Friday, 31 January 2020

The final call.


Today's the day! We are leaving. And you know what? For all my pessimism about the process ahead and the scale of the challenges we face, today I am delighted that we are leaving the EU. For all that there is much wrong with the current administration, and I face the future with much foreboding, everything I have written about the EU is still the case. It is still a remote, corrupt, unresponsive regulatory behemoth with no democratic legitimacy poking its nose into areas of our lives where it has no business doing so.

For those who say Brexit was motivated by xenophobia it has been telling that Brexiteers have paid little attention to the citizens rights aspects of the withdrawal agreement. Nobody I know of bears any ill will toward those who have made our country their home. There are no calls for deportations of law abiding people. It really was just about ending our membership of an entity we felt had too much power and not enough accountability.

For all that we've had the left wing press retailing the notion that we are blue passport obsessed little Englanders pining for empire, such churlish dogma points to the real reason they lost the referendum. As Sam Hooper notes "It’s easier to write smarmy opinion piece after smarmy opinion piece caricaturing Leave voters as Mafeking stereotypes pining for empire and blue passports than it is to engage their superior, enlightened brains and grapple with the real reasons that people dislike the EU".

And if Brexiteers today are in full on gloat mode, lacking in magnanimity it's because they made us fight not just to win a referendum but also to ensure our vote was upheld. A referendum they would have denied us if they could. We were never meant to get a say. 

Unlike the Brexit blob, I have been cautious about promises of "sunlit uplands". Brexit most certainly comes at a price and the consequences of this decision are not yet fully understood. But much of the damage to come cannot compare with the damage we would do had the vote not been implemented, and for all that remainer MPs may wail, the opportunity shape Brexit outcomes was in their hands were they not so busy trying to disrupt and sabotage our exit. A soft Brexit was there for the taking but couldn't get their act together. Even the dimmest of Lib Dems now realise this. Johnson is PM because they put him there. The Commons had Theresa May cornered then failed to make a decision.

But since we are talking about damage to the country, our membership of the EU has unleashed sweeping changes to the social fabric of the nation and changed the culture of government (national and local) to mirror that of the EU - a technocracy where public participation is not only inconvenient, but also discouraged. This kind of damage does not show up in any GDP graph, their sole measure of their performance.

For all that ordinary leavers may not be experts in trade and the finer points of regulation, they are all united in the belief that the laws they must live by should reflect their values and that those laws can be influenced, corrected and repealed through the use of our own institutions, and that if our nation is to be a home rather than a managed grazing strip then we must have the final say on who can come and go.

The European project is one founded on a fundamental suspicion of democracy, believing that national democracy is a vulnerability rather than what informs our social contract. They believe that patriotism begets nationalism, which begets war, and so they deprive us of the means to self-govern. At its core, the EU is based on a fearful paranoia. To blazes with it. 

In these three years remainers have spoken of Brexit in the same breath as Trump. But there is no Trumpian refrain of "Make Britain great again". Just a quiet confidence that we can muddle through and manage our own affairs - and if that makes us poorer, so be it. We were warned of the risks and accepted them. Our votes do not need the supervision of our self-appointed betters.

But we have rehearsed all these arguments before. I take some pride in having kept this blog running through the entire process, from well before the referendum, where I can see how the debate has evolved and how my own understanding has matured. It's been a real journey. Back in 2015 I knew little about the mechanics of trade and I'm sure there are some startling errors peppered all the way through that will come back to haunt. I knew a lot less than I thought I did. But I have never intended to mislead. I intended only to lay out my hopes and fears to the best of my understanding at the time.

Like everyone else, I weighed up the risks, consulted my peers, tested my arguments, but in the end voted on instinct. It is that instinct I trust and I trust the instinct of my fellow citizens. When they ejected the sleazy Tories in 97 they were right to do so. When they slung out the smarmy, arrogant Blair/Brown regime they were right to do so. When they failed to give Cameron a working majority in 2010 they were right then. When they gave Theresa May a bloody nose in 2017 they were right then too. And when they decided to reject Corbyn's Labour by a massive margin they were bang on the money. So when they voted to leave, who is anybody to cast doubt on their verdict? If we abandon our faith in our collective instincts then we have no basis for a democracy.

Democracy often has its frustrations and its weaknesses. Our own model is flawed and in need of modernisation, and perhaps the coming years will see us address these questions. But when remainers cast suspicion on what was the fairest possible vote, they do us a disservice. Their attempt to delegitimise and usurp did more damage than the referendum by a country mile. It is that which hardened resolve and that which has ultimately seen progressivism swept to the margins. They were authors of their own much deserved demise. 

But now it's done. The hardcore remainers will become rejoiners, and nobody denies them their right to do so. They may even succeed in a few decades if there is a still an EU to rejoin. But for now most of the country is just getting on with it. In five years or so we will get to pass our own judgement on the Tories and their execution of Brexit. By then there may even be a coherent opposition to speak of.

In that estimation leavers and remainers will recall what they have in common - be it a distaste for Tory arrogance and vulgarity, or a feeling that the Union is something worth fighting for. Time will tell. But we owe it to ourselves to make the best of our collective decision in the common good. Today though, just for today, let there be no coming together. Let the flags and the insults fly, and let the piss taking commence. For tomorrow there is work to be done.  

Thursday, 30 January 2020

A new phase, but the same ignorance prevails


What the PM wants and what he is likely to be offered are two wholly separate things. The negotiations are going to follow a very familiar pattern. Like May, Johnson thinks this is a negotiation. You remember how it went last time. Theresa May was instructed as to what the sequencing would be; withdrawal agreement first, trade talks later. But it just didn't register. She toddled off to Florence to tell us all about her deep and special partnership ambitions, whereupon the EU said thank you Mrs May, but that's not how this works.

We spent the better part of an entire year going round in circles as the UK government struggled to come to terms with the fact that the EU calls the shots. The EU was not able or willing to break its own laws to accommodate a departing member. It was sequenced that way for good reason and was decided well in advance.

This time around, though, we do not have a year to waste. But if there is time to waste, we'll waste it. The EU has already scoped out the structure of the future relationship and has probably identified a fallback position if the UK refuses what is offered. The one thing it is not going to do is offer a bespoke deal with unprecedented concessions to the UK.

Being that this will go down like a lead balloon with the Brexiteers, Number Ten will come up with its own fantasy fiction counter proposal that will be shot down within hours. The assumption seems to be that the EU can accept mutual recognition of our standards (which applies exclusively to members of the Single Market - a concession given to no third countries, including Canada, Japan and the US).

Thus when The Times reports that Johnson wants a "Canada-style deal" there is no point reading the runes to discern what that actually means in that Johnson certainly doesn't know and his advisers likely don't either. Nor will it particularly concern them that the actual Canada deal doesn't work particularly well. Or at least not for Canada. Then, of course, there are those MFN clauses on services and investment which is likely to make things interesting. There is no way a "Canada style deal" could be considered adequate. 

And then continuing in the Groundhog Day theme, we will then see Telegraph editorials accusing the EU of intransigence and seeking to prevent the UK from becoming a buccaneering lean, green trading machine. There will be much dithering and a period of stalemate until the time grows short. It will then be decision time for Johnson as to whether he takes what's on offer (thereby infuriating Brexiteers) or throws the UK economy under the bus.

Of course, somewhere in this mix there has to be a tedious row over fishing whereby if the UK realises at any point that we do in fact want to continue selling fish to the EU then there will have to be some sort of concession to EU rules and access to waters. No sane, informed government would consider flushing our services sector down the toilet, but then this government does not match that description. It could go either way. 

I know better now than to make concrete predictions but when you look at all the disparate factors in the round - the EU's inherent constraints, the belligerent, pig ignorant approach from the Johnson administration and the overall technical illiteracy, combined with political pressure from the Taliban wing of the Tories, a viable outcome to this seems improbable. If there is a deal it's not going to usefully safeguard trade.

On Friday Johnson will speak to the nation, speaking of a bold new era in which we all come together. Precisely the sort of anodyne blather you might expect on these such occasions. It will impress nobody but the party faithful and the true believers. It's empty waffle from an empty man. Technically we are in a new phase of Brexit but we are still in the era of belligerent incompetence and hubris. That much will not change on Brexit day - or any time soon, sadly. 

The real Brexit day is a long way off


Whether one is pro or anti Brexit is now more or less irrelevant. As of Friday night the UK is no longer a member of the EU and the probability of reversing that decision is remote. We all now share in the consequences of that decision and we all have a stake in fashioning the outcomes.

In respect of that, Brexit day is just another day. It is an important milestone, and yes it's something to celebrate, but the work goes on. I do not believe there are sunlit uplands, and the more I survey the wreckage of the post-referendum era the less convinced I am we are equipped to tackle the inevitable problems we are sure to face. Our EU strategy is deeply flawed while our wider trade policy is rudderless. Liz Truss mouthing the platitudes of "Global Britain" is a dispiriting spectacle.

As to the outcome of the future relationship talks, I'm far from optimistic. Nothing has been learned from the last round of negotiations and Brexiteers are still in the grip of a flawed belief system so whichever way it goes, it does not end well. If you thought the last three years were turbulent, you ain't seen nothing yet.

The essential problem here is that we are "taking back control" from Brussels and giving it to a rabble of disorganised, ill-informed bozos who know virtually nothing about the country they are tasked with running. Brussels may have been on a different landmass but Westminster resides on another planet. It's actually quite easy to see how some people welcome the arrival of strong man dictators in that they at least have an idea what they want and a plan on how to get it. Remainers preferred the EU for much the same reasons. There was at least a direction.

This is where the UK has serious problems. Our politics is bitterly divided while the Scottish separatists are exploiting the division. How can we expect the Scottish to buy into a Union when the whole country is in the midst of an identity crisis and a deep running culture war. If a nation is defined by its common values then the UK is in trouble. Especially so when the Northern Ireland protocol is fully realised. It would seem that the Brexit wars are unfinished business.

This is where Boris Johnson has it hopelessly wrong. The Tory party machine would have it that Brexit is done and dusted and now we're getting all the "move forward together" guff. Ain't nobody buying it. The clapping seals who converge on the Farage jamboree in Parliament Square who think sunlit uplands are just around the corner are the minority of leavers. Most understand the gravity of what we set in motion and recognise we're on a long and difficult road.

As to our European relations, the relationship with the EU will not be settled. The outcome of the future relationship is far from the final destination. Our relationship is an ever evolving continuum. This matter will not be settle a year or even ten years from now. The Johnson administration may be the ones to sign off on the treaty, but the shaping of that relationship will fall to his successor, whoever that may be.

Between now and then Britain will gradually wake up to the economic and political consequences of the decisions we make now. The promise of a Northern revival and a coastal renaissance will fail to materialise. The promise to end austerity won't happen. Brexit will prove to be no remedy to our economic woes. With any luck the rest of the country will be joining Scotland in deciding it doesn't want to be ruled by Westminster.

We are told that Brexit means we can no longer blame Brussels and the buck will stop with our own politicians after Brexit but we all know that's not going to happen. The Brexiteers are not going to take responsibility and when the EU treats us as the third country we chose to become, it will be the beastly foreigners "blockading" the UK as a punishment.

Of course, the litany of excuses will serve them for a time being that the Spectator and Telegraph will do all they can to hold the line but you can't take the British people for fools. Every major change of government in the UK has been the right decision. We have always kicked out the arrogant when their time was up. The Tories are not immune and soon their shit will begin to stink.

In many respects tomorrow is not Brexit day, nor is Brexit day the end of the transition. Brexit in the wider context is not only our departure from the EU but also the shedding of an antiquated and broken system of government. After all, much of the criticisms levelled at the EU apply in equal measure to Westminster.

The disheartening part, though, is that the insurgent movement built from the ground some three decades ago has been all but crushed. Instead of building a movement to leave the EU and carry us forward, Farage build a movement to secure and win a referendum. The establishment has taken back control for itself and Boris Johnson will hand it back to its previous owners. Instead of converting the Brexit machine into a vehicle for reform we now face the long road of building a movement from the ashes. Without the help we had from the EU last time, it may be a longer, harder road. With that in mind, I may as well celebrate tomorrow, because I may not live to see the real Brexit day.

The wasted revolution


Power in politics is all about building alliances between disparate groups who do not necessarily agree but share the same objectives albeit only temporarily. That's essentially what The Leave Alliance was about, attempting to bring together some of the fringe Eurosceptic organisations together. With the inclusion of The Bruges Group it could have been more than it was, but ultimately Robert Oulds was seduced by the dark side and recognised his financial interests were better served by staying close to the Tory Brexit blob.

From that point, there wasn't much we could do and we were very much a minority opinion in the belief we should have a plan informing the exit campaign. We did the best with the limited resources we had but without any kind of recognition from within Westminster and a media only interested in voices with bubble prestige, we were always going to be on the outside looking in.

We then approached Arron Banks who adopted the Flexcit plan for all of twenty four hours and then dropped it when he realised there was a backlash from the Brexit militants on the Ukip side of the campaign. Banks was more concerned with his popularity with a view to becoming central to a populist right wing movement of his own.

Still we persisted in campaigning for exit, with the working assumption that if the leave campaign didn't define a plan then it would ultimately be decided by parliament. It was reasonable to assume that a two thirds remain leaning parliament would opt for a more sensible Brexit. Certainly parliament did have its window to dictate terms but they blew it by way of being unable to agree among themselves.

I had hoped, however, that the work of The Leave Alliance could somehow be carried forward. Following the referendum result I looked at building alliances outside the Brexit blob. I was invited to speak at an event in Brixton, to a group affiliated with the Invoke Article 50 Now campaign (an offshoot of the Spiked clan). Lee Jones and Luke Gittos were present.

The first thing was to dispel the notion that we should simply invoke Article 50 without having a plan. I needed to explain that the process was a good deal more complicated than was assumed.

I opened with an analogy that the EU was a complex machine similar to a Jumbo Jet. To the untrained eye, a 747 from the outside looks much the same as one of the last ones off the production line in 2008, but if you lifted up a panel on the wing, in place of the mess of wires and cables you might find on the 1960's variant, you'd find only a microchip. Externally they look the same but in substance are very different beasts having evolved over forty years. The same can be said of the EU, and if you want to remove a piece of it, you have to carefully extract it rather than going at it with a hammer and chisel.

I though it a good analogy, but Gittos wafted his hand with lawyerly affectation to tell us "we're not here to talk about aeroplanes". At that point I knew what these people were about. This was a People's Front of Judea meeting where they wanted table thumping speeches about seizing the moment of revolution. That's the Spiked clan all over. They don't want to be informed. They want to be entertained. Accomplishing something is a distant second.

Since then I've cleared the lot of them off my Facebook because they're never ever going to engage in the substance of Brexit. I have come to accept that if there was a window of opportunity to leverage meaningful change from Brexit then it's long gone. The Tories have successfully absorbed the insurgent movement and it no longer has a focus let alone leverage. The battle to shape Brexit was lost long before the referendum.

My mistake was thinking you could reason with any of these people. We were, after all, dealing with a canon with a long pedigree, having its own sacred cows and baked-in narratives. Brexiteers have never revisited their own dogma so they are very much looking at the 1960's Jumbo Jet rather than the one currently in service. They believed that Brexit would bring about a restoration of vital sovereignty in which we could deregulate, start subsidising things without consequence and "take back our fish".

All this dogma overlooks that international law now has a major influence in fishing (for starters) and the CFP exists inside an elaborate web of global instruments ranging from conservation through to trade governance and food hygiene. Further to this, there has been a proliferation of global regulation on anything from vehicle safety to maritime emissions and labour rights, where regulation has become central to trade agreements spanning more than a hundred developed economies. The classic Brexiter view, though, has it that outside of the EU there is an unregulated wild west, and beyond the Brussels horizon there is a world of unbridled sovereignty.

There is also one other inconvenient truth. Our departure from the EU does not mean the EU stops existing. It is a power in its own right and has a dominant influence on regulation across the globe. Being that we are in the geographic and regulatory orbit of the EU, Brexiteers needed to be realistic and manage their expectations. There would be compromises and trade offs. This, though, they were not willing to entertain and took the view that the only "true Brexit" was to leave without a deal and that any consequences were simply "project fear". At this point we were dealing with mass self-deception, keenly policed by opinion gatekeepers with an agenda of their own.

Early on, though, The Leave Alliance took the view that no deal simply wasn't an option (essentially putting us at odds with the whole Brexit camp). The damage from no deal would likely be irrecoverable. The exam question, therefore, was how we extracted ourselves while minimising the economic harm while maximising sovereignty. Something the absolutists never even thought about.

Here you have to go back to basics. The Brexiteer refrain is that we don't want the political union. We just want to trade with the EU. That's fine until acknowledge that trade is more than just the logistics of sending trucks of tinned beans through Dover. Trade as a discipline encompasses everything from tariffs through to highly complex regulatory domains on everything from fishing through to chemicals, cosmetics, energy, waste disposal, e-commerce and much else. Much of that commerce is then facilitated by way of governing instruments and flanking policies on labour rights, qualifications and of course, free movement. As such, there is no such thing as "free trade" outside of the black market.

To say then that we "just want trade" begets the question of how much regulation were are prepared to adopt and under what framework? An advanced economy just off the coast of mainland Europe was always going to require a comprehensive framework encompassing all of the issues above. Since in every equation the EU is the greater power, it was always going to be us adopting their rules and the ultimate authority on the interpretation and application of those rules was always going to be the ECJ with the exception of Efta (the basis of our departure plan).

Essentially the UK was going to have to choose from an array of suboptimal compromises where Brexiteers would have to lower their expectations and prioritise what was important to them. This they would not do, having set their sights on a no deal Brexit. At this point were were dealing with a singular fanaticism from people who simply hadn't bothered to inform themselves and were quite militant about maintaining their own ignorance.

I recall a Facebook exchange where Claire Fox was ranting about "seizing the opportunities of Brexit" telling us that a "jobs first Brexit" was a remainer concoction to bring about Brexit in name only. Since the woman evidently lives a cushy consequence-free life she can afford to simply write off jobs at the stroke of a pen. Not just ignorant. Actually proud of it.

But as with most things in life, if you refuse to make a decision, circumstances make the decision for you. And that's where we are now. Having decided that Efta was "BRINO" we now face a second cliff edge, after which we face the full brunt of EU third country controls whereby the UK will gradually be squeezed into submission by the EU, or we can carry on down the path we have drifted into - which at this point looks like a lopsided comprehensive FTA/Association Agreement, resetting the ratchet mechanism but essentially remaining under ECJ jurisdiction presiding over a raft of non-regression clauses with no viable scope for divergence. The UK then has no leverage to do anything about it.

Being that there is now no real alternative and no insurgent movement in a position to make demands, Britain's fate is more or less sealed to become a trade colony of the EU, after which the momentum for change will evaporate. The Tories have quashed the rebellion and can now resume business as usual so long as they throw in a "points based immigration" system (for what that's worth) and get rid of hospital parking charges. The only two coherent Ukippy demands.

So now when the Spiked children have their little "Battle of Ideas" and "The Full Brexit" shindigs to ask "What next for Brexit?", these idle chatterers (who tacked themselves on to the Brexit Party) will find that the decisions have been made for them - long after they opted out of the adult debate. Claire Fox will have had her fifteen minutes of fame and the Streatham revolutionary knitting circle will have had their fun, but ultimately they have squandered any real influence they might have had and pissed away any opportunity for democratic reform.

Having failed to do any research of their own and having no answers to any of the complex dilemmas Brexit presents us with, these people simply borrowed tract from the IEA/BrexitCentral blob, foolishly allying themselves with what was essentially a Tory coup to castrate then appropriate the insurgent movement. Farage let them move in on his turf, so now when he and his band of sycophants are popping corks on Parliament Square, it's more of a funeral wake for a failed revolution than a celebration of sovereignty - only they'll be the last to realise. When they do, they cannot say they weren't warned.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Cheer up remainers. The fun is just starting.


The deed is done. MEPs have now approved the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK is now to leave on Friday night. I can't say I was impressed by the boorish misanthropy of the Brexit Party but was even less impressed at the ritual singing of songs and wobbly lipped sobbing. As to the unedifying contribution from Guy Verhofstadt, it momentarily removed all doubt that leaving was the right thing to do. The European Parliament is just a soapbox for cranks and sycophants from the loser fringes.

As to the public reaction, the remainers seem to have lost it entirely. Unhinged, churlish, petulant and increasingly vile. Scratch away the progressive veneer and you reveal something quite ugly. That, though, is only to be expected. Though their identities are wrapped up in their devotion to a supreme government (which is actually quite terrifying), one can sympathise to an extent. I certainly have mixed feelings about it. 

From the beginning I've taken the view that though I want to leave the EU, I also want to be informed about the challenges ahead and have consistently cast a critical eye to the dogma of the true believers on the Brexit side. Their tactic has been to simply dismiss any warning as project fear and though remainers have been quite creative in that department, and we can't take any economic forecast seriously, there are still those Notices to Stakeholders setting out the EU's official position on how it will treat the UK as a third country. 

Though the Notices are published to spell out what a no deal Brexit means, with the UK government intent on leaving the single market and securing only a shallow FTA (if we even get that far), much of what is written in the Notices still applies. The withdrawal agreement does not make the cliff edge go away and an FTA is a poor substitute for the single market.

In respect of that, remainers can soon have a field day dismantling the claims of Brexiteer luminaries. Between Carswell, Hannan, Lillico, Paterson, Singham, Rees-Mogg, Howe, Isaby and the crooked IEA, there is enough material there to hound these people to their graves. The internet never forgets. Moreover Mr Farage is going to have to make himself scarce from "coastal communities" when the promises made to the fishing sector fail to materialise.

And if it's any comfort, to remainers, it says a lot about the failure of Farage that the best he can dredge up for his Parliament Square Brexit shindig is Julia Dunning-Kruger and a stage full of nobodies. Brexit day will be something of a damp squib. No ticker tape parade or adoring crowds. Just a pack of bemused journos, Ukip diehards and curious passers by.

Though Farage will be praised as the hero of the hour, the Brexit Party is finished and the Tories have quashed the insurgency. Farage no longer has a powerbase or an object of focus. The kiptard squad seem happy with the few bones Johnson has thrown them so the Tories will drift back to their mushy managerialism. This blog has always maintained that, had the eurosceptic movement set out a plan and a coherent set of demands for meaningful reform, they could still be holding a gun to the government's head. Instead the Tories have "taken back control".

Then, as Rafael Behr notes in the Guardian, "The price of victory on a promise to “get Brexit done” is getting it done. On Friday we cross the threshold where Brexit must breathe the same air as other political projects. It sheds the immunity of abstraction and enters the realm of evidence". In some respects Liam Fox was quite right when he said striking a trade deal would be the easiest in history. The pattern will echo that which we've already seen where the sequencing and essential substance has already been decided. By the EU. We'll see months of bickering, procrastination and delay once more - and for the same reasons; for the government to come to terms with the cul-de-sac they've taken themselves up by not having a plan.

Looking at Twitter today, Johnson is doing more of those "questions from the audience" videos (no doubt one of Low Fact Chloe's innovations). It already looks weak and cowardly, but imagine how it's going to look when the factories start closing and Johnson is still hiding from media scrutiny. Even a competent spin machine can't shield Johnson from the consequences from his lies. When exposed to that "realm of evidence", the Tories will be entering choppy waters. Their excuses won't see them as far as the next election.

This blog has always said Brexit was less about trade and more about who governs us and how. Soon we shall see "fwee twade" Brexiteers pivoting to that line when their trade agenda falls flat on its face. Again we have their musings in the pages of the Telegraph and Spectator to rub their noses in. As to that question of who governs us and how, the answer of course is "the Tories, and quite badly". There's nothing the Tories can do about that - but there is something we can do!

Of course, this is little compensation for the inevitable and largely self-inflicted economic harm (harm which could so easily have been avoided), but the consolation prize for sane leavers and remainers is the humiliation and subsequent humbling of the Tory party. With Brexit now having dragged Labour's dysfunction out into the open, the eye of scrutiny turns rightwards. For a while now I've felt that we need Brexit to upend our politics and the process won't be complete until it consumes the Tories. That alone might make it worthwhile. So cheer up remainers. The best is yet to come. 

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Brexit: Chickens home to roost


Both remainers are ultra Brexiteers peddled the myth that the EEA would leave us inside ECJ jurisdiction. Remainers had it that we would be living under "fax democracy", accepting "all the rules without a say". These tired mantras go way back to well before the referendum. At the time, though, I was warning that any arrangement outside of Efta would inevitably have a role for the ECJ since the EU would never surrender sovereignty over the interpretation of its own rules.

Such warnings were ignored while opponents of the Efta option spun the myth that the Efta court wasn't independent and essentially mirrored the ECJ - which is a crude and essentially inaccurate picture to paint. Again both remainers and leavers parroted this narrative. There was never any serious attempt in the media to explore the EEA Efta system or the nuances therein, and those who attempted it often got it so badly wrong they confused the issues even further.

Ultimately the EEA Efta option was killed off by a combination of ignorance and mendacity. All the while the Ultras used any platform available to proliferate the narrative that not only was no deal survivable, but also an optimal basis for trading. Though the no-dealers have gone quiet since the election, now that it becomes apparent that the withdrawal agreement and any subsequent FTA involves a degree of ECJ oversight, we will see renewed calls to exit negotiations without a formal deal and all the classic mantras will again rise to the top, aided by the usual suspects.

Being that the EU has immovable demands on fishing and an insistence on non-regression, thereby defeating the object of Brexit in the eyes of the headbangers, Boris Johnson will face renewed pressure to walk away, plunging the UK into the abyss. In any case, there is little that can be accomplished in the time available so we can expect only a minimalistic deal. Beyond July 1, there are no legal means to extend the transition and if Johnson refuses to extend, refuses to grant access to UK waters and refuses extensive level playing field provisions then there is little hope of a deal of any kind and certainly nothing that softens the hammer blow of leaving the single market.

With serious talks not commencing until early March, the substantive decisions have to be made in little under four months. All the while this government has no reason to consult a parliament in which it is practically unopposed anyway. Much now rests on the whims of Boris Johnson and whoever is pulling the strings. The thing to watch out for now is the remotest hint that the government understands just how utterly screwed we are without a deal.

Reading the runes, though, is a fool's errand with this administration. As much as much the PM is driven entirely by his momentary whims and will tell any lie at any moment for any purpose then reverse himself just moments later, it's impossible to read anything into anything he says. Even his closest cabinet colleagues don't know what he is likely to say or do. Johnson is making contradictory promises in all directions that simply cannot be delivered.

Worse still, the Tories have never fully appreciated what the EU is or understood why it behaves in the way it does. To the Tories this is all one big game where they assume the EU has the same flexibility as a nation state. Only the EU is not a nation state. It is a hard coded framework of rules over which it has no power to amend. Only a treaty can meaningfully revise a treaty which is something they can't do and don't want to do. If the EU compromises on any single pillar for a departing member then the whole edifice collapses.

This is something not generally understood. The Tories have it in their heads that with the EU facing its own internal problems and the loss of a major budget contributor it can't afford to take the hit of losing its trade surplus with the UK. They still think those German car makers will race to the rescue.

Of course the loss of trade with the UK is a serious concern to Barnier, but with the UK being dependent on the EU for vital imports and not in a position to erect self-harming barriers we would inevitably have to apply to everyone (as per WTO rules), and with the impact of Brexit distributed between member states, the EU can bear the strain. It is not so serious that they would compromise the integrity of their system.

I am told by Brexiteers that time will tell and the EU will fold, after all I said the EU wouldn't reopen Article 50 talks. But there's an essential point they miss. Johnson said he would get rid of the backstop but in most respects the Northern Ireland protocol remains the same and the EU has not compromised on any of its red lines. Johnson merely secured a reversion to May 1.0. This required no compromise from the EU and in fact, if memory serves, is the very same deal Johnson said no PM could ever sign up to.

The notion, therefore, that running this to the wire in July, on the presumption that the EU can and will back down on anything from fishing to the level playing field is a serious miscalculation. From their perspective, with the withdrawal agreement already in the bag with a system to preserve its own territorial integrity, it need not make further concessions and will act in the certainty that if the UK chooses total severance then the pain is felt considerably more by us than them. If then the UK does not honour the withdrawal agreement by refusing to police the customs frontier, then it has several tools, including the WTO at its disposal to bring pressure to bear on the UK.

Coupled with this fatal miscalculation is an overall misreading of trade. The preferred "experts" in Tory circles have convinced themselves that "mutual recognition" is something the EU is obliged to enter into and that it does more than it actually does. They think there is no real harm in leaving without a deal in that they can piecemeal reconstruct the necessary trade instruments one at a time until they have what they want. The Commission as been entirely unambiguous about this. They said it during Article 50 talks and they will say it again. No. So too will they spell out again that unilateral alignment counts for nothing at all without an adjudication mechanism.

It would be nice to think there was still an Ivan Rogers type somewhere in Number Ten who can provide adult supervision but with a miscreant like Dominic Cummings at work, obstructing the normal functioning of the civil service, it may well be there is no informed corrective at all and we really are at the mercy of Johnson as he ponders what is best for his legacy.

This now goes one of two ways. Either the headbanger Brexiteers are to be bitterly disappointed as Britain takes up an EU leash, or we completely wreck our exports, sour our European relations and damage our prospects of trading internationally. There is now no optimal outcome. The chance was remote as of May's Lancaster House speech but parliament blew it when they squandered their opportunity to take control of the agenda. 

At the root of this is the lack of an informed intellectual foundation for Brexit. The respective campaigning organisations put zero thought into what comes after, having no coherent set of real world objectives, with no idea how to put them into practice or what obstacles they would face. Over the course of Brexit we have seen a frightening combination of arrogance, naivety and self-deception steered by obsolete dogma and blind zeal.

On Friday when Farage takes to Parliament Square with his braindead cronies, the ignorati will cheer and the flags will wave but not one among them will realise how the negligence and wilful ignorance of Farage has essentially served the UK up to the EU for plunder. We may "take back our fish" for what that's worth, but we'll have squandered any chance of a viable destination for Brexit and in due course will surrender control of the agenda to whoever has to clean up the mess. Farage will have thrown away the opportunity of a generation.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Sleepwalking into chaos


Leavers are having a whole lot of gloaty fun at the expense of some of the more unhinged remainers, some of whom have gone totally off the deep end. It's difficult to resist and I've had a pop myself. But what irks me about it is that gloating and "owning the remoaners" seems to be all Brexiteers are interested in. Leave.EU tweets "Imagine the BBC's horror at having to play Dominic Frisby's '17 Million Fuck-Offs' as the UK's official Number 1 on the day we leave the European Union".

It's not exactly news that Leave.EU is crass and boorish but while Brexiteers are having it large at the remainers expense, the lack of vigilance is self-defeating. It would seem that neither Leave.EU nor Vote Leave has any interest at all in Brexit, rather they existed just to win a referendum. That leaves just us in this largely ignored corner of the internet to point out that things are not going so well.

Instead of facing up to the realities of our predicament, the Guidophiles will construct an alternate reality of their own where we hold all the cards and the EU is dreading its imminent demise (and of course though the EU is talking tough, they will fold at the last minute, like they supposedly did last time). But then the EU did no such thing. It set out to defend its essential principles and never waivered. The integrity of the single market and customs union is defended by the Northern Ireland protocol.

This time around the EU is being equally explicit. Barnier has warned again that the bloc would “never, never, never” compromise the integrity of its single market. Some suggest Brussels might be flexible on its rules in order to protect trade, but Barnier insisted the single market was the bloc’s "most valuable asset" and would not be compromised. There is no reason not to take him at his word.

In respect of that, the EU is going to hold firm that there most certainly will be a role for the ECJ. This is breathlessly reported as news by The Times, but it was always the case that the ECJ would be the ultimate arbiter in the interpretation of rules and the Commission will make the decisions on matters of adequacy. The UK will not be allowed to unilaterally lower the bar of entry for goods or compete in the single market without matching flanking regulation.

Meanwhile the media, particularly Guardian/FT types, seem to be linking fishing to financial services. The EU will treat fishing as a separate domain by way of its own rules, but also to prevent the UK using whatever leverage it thinks it has. They've seen us coming a mile off and if we want to land or sell fish in the EU there will have to be a formal agreement in place. Brexiteers are still banking on the trade deficit to rescue them.

So in terms of "taking back control" from the dreaded ECJ and "taking back our fish", if there is to be a deal, we're going to have to cave into this and much else since the EU will insist on the level playing field provisions. It was always going to be the case that if we set out a limited timeframe and rigid red lines on divergence, we would only ever get a shallow deal and entirely on the EU's terms. 

This time around, though there is nothing at all to stop Johnson running down the clock and walking away with no deal, and given the concessions he will otherwise have to make, it seems there is little else he can do politically, lest he be known as the "betrayer of Brexit". 

Sadly though, Brexiteers will be all too happy with this arrangement. They don't care about outcomes and won't especially care about the activation of the Northern Ireland protocol. Besides which they have much more pressing concerns to think about. Spiked online writes "Remoaners accuse Leave voters of being simple-minded and a bit unhinged. Meanwhile, they have spent the weekend raging against a 50p coin, even calling for boycotts. The #FBPE crew is far more mental than the Brexiteers they loathe". As ever Spiked and their fellow travellers won't engage with the grown up stuff. Nor will their readers. It's all just a big game.

But then it's not just the Brexit grunters who are utterly negligent. David Allen Green of FT fame tweets "perhaps once Friday is out of the way, an open debate can at last begin for a long-term sustainable relationship between UK and EU... perhaps". Except, of course, there was one already, over three years ago which he elected to ignore along with Ian Dunt, because they preferred making self-serving sanctimonious quips to their fawning audiences. Between them they had the exposure to expand and enhance the debate. Instead they expanded their egos.

Brexit has has been a useful vehicle for parasites of all kinds from Brexit Party MEPs who've contributed nothing to the debate, through to remainer hacks, academics and think tanks wonks who've gone out of their way to either distort or stifle debate entirely. Having successfully trashed the Norway option between them, we are left with only two possibilities; vassalage or a ruinous crash out with the added ignominy of building customs posts within our own territory. So as much as this is a failure of politics, it is also a failure of media and journalism. Trivia and superficiality rules the day.

There is one other terrifying possibility though. When Johnson says there will not be checks in the Irish Sea, perhaps for one time in his life he's telling the truth. In the time available it seems impossible that the UK could develop a customs system in time and certainly not one compatible with the Union Customs Code. 

It may well be the intent to walk away without a deal and not eforce the NI protocol on our end, in which case we are entering a full blown trade war with the EU. After all the Brexiteers don't just want to leave the EU. They want to destroy it and genuinely think we have that kind of leverage. As ever we are left to speculate on the basis of zero formal information from our own government which of itself is an outrage, while the media does little to plug the information gap.

The problem here is far more serious than I ever thought. We have a dire government with even worse opposition which is never good but we have an incompetent incurious media. That, though, is only half the problem. The media has abandoned its obligation to inform largely because the public have given up on being informed. Editors decide what their readers want to hear, calculate the style of language, then go shopping for any crank willing to put their name to it. If writers deviate from the script then it doesn't get published. The Express, Mail and Telegraph will supply endless narrative reinforcement to the last.

Though the Brexiteers are going to gloat all week and for the foreseeable future, the joke will eventually be on them. Having failed to plan and having snubbed the only viable solution to this otherwise unsquarable circle, they're walking into all the ambushes The Leave Alliance anticipated  four years ago. If we don't end up caving into a suboptimal deal now, then we face a decade or more in the wilderness as we rebuild our relationship with the EU on much more hostile terms, turning friends into cold rivals.

But then I am known for doom and gloom. This may yet have a more risible conclusion. It could well be that Boris Johnson does cave into the EU entirely and the right wing press will circle the wagons to perpetuate the fiction that the deal is a good deal, as indeed they did last time. We'll become the vassal state the Brexiteers feared only they'll be too engrossed in trivia to ever notice. Far from being masters of our own destiny, we instead become a nation of witless chatterers not even aware we are a trade colony of a bloc we thought we'd left. So long as Kate Hoey gets to fly her union jacks, who is going to complain? Well, me obviously, but then I don't exist and never did, so there's that. As you were. 

The tangible benefits of Brexit?


It is the fashion among remainers on Twitter to demand just one tangible benefit of Brexit. "Not stuff like ‘sovereignty’ ‘global deals’. I mean things like ‘quicker GP appointments’/‘new job for my son’ etc". This overlooks the fact that sovereignty and trade sovereignty were major themes in the referendum and a primary driver in people's decision to vote leave according to the Ashcroft polling of July 2016.

It is an unfortunate fact, though, that Vote Leave did produce matter which did imply tangible benefits as defined by our Tweeter above. As it happens I don't think it featured much in the actual campaign given the relatively low number of Youtube views, most of which will have occurred after the referendum, particularly by remainers seeking to delegitimise the vote.

Some will attempt to argue the point that the NHS will see more funding as a direct result of Brexit and that we have our budget contributions to spend in other areas, but anyone with a realistic grasp of the issues knows there will be no big Brexit spending bonanza unless it's a debt fuelled propaganda drive.

As it happens it is conceivable that restrictions on freedom of movement will have some marginal benefits in some sectors. It is difficult to say, though, whether it amounts to a net gain when you factor in the impact of leaving the single market. The answer is probably not. The fact is that there probably no unarguable tangible benefits and even if they were, it'll be a cold day in hell before any remainer accepts them as a rationale for Brexit when taken in the round.

Yet, for all that, and for all my own grim prognostications for the immediate future, I would still vote to leave. Nothing in the last three years detracts from what the EU actually is. Primarily it is a top down supreme government that presides over an economic construct imposed on the people of Europe who have no means to take control of the agenda or reform it in any meaningful way. We have MEPs who can at best shape the implementation of it, but essentially the destination remains the same whether we want it or not.

As regards to that, for the EU to advance its trade and economic agendas it quietly confiscates or restrains the powers of member states thus neutering any meaningful expressions of democracy. We have total freedom within the narrow parameters defined by the system, and a political class incapable of thinking outside of those parameters. That is why remainers don't see that we have lost our essential sovereignty. This is central to the entire debate and refusing to even entertain these higher "intangible" concepts is a refusal to engage in the debate at all.

The founding philosophy of the EU is essentially that the removal of national sovereignty in the pursuit of irreversible interdependence is essential to a lasting peace. But as we have found, particularly with immigration, if nations are robbed of their essential power to control the foundations of their societies then there is a rise of populism and generational resentment etc. This has weakened the foundations of European societies.

Whether or not Brexit brings any remedy to anything remains to be seen. There are sure to be constraints on popular expressions of sovereignty by way of the future relationship with the EU and there are still all manner of binding international agreements and governance frameworks, and Brexit of itself doesn't automatically enhance our own flawed democracy. There are plenty of dilemmas with no optimal outcomes ahead of us and serious questions to which Brexiteers have yet to adequately answer. And on those grounds the supposed intangible benefits of Brexit are also a little flimsy.

But then as Alex Dale points out "Brexit is a constitutional change not a policy one. It changes the relationship between voters and representatives. No more, no less. That's 'stuff like sovereignty'. There are no guaranteed material or policy outcomes that we don't fight for." What happens next and how we wield that sovereignty is entirely up to us. Our choices will have consequences but the choices and consequences will be ours and ours alone.

Essentially the argument for Brexit has not changed since the referendum of 1975 when the campaign to leave began. The argument was summed up succinctly in a speech by Michael Foot whose politics are a million miles from my own.
People didn't fight for the vote just to have the fun of electioneering. They wanted to see that the vote that they used at the ballot box could change things, stop things, alter things, remove governments when necessary. That's one of the principal reasons for having a vote. But that's not going to happen if we're gong to stay in the Market and if we become enmeshed in the whole of their machinery and apparatus - because what will happen then is that you can go an have an election in this country in which you can vote out the government here - but you won't be voting out all the governments that meet in Brussels to decide what is going to happen to us. [...] It is that precious inheritance given us by the people who fought for the right to vote, fought for the right to form trade unions, fought for the right to establish their own institutions, fought for the right to have an elected house of commons which should be the supreme authority in this country and answerable to nobody else. It is those things that are at stake in this campaign. We will have plenty of problems to solve after June the Fifth, but let us make it clear that, not merely to our own country, but to the other countries that we believe here in Britain we can solve these problems by using the strength of our democratic institutions instead of casting them aside in this trivial wanton way.
This is not a case for Brexit as such. This is a case for democracy. Brexit is merely a recognition that EU membership is not compatible with democracy - and if people would gladly sacrifice their life in the defence of it, they are ultimately not going to be swayed by the threat of not being able to get soft fruits out of season and having to fill in an extra from on the odd occasion they travel to Europe. Ultimately remainers failed to convince the wider public that these miserable fringe perks were superior to the notion of democracy and sovereignty as they imagine it. Voters are a bit more sophisticated than remainers ever gave them credit for.

Now that we are leaving, Brexit has already blooded the Labour party and some within their ranks recognise that there needs to be meaningful change. Today Keir Starmer has said "We need to end the monopoly of power in Westminster and put it back in the hands of people." He's calling for greater devolution. We do not as yet know what form this policy will take but The Leave Alliance has argued for real localism in politics. It's no use exchanging a technocratic unaccountable bureaucracy in Brussels for one in London. Brexit has to go one further. The regions must have real and consequential power including a veto on any future trade deals, not least since it's the regions most affected by sweeping decisions on trade.

If we can arrive at a point where the people have more control over their lives in terms of who and what comes into the country and on what terms, capable of revisiting and reforming policy without having to grovel to Brussels for permission then we might be getting somewhere. At least we can now have that debate. I don't know if that qualifies as a "tangible benefit" but I know it's worth fighting for. 

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Does the BBC even deserve to survive?


Without the BBC we could be facing a post-truth dystopia shrieks Jonathan Freedland. I'm not sure this is a debate I can even be bothered with. I just don't use the BBC to any real extent. Freedland can't convince me that the Tories pose a real threat to it simply because it's in the process of self-destruction without any outside help.

There's been a debate over the course of Brexit about BBC bias. It's not something I've really touched on for one simple reason. I don't care. I made the decision in 2006 to cut the BBC out of my life and the only contact I have with it is clips posted by others to Twitter and short bursts of Radio 4 whenever I'm stuck in traffic. Nothing I've seen or heard on that time persuades me that I'm missing anything.

As far as bias goes I'm really not one to get worked up about the balance of leave/remain panel members on BBC Question Time. I have no idea why anyone would subject themselves to it. Other than serving as a showcase for state of the art political idiocy there is no information value in it. Similarly I have no use for the Andrew Marr show or Andrew Neil. These programmes are not essential to staying informed. The Andrew Neil programme is lightweight entertainment at best.

As to Radio 4, I've long wished the technology existed for the BBC to be able to track the precise moment when listeners hit the off button, along with a sanctimony meter. Such data would be revealing because I seriously bet I'm not alone in forcefully hitting the off button when the shrillness becomes unbearable. Every single time I switch it on I'm either being lectured about climate change (last week they were calling leavers and climate doubters conspiracy theorists), or they're ramming home a diversity message. Today it was The Economist's Soumaya Keynes asking "Does economics have a problem with women?". Middle class woman's hour toss.

Then there's Radio 4 "comedy". It's as inane as inane can be. Over the years I've come to accept that BBC content is something I am just not the target audience for.  They don't want me in their audience. They don't want to make content I might be interested in. That's fine too because I don't pay for it. Why should they?

Freedland believes that the BBC being free of commercial pressures means that it is something unique and a cut above the rest but there is no substantive difference between Sky News and BBC News. All the journos are infinitely interchangeable. Androgynous clones asking weak questions from a position of total ignorance. Were it not for the on-screen idents I wouldn't even know which channel I was watching.

As regards to its neutrality it is neutral when compared with Channel 4 News but on the whole our media is not reporting on the circus, rather it is an integral part of it, and as such is a political actor whether it knows it or not. They have the power to decide who gets an airing and in search of "balance" they've given us Owen Jones, Grace Blakely, Femi, Ash Sarkar and various activist academics leaden with bogus credentials, and on the right they've given us Farage and Mark Francois. Where are all the serious people? When do the adults get a look in? And why was the junior from the Morse spin-off on Question Time? Why did we need to hear his opinions? Who is he?

Worse still the BBC is playing the same game as the Daily Telegraph. The Daily Telegraph once had its own blog network recognising that independent blogs were a direct threat. Having marshalled all the traffic away from independent blogs, blogging pretty much died a death. The BBC is doing the same with podcasts. Essentially Freedland wants it that way. It wants the BBC to have the monopoly over the narrative. He believes there is an objective truth and only the BBC gets near it.

But as this blog demonstrates, there are nuances and depths to just about every factoid in media circulation from the egregious "rule taker" meme to the various perceptions of sovereignty. There are additional facts that completely reframe a debate which are, either deliberately or through negligence, left out of the public debate. Only if we have a thriving marketplace of ideas and voices can we enhance public debate.

I don't deny there are malevolent actors peddling fake news and toxic spin. It's not even confined to the fringes. The Daily Express and Telegraph is a universe away from this reality. But the thing about the Daily Express is it reflects pretty much what your average kiptard grunter thinks. It wouldn't be commercially viable if it didn't. Freedland would rather these voices were drowned out because he doesn't like that they have influence. The left hasn't learned a thing.

I don't want state broadcaster that thinks its job is to correct my thinking. I don't want sanctimonious lectures. I just want information. I don't need them to make it snappy or digestible. I don't want it sanitised or censored. I don't want to be patronised. Every time it withholds essential information it is saying we can't be trusted to know what is going on. Most of all I just don't want lightweight superficial poorly researched infotainment produced by teenage underlings.

If the BBC were to up its game and treat its audiences with respect - as adults capable of arriving at their own independent conclusions, then there wouldn't be calls for its demise. By all means if it chooses to keep insulting our intelligence and wasting our time then it should be free to do so but not if we are expected to finance it. As it happens it doesn't matter either way. It can keep on preaching but more people than ever are simply walking away. I'll always know where to find a radio documentary about a team of Welsh transgender lesbian canoeists training to navigate the Rockies to raise awareness of climate change induced breast cancer if I need it, but somehow I just don't. I guess one of us is out of touch. 

Living as a rule taker


Universities and Science Minister Chris Skidmore has said that the UK will not implement the EU Copyright Directive containing the dreaded Article 13 after the country leaves the EU. This delights Brexiteers and quite a few remainers, but the issue is not so clear cut. We may yet end up implementing a version of it.

There is a lot not to like about this directive. There are doubts as to how it can be realistically implemented and it's going to create a lot of problems. Some of the criticism is overblown and distorted, forgetting that there are exemptions for individuals and smaller companies it would otherwise affect. This is really aimed at the big players in the market.

As with most EU initiatives it follows the same pattern whereby they install a dog's dinner of a system but with a surveillance mechanism to feed back to the EU so it can be refined over time (See CFP). Regulated markets brought into being by EU frameworks are very often hated because of the disruption and implementation costs but as they mature, much like the REACH system, the major players would rather be in than out. 

The directive, though, is not a standalone measure. It is part of a raft of legislative instruments to bring about a high value digital single market. The directives have EEA relevance and no doubt any comprehensive free trade agreements the EU makes in future will contain extensive conformity requirements.

As I understand it, these issues aren't really touched on by existing FTAs but this is set to be the new frontier in trade. While the Brexiteers are raving on about fish and tariffs on tins of beans, there is a global space race to formalise trade in digital services and e-commerce and dominate the regulation of it. For the moment, digital concerns come under the broader category of trade in services which in modern FTAs are still only marginal increments on the GATT baseline, but now encompassing themes such as data protection.

Eventually comprehensive FTAs will have far reaching chapters on digital services bringing together aspects of data protection, copyright protection, intellectual property and more generic services rules - not forgetting financial transactions. As with anything else it will be subject to a hive of lobbying and special interests.

Leaving aside that the UK is probably obliged to implement the Copyright Directive under the aegis of the transition, where there may be penalties for non-conformity, any which way you cut it, if the UK wishes to participate in lucrative digital markets it will find it difficult to do so without at least having equivalent measures. All the while, as the regulatory systems of digital single market expand and mature, unless there is a formal system of harmonisation the UK risks becoming a digital backwater.

The simplistic mantra of "taking back control" plays into the Brexiteer belief that outside of the EU we are at liberty to make all our own laws. Typically Brexiteers do not recognise the utility of regulation and its role in international trade. In reality the external and commercial pressures placed on the UK will mean in most instances, like Switzerland, we will adopt regulatory frameworks wholesale. The UK is at liberty to refuse but at the expense of market access.

Remainers would have it that this is an inferior position to be in being that we would have no say in the creation of these rules. But then as far as the public is concerned that's no different to the status quo. Regulatory measures arrive with little warning that nobody was really consulted on, that nobody ever asked for, heavily influenced by corporate lobbyists, which in many cases are actively harmful. Our governments could veto such measures but they just don't.

In the case of Switzerland there are constitutional safeguards on the adoption of rules where there must at least be a parliamentary vote if not a referendum. Where there is refusal there is then a degree of back and forth to reach a negotiated compromise. Aside from the lack of formal voting influence in the creation of these rules, this system is in a way more democratic in that the decision making is at least done on a domestic basis with a degree of public debate. Then, of course, there is nothing at all to stop the UK employing its own lobbying apparatus in Brussels - not forgetting that the foundation of the rules are global standards more likely to be fashioned in Geneva.

It is then a crude misrepresentation to use a term as clumsy as "rule taker". I have in recent weeks warned that there is a danger the UK could become a vassal state but that really depends on the institutional mechanisms of the future relationship which are far more important than level playing field provisions or quotas. Like the Northern Ireland protocol there will have to be a consent mechanism and parliamentarians should be pushing to ensure they get a say and a chance to scrutinise.

In that regard, if such constitutional safeguards are in place, Brexit will satisfy the requirement to repatriate decision making and bring the debate back home where it should be. Offshoring this kind of decision making to the apparatus of the EU and the European Parliament lengthens the chain of accountability and creates a disconnect between the rulers and the ruled.

If we can arrive at such a settlement with only a limited role for the ECJ, employed only for intractable headline disputes (in the same way the WTO is employed), then Brexit is not as self-defeating as it would outwardly appear. We could have had this off the shelf, while also removing the ECJ from the equation by opting for the EEA/Efta route but that seems now to be entirely off the table.

If we work from the premise that adopting rules is just a reality of participating in the global rules based system, it shouldn't really matter where they come from be it IMO, UNECE or the EU, just so long as there is meaningful domestic scrutiny and a right of refusal. If, however, we take the naive view that we will make all our own laws without reference to anything happening out in the wider world, the wider world will adjust its own decision making accordingly and cut the UK out.

By taking a hardline minimalistic approach to EU relations we exclude ourselves, of our own volition, from a number of important regulated markets. This makes no sense as our fishing industry ought to be realising some time soon. If, however, we resign ourselves to the reality of "rule taking" then we can at least use that as a foundation of our commercial strategy.

The thing about the EU, as mentioned above, is that when it chooses to regulate for new and emerging markets, its initial forays often prove unpopular both inside the EU and out. The EU uses its external trade treaties to export its regulatory culture if not the precise regulations, and though smaller states have little option but to conform, the UK is not entirely without options and by way of marshalling resistance in the international forums, sufficient external pressure can be brought upon the EU to rethink. It has been done before in the field of agriculture, notably with the involvement of the Cairns Group (an interest group of 20 agricultural exporting countries).

Though the Commonwealth is essentially defunct as a trade entity, it is still a useful instrument of influence and a forum in which opinions and national positions are shaped. There are also ad-hoc alliances and emerging trade fraternities where the UK can garner support by the application of trade and development, utilising its new found agility, not having to coordinate action with the EU27 and the Commission.

In respect of that, for the UK to put itself in pole position it needs a directed aid and development strategy combined with a strong research sector, so to have first mover advantage in the creation and proliferation of standards. Though remainers believe the EU is the rule maker, there is a long chain of lobbying involving standards bodies and industry groups long before any texts are formalised for horse trading in Brussels. This is where the UK can shape the rules before they go into the meat grinder and then shave off the excesses at the adoption stage.

That said, we can be under no illusions, the EU is still a serious power and has considerable leverage of its own and will seek to frustrate any independent UK agenda so we are better looking at means to collaborate. In that regard leaving the single market and passing up the opportunity to join Efta is a serious mistake. The UK combined with Efta would have more clout in the shaping of the rules at the "meat grinder" stage.

As it happens, the longer term assumption is that the UK will gradually rebuild its regulatory relationship with the EU to at least the extent of that of Switzerland, and much of the damage done in the interim is largely a result of Tory folly rather than a consequence of Brexit. Eventually we will recover and rebuild our influence but with the Tory obsession with divergence and regulation driving our departure from the EU rather than any principled democratic foundation, we are sure to inflict a great deal of pain on ourselves.

Friday, 24 January 2020

The self-annihilation Brexit


By Brexiteer standards I am not a Brexiteer. Many won't even have it that I even voted leave. I have spent the whole time pointing out the deficiencies in the campaign, the unrealistic ideas, the limitations of sovereignty and the complexity of trade outside the single market. This is probably the loneliest place in the whole debate since I get piss and bile from both sides if anyone even bothers to acknowledge I exist.

It's not the easiest job either. I recognised early on that a no deal Brexit would be a disaster but still very much want us to leave the EU. This against a backdrop of a core of vocal Brexiters who insisted that and Brexit that wasn't a no deal Brexit was no deal at all. I therefore have some sympathy for those MPs who did vote for May's deal on all occasions only to be ousted because they moved to prevent a no deal exit. We're not out of the woods yet but they may have saved us from an unmitigated disaster.

Course, if I'd inhabited one of the trenches on either the leave or remain side I'd have had an easier time of it. Had I dutifully retweeted ERG and Guido trash I would have conformed sufficiently to be accepted by Brexiters, but instead The Leave Alliance barely made a dent. Had I then decided to switch camps (something I will never do) the remainers would have brought me into the fold and given me all the media attention I could handle.

The one thing the media can't cope with is any position that falls between two extremes. This is the fundamental problem with politics being conducted through the medium of TV. It doesn't do detail or nuance. And now that we are finally leaving the EU I am essentially, indirectly, an accessory to whatever disaster the Tories unleash because I supported leave. I'm certainly not going to make any friends on either side. I can point out how crap it is, which will piss off the leavers while taking abuse from remainers. I can't win.

Of course, I could take the easy path. I could be so very easily rehabilitated by confining my posts to gloating about Brexit and sticking it to remainers. I would certainly get more hits. That's how it works. You give your audience what they want to read. They want to read how the other side are the bad guys and deserve what they're getting. They don't want to read about trade and customs. For as long as I'm not doing that, though, I will never be a true Brexiteer. So be it.

But, of course, the argument remains the same. The EU is still what it is. A supreme government over which ordinary people have no meaningful influence nor means with which to hold it to account. It increasingly confiscates powers and decisions are made behind closed doors or away from the media eye, and once something becomes law there's not a damn thing any of us can do about it, and our own government won't put up much of a fight. It's still a dysfunctional antidemocratic mess that can never realise its ambitions thus destined to stay a dysfunctional mess.

I'm not persuadable on this. In theory it could become democratic but in so doing it would need to be a formal state with an executive we can sack, but I don't want to ever see a United States of Europe, much less see the United Kingdom absorbed into it. Since we are never going to be on board with the direction of travel and since it won't allow meaningful reform we have no choice but to leave.

Now that we are leaving, though, we're in the shit. This is because Brexit is more complicated and difficult than any leaver dare admit, that won't yield many of the benefits that were promised. Sunlit uplands there are not. If there are, then Jacob Rees-Mogg may have been telling the truth for once when he said we won't see the benefits for fifty years.

There is also another reason we're in the shit. Those who wanted this have become so absorbed in fighting the cause that now they have it they don't know how to do anything else. The era of leavers and remainers may have ended in law, but in reality the two sides will be slinging mud at each other for a long while to come with Breixteers going into denial about any bad news and amplifying any morsel of good news as proof that Brexiteers were right about everything all along.

Then there's that other problem with Brexit. The people in charge of delivering it have no idea what they are doing or why. The big complaint about Theresa May was that she never really believed in Brexit. Perhaps that is true but she was a loyal servant of the country and set about it to the best of her limited abilities in near impossible circumstances. But I'm not talking about Theresa May. I speak of Boris Johnson. He never believed in Brexit and still doesn't.

This is a man who will pick his team according to what advances his own ambitions and appropriate just about any argument to that end whether its credible or not. He's not even the driving force of Brexit. He just wants to be in power for its own sake and will do whatever it takes to stay in power and that includes placating the hard right of the parliamentary party and the membership. The red lines are entirely set by the ERG and their cronies not least because Johnson has not put the slightest thought into what we actually want to achieve. He simply doesn't care.

That then makes Brexit infinitely interchangeable. For now the ERG may be calling the shots behind the scenes, but pretty soon business will start to voice its own concerns. For now the attitude may be "fuck business" but when they start to vote with their feet, and as public opinion starts to drift, Johnson will readily throw the ERG under the bus. We simply don't know what sort of dog's dinner of a Brexit we are getting in the long run because Johnson can turn on a dime.

Say what you like about Theresa May but her "citizens of nowhere" speech (though obviously written by someone else) was in tune with Theresa May's brand of C of E Toryism and if that chimed with her she probably had more of a grasp of what was happening socially than the media who lambasted her for it. Meanwhile Johnson presents as a Brexiter doing the bidding of the hard right Brexiteers but in all other aspects is continuity liberal consensus. There's no substance to him at all.

In many respects Johnson is a Tory father Christmas handing out Tory goodies to Tory people. The upper middle class Tory clan love him. He's given them Dominic Cummings to swing his axe around in the civil service - to pander to a decades old Tory mantra that we need sweeping reforms to the civil service. He's promising the world on a stick to all comers - that we'll take back control of our fishing and we won't be accepting any rules from Brussels. He's promising more plod, more cash to the NHS and a big spending spree in the north. He's ending austerity too! Allegedly.

And Tories are completely satisfied with this. We complain that politicians lie but we actually prefer it if our own tribal leaders lie to us. We won't let reality intrude. Everything will be alright on the night. But then that's just politics now. In normal circumstances politicians can lie without consequences because we don't normally do politics and policy of substance. Westminster rule is tinkering managerialism. Brexit, however, is a different ballgame entirely. It has very real and quantifiable consequences but nobody on the leave side seems to want to acknowledge it.

My worry is that the Guidophiles and the Telegraph will continue to paper over the cracks until it;s too late. Remainers often joke that for all Brexiteers are willing to engage in reality, we could just as easily remain in the EU, tell them we have left and they wouldn't even notice. There's some truth in that - especially if they're expecting Brexit to have no noticeable consequences at all.

But of course even the Telegraph et al cannot conceal reality forever. There has to be consequences. Even with a withdrawal agreement and an FTA, leaving a decades old sophisticated regulatory system in little under a year, can't not have serious implications for commerce and continuity of normal business. The Northern Ireland customs protocol alone tells you that much.

The battle over the last four years has not been one of whether we should leave the EU. That was already written. Psychologically we have never been in it. Ordinary people do not engage with the EU, they don't know about it, they don't read about it, and the only time they are invited to vote on anything in respect of it, they stick two fingers up to it. Such was always unsustainable and only now are we getting round to doing something about it. What we have witnessed, therefore, is a wide ranging battle over values where the EU is a remote embodiment of "progressive" values that the right is revolting against.

That battle has paid no regard to the real world of what the EU is in practical terms and how we interact with it when this culture war is over. Nobody normal is interested in the nuts and bolts of trade, it bores the media, and our politicians couldn't be less interested either. Their fullest engagement with it is the talking points fed to them by their electoral handlers.

In a lot of ways we deserve whatever hardships are throw at us. We will be caught off guard by events of the future because we showed no interest in shaping them. That can be said of leavers and remainers alike, with both sides so dedicated to annihilating the other, they never realised they were annihilating themselves.

It's too early for a victory dance


These wholly unelected people, unknown to most ordinary folks, have just signed the Agreement on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU, opening the way for the vote in the European Parliament on Wednesday. We are most definitely leaving the EU. This image alone would bring a smile were it not for the fact there's an equivalent UK picture featuring Boris Johnson who is wholly ill equipped to make anything good of it.

All the same, on Brexit day I will be sinking a pint or two to celebrate arriving at the end of what has been a long hard road, consuming pretty much every single day for the last five years. The game may not be over but we are formally leaving the Treaties of the EU marking a new era for Britain.

But while leave (and remain) campaigning organisations are winding down, this blogger is not vacating the field. Brexit will dominate the agenda for a long time to come. As I have oft remarked, Brexit is not an end in itself. Our formal departure is less significant than the actual outcomes.

This, though, is where it's going to get pretty boring. The media will lose interest because it is not interested in outcomes at all. It's only interested in the personalities and drama. But there's a reason for that. Most of their readers are similarly shallow and tribal and couldn't give a monkey's about outcomes either.

To be be fair, one can completely understand why the details are a turn off. Trade is a dull subject. Insofar as there is a trade debate it is limited to a narrow band of self-appointed experts churning over the same handful of talking points desperately trying to draw attention to themselves. Then when it comes to the specifics they tend to be so impenetrable that even the experts can't agree on what anything means. It's easy to see why people revert to sources with prestige whom they trust. There isn't time in the day to learn it all for anybody normal.

The problem with that is that it leads to a highly partisan debate where the facts fall between the cracks. Remainers will choose to view any news in the most negative light possible while Brexiteers will inflate any morsel of good news they can find. If there's a wrong end of the stick they will grasp it with both hands. Britain will secure trade deals and it won't matter to Guidophiles is it's just a rollover deal or shallower in scope than what went before. It will still be cause to gloat.

Brexiteers will be in full damage control mode when the consequences of our departure start to hit home. Outside of the single market, trade in services is only marginally better than the WTO baseline and the likes of Japan or anyone who has an existing deal with the EU is bound by those MFN clauses meaning they can't offer us anything over an above what they've granted to the EU otherwise they have to grant the same to the EU without the EU having to reciprocate. 

By the time we leave the transition period under the whatever the new regime is likely to be the temporary continuity MOUs will come to an end and we'll be lucky to end up with FTAs even close to what we currently enjoy. That, combined with the loss of the single market, means that even if a deal can be struck with the USA, we're still taking a major hit.

The good news, is that many of the comprehensive deals we presently enjoy via the EU or relatively recent developments, the actual impact of which is barely noticeable. I'm not particularly worried about our trade with the rest of the world. It will even out in due course. It was always the case that if we wanted to stimulate more commerce with the rest of the world it was going to take more than FTAs. We need a proactive strategy encompassing aid and development, particularly in those countries where the EU has yet to secure comprehensive partnerships.

Presently CETA is the most far reaching EU agreement on services. Japan and South Korea and others will level up over time but ultimately geographical proximity is the main driver of services combined with liberal visa arrangements and soft integration such as recognition of qualifications. The EU does not have it as sewn up as remainers would have us believe. In WTO language trade agreements on services are termed Economic Integration Agreements, and as such, few of the EU's FTAs would qualify.

As ever Africa is touted as the land of opportunity, and to a point that's correct. African states are highly suspicious of comprehensive EU treaties in that they wish to preserve their own trade defences and don't want the EU dumping its surpluses thus undermining the industries they are trying to develop to move away from the blooded hand of mineral wealth. There are opportunities for the UK if we are prepared to talk visa liberalisation and aid. That may prove politically difficult (as it did with India).

Despite the political challenges, though, I am reasonably assured that we have what it takes. Previously I favoured the idea of rolling DfID up into the department of trade or the FCO but so long as there is a coherent interdepartmental strategy there is no reason why it can't be tasked with enhancing our overseas trade interests. Though DfID is a much maligned department, much of what it does is wholly experimental and its results are difficult to quantify but it is still an important instrument of influence. Populist calls for its demise (usually from the Guidophiles) are unhelpful. 

We must also remember that we are quite new at this. The UK lacks the institutional knowledge because we haven't had our own distinct trade and foreign policy for some years. The ideas machines in London are way behind the times which is why obsolete ideas like free ports still hold sway in Tory circles. Ultimately the use of free ports is viewed internationally as an indirect subsidy in contravention of certain WTO conventions and have very little regenerative potential. We are going to have to think bigger.

What should be our central concern is our trade and cooperation relationship with the EU. It is, after all, our largest market and closest of all our interests. The political ambition may be toward regulatory independence but this has business and industry screaming at the government for reassurance. Unless there is a high degree of regulatory alignment business will suffer as will employment and though it is politically expedient to say "fuck business" right now, British voters still have bills to pay.

This is where it gets tricky. It would seem the technical integration we could tolerate will not be offered without far reaching level playing field provisions encompassing non-regression clauses that to a very large extent defeat the commercial deregulatory objectives of the Tories while compromising sovereignty too far for those who prioritise those matters. Though the technical and trade governance rules may be global in nature, the EU will be calling the shots on the LPF provisions and there will be a role for the ECJ since we abandoned the Efta option.

Adding to what is already nightmarishly complex, we then have the Northern Ireland protocol to contend with that will have a major influence over own own territorial governance mechanisms (whatever they may be) and if not directly adopting rules from the EU, to preserve a degree of compatibility, we will have to be mindful of it, aligning unilaterally. Methinks the Tories were operating under the presumption that Northern Ireland was a backwater concern we could largely isolate when in reality it will become the tail wagging the dog.

For now Boris Johnson is holding the line by lying outright, saying that there won't be customs complications between the two territories but even he can't escape the inevitable by glossing over it. He hopes to walk away with a minimalistic deal (which is about all that can be achieved in the time available) and that may placate Brexteers, but in so doing he is inflicting enormous damage that will at some point need to be corrected. That will of course mean going back to Brussels cap in hand and gradually piecing together much of what we could have had simply by remaining in the EEA. Only Johnson is hoping to be long gone by then.

The truth of the matter is that the spirit of Brexit always was going to be defeated by the detail. We are very much in Hotel California territory. This was very much anticipated by The Leave Alliance which is why we took the view that Brexit as envisaged by Brexiteers was something of a pipedream. With the explosion of international trade governance rules and standards alone with global regulations adopted via the EU, the intellectual basis for Tory Brexit always stood on a foundation of intellectual sand.

By remaining in the EEA and joining Efta we could have used our collective influence to enhance the EEA agreement, recognising that there was no realistic way to break from the EU's regulatory orbit. We would then at least have a means of controlling what we adopt and shaping it accordingly, while having a distinct firewall between us and the ECJ. Had Leave.EU and Vote Leave invested in any kind of planning they would have recognised the bear traps and ambushes well in advance and would have seen, as we did, that the EEA, though suboptimal, was our best hope for a viable Brexit and the most workable basis for a collaborative relationship with the EU.

By rejecting this option we are now on a trajectory to being a passive "rule taker" and back on the ratchet, which is neither desirable nor tolerable. In respect of that, Brexit as will be delivered, does not meaningfully resolve our philosophical disagreement with Brussels and though we may grudgingly accept our fate in the interim, we will again see disquiet within the Tory party under the banner of True Brexit has never been tried!

Though we are leaving the treaties of the EU, a highly symbolic gesture, the reality is that our fate is forever bound to an extent by geography. We are may be leaving but the EU continues to exist and continues to be a power with which we must contend. There are endless questions still without good answers and our politics is manifestly incapable of answering them. As much as we are ill served by our government there is no hope to be found on the opposite benches. This, combined with a media that finds it all too boring, we may well end up a vassal state. It's almost like some sort of Brexit plan was a good idea after all.