cooperation that require alternative arrangements if we want the full spectrum of commercial opportunities. Tories are barely aware they exist. When you're talking about legal arrangements on everything from intellectual property through to data protection, fisheries and financial services, there is no such thing as a "simple free trade agreement". It has to be comprehensive and it's not going to happen fast.

As it happens there is no such thing in the modern world as "free trade". FTAs are about rules for trade governance - so when you hear Tice, Baker, Mogg and Farage blethering about "free trade" you can be assured they are no closer to knowing what it is than they were five years ago.

In respect of the transition, the Brexit Party are very right to be concerned that we will end up in a long term interim arrangement and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it could become permanent. It is possible the transition may become a staggered implementation period but the process will complete at a glacial pace.

This is something that could and should have been anticipated which is why we Leave Alliance types insisted that it might be a good idea to have some sort of Brexit plan. In full expectation that disengaging from a system of governance more than four decades old would require a transition, we took the view that the fastest way to get the ball rolling, and to have an arrangement where the EU could not exploit vulnerabilities created by transition, was to join Efta and retain the EEA.

Having failed to anticipate this, believing Article 50 would be used to fashion a quick and dirty trade deal, believing Brexit was an event rather than a process, the Brexiteers have walked blindly into every ambush and will continue to do so. As yet we have an incomplete idea of what our trade defence concerns are, what access we wish to retain and what form the regulatory relationship is going to take. There are many battles to come and many bitter pills to swallow. 

None of this, though will get a look in. Our politics has reverted to its comfort zone of weaponising the NHS and blethering about the gender balance of leader's debates. The Brexit process is far too boring to make a central feature of a general election and if we can't even have an informed rational debate about the NHS then the chances of having one about trade are zero. I have repeatedly attempted to raise these concerns on Twitter over the last three years but each little clan has their own narrative and if there's one thing about our politics, it does not like to be disturbed by reality. What little debate there is exists in a parallel universe.

Of course the Brexit Party answer is not to engage in any of the realities, instead believing we should leave now and slam the door behind us, then demand a fresh negotiation under the remit of GATT24. This narrative has ossified to the point where it is no longer questioned by the grunters and they're going to believe whatever is convenient to believe.

That then puts the Tories in the awkward position of having to dismantle a great many of the falsehoods that they themselves have created. The ERG and their associate propaganda vessels are responsible for much of the no deal mythology. Steve Baker now implores us to read and accept the analysis done by Martin Howe QC who now insists that Boris's deal is a universe apart from May's and is not the BRINO he and Baker have been telling us it is. I suppose having no shame comes in handy. Easy to get away with when the media will give you a free pass.

The ugly truth is that the only way we will conclude a quick FTA with the EU is if we sign one already written by the EU. EEA was the only realistic way to ensure we didn't end up in a "vassal state" transition for years but that wasn't Brexity enough for Brexiteers. They've painted themselves into this corner. We now have to accept we will be locked into the EU's negotiating framework for years or face no Brexit at all. Our fate was sealed pretty much the moment we invoked Article 50 without the first idea of a destination.

Though notionally we could ratify the withdrawal agreement, but then fail to secure a deal over the future relationship, dropping out without alternative trading arrangements, unless Johnson has a commanding majority, parliament may find a way to force his hand. Though it is unclear what form that would take. My hunch, though, is that we will extend for as long as is necessary and for as long as the EU will allow. The Tories have a few collisions with reality between now and then that should further inform their position.

Whichever way you look at it Brexit was always going to take a long time to navigate. The notion that we are going to "get Brexit done" any time this side of 2025 is fanciful. We are looking at a decade in totality but loose ends to tie even after a final future treaty is concluded. In that time, without knowing what that relationship looks like we won't be striking "bumper deals" with anyone. The scope of external deals will be highly contingent on the shape of our relationship with the EU and the kind of EU market access we retain.

To say that the discipline of trade is complicated is something of an understatement and nether our politics or media are equipped to handle it. The UK has lost all its institutional knowledge and that which is in circulation comes from a narrow claque of trade wonks all of whom think in the narrow terms of FTAs using EU methods. Soon that knowledge with reach its natural limitations and we'll be fumbling in the dark.

The Brexit Party are entitled to wail but ultimately the fault lies with Farage. He and his entourage should by now be fluent in all issues Brexit and should have acquired the intellectual capital to have anticipated much fo what befalls us. Instead they've spent the time luxuriating in dogma and slogans, enjoying the perks and publicity. There was never any plan or vision beyond Brexit and there is no intellectual foundation for their message. With not much to choose from between Johnson's Tories or the Brexit Party, one can easily see how they could have their prize snatched away from them. And none would be more deserving of the failure they themselves are the architects of. 

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