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.

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