Wednesday, 26 February 2020

Weapons grade incompetence

There seems to be some confusion as to why the EU would seek to treat us differently to Japan or Canada. It's really very simple. We have more to do with the EU than we do with other places because they are closer. Closer is easier and cheaper. I've been on several European holidays because my budget can just about stretch to it. I've only been to Canada once because the flight costs hundreds of pounds and I'd have to save and plan for it. I've never been to Japan because it's twenty four hours worth of flying and waiting in airports. That kind of travel is neither cheap nor convenient and it is not done spontaneously.

That loosely applies to goods and services too. It's the basic trade gravity model, and though we can question how hard and fast such a rule is in the age of the internet, it's still very much a rule. There is also the matter of that land border and tunnel we have linking us to the EU. The single market is a system of rules designed to uphold certain standards and norms, and if the EU is to relax its frontier controls for third countries (especially ones who have higher volumes of transactions) then it needs certain assurances.

If you want to understand the EU's position all you have to do is listen to the signals coming from Number Ten. The latest speech from Frost prioritises regulatory independence and sovereignty. The UK has made repeated noises about its desire for a deep and comprehensive relationship with the USA that would necessarily require a departure from the EU regulatory philosophy, along with signals that intends to substantially deregulate.

Moreover, there is no reason to trust the UK. Already Johnson is sending signals that the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement will not be upheld while sending conflicting signals in respect of what it will or won't do in respect of food standards.

The Tories have it that there is no logical reason why the EU would seek to treat the UK any differently, but if an unpredictable UK is conducting its affairs in such a way that that the EU's system is undermined, thereby threatening its own sovereignty, it has to act accordingly to safeguard its own interests.

In the Tory bubble this translates as the EU living in fear of a newly competitive UK threatening the EU's trade. There is an element of that but then if the UK is looking to compete by relaxing standards, there is a higher risk by way of proximity that UK goods and services will contaminate the single market. That then, in effect, allows the UK, a non-member, to unilaterally set the lowest bar of market entry if the EU extends any preferences to it.

This is very much a mindset issue in that the EU does not see goods and services as distinct - which indeed they are not. As such the single market is an integrated system to ensure that competition is fair competition and not based on exploitation. There is strong evidence that freedom of movement does lead to the exploitation of eastern European migrants here in the UK but that's why there are several directives instructing member states to implement systems to "level up". Whether they work or not is another matter. The principle and the intent is there.

This is where it is argued that the the EU is overreacting in that the UK already surpasses EU and international standards and has no good cause for concern. But then it comes back to that matter of trust. the EU has to take the signals coming from Downing Street at face value. The UK is to dabble with free ports and unilateral tariff reductions along with deregulation. Why else would the UK have such an aversion to an agreement that keeps the UK in the EU regulatory ecosystem?

As it happens, this debate is distorted by politics. The level playing field provisions demanded by the EU are not in substance much more than what is already demanded in the EU's more recent trade agreements. The negotiating mandate was tamer than I had anticipated. In all likelihood this is being blown out of proportion for political reasons but also because this government is evidently not in the business of reading trade agreements such as CETA before commenting on what they contain. It would appear Brandon Lewis has not read the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement.

But then this is, as the Tories see it, a negotiation. The UK has still not understood the nature of the beast. It does not understand why the EU takes the line it does, nor does it appreciate that concessions weaken the overall integrity of the EU system. The UK believes that the EU can be pressured into diluting its demands. This is where history is likely to repeat.

We are told that Boris Johnson was able to go to Brussels and secure major changes to the withdrawal agreement. We can argue the toss over that, but at no time did the EU ever buckle in defence of its sovereignty and system integrity. The choice was always a whole UK customs solution in alignment with the EU or a border down the Irish Sea. Some other measures may have been reworded and moved around for cosmetic reasons but the outcomes are essentially the same. In the next round we can expect the same. The EU will do whatever it can to accommodate UK concerns, but will not dilute the principles upheld by its level playing field demands.

The tragedy of this is that the UK is needlessly combative while pursuing a strategy that is ultimately self defeating. An agreement can be reached to allow for UK divergence, but the business case for doing so is weak. The UK will learn the hard way that breaking from the EU's regulatory gravity is both difficult and futile.

But then as remarked previously, the EU is well aware of this. It can afford to grant a slimline trade deal but what matters is the institutional architecture of the agreement, that will see a number of clauses to set up working bodies and frameworks for future cooperation (recognising that bilateral relations are a continuum), in anticipation of the UK "free trade" experiment falling flat on its face, whereby the successor to the Johnson regime will be tasked with rebuilding our European trade links.

Ultimately an FTA is never going to be sufficient for our needs and the next ten years or more will see us rebuilding the sort of deep and complex relationship we need. The only real question is how much damage is inflicted in the meantime. The Tories are stealing the clothes of the sovereignty obsessed Brexit hardcore, not out of any particular devotion to the principle of sovereignty, rather they just want to clear the decks for a radical economic experiment that is not in the national interest or the interests of the EU.

This, to a large extent, is why Brexit is far from "done". It won't be done, or anywhere close to done, until the Tory poison is purged from the system. Only when we're done chasing ideological unicorns can we get down to the business of building a viable relationship with the EU. In the longer term it is likely that we'll end up with a relationship that is three quarters the EEA agreement, because that's the baseline a close partnership of this nature requires given our geographic proximity and our historical ties with the EU.

The sad part is, we could have had that without all the fuss, using the collective clout of Efta to shape and modernise the EEA, using the institutions to dial it back to something we can tolerate. Instead we have to indulge the Tories as enormous cost for a mirage of sovereignty. The negotiating mandate is entirely in line with the EU's policy of embedding multilateralism in its FTAs (particularly the WTO agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade), a practice now adopted globally, where international standards and regulatory mechanisms form the baseline of any cooperation which increasingly pushes regulatory sovereignty into obsolescence. Whoever we choose to align with, that reality will be staring us in the face.

The reality of Brexit is that our departure is not the free hand many believed it was, and with level playing field provisions on the environment and sustainable development, along with other measures on competition, now based on global agreements we are members of in our own right, the likelihood and utility of divergence is minimal. That this hasn't yet registered with the Tories is yet another signal that weapons grade incompetence is in the driving seat.

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Patel: Viper in the nest

As I understand it, the reason the EU failed to conclude an FTA with India was down to British objections for easements on visas. Today though, the British High Commission in India tweets "The new #PointsBasedSystem is great news for Indian nationals looking to work in the UK. It puts Indian applicants on a level playing field, and prioritises those with the greatest skills and talent – something which India has in abundance". Essentially that's an advert.

One might then hypothesise, with reasonable circumstantial evidence, that lobbying by the Indian business community has worked and that's why, despite her objectionable conduct and manifest incompetence, Priti Patel can do no wrong, and has somehow warranted a promotion to the Home Office. It smells like a backroom deal in exchange for the Indian business community (or parts of it) supporting Brexit. Boris Johnson and Priti Patel said the food sector would be able to employ more chefs from south Asia.

Both Priti Patel and Boris Johnson made a big show of the Save Our Curry Houses campaign set up by Vote Leave. They said they would ensure the industry would be able to get more chefs from South Asia by relaxing immigration rules.

This is where Brexiteers become victims of their own bullshit. I do not imagine for a nanosecond that the message sent at the ballot box was to close down freedom of European movement so we could import more curry chefs from the back hills of dysfunctional third world provinces, but having embraced the weak narrative that the EU immigration regime was exclusionary and racist (See, look! we really aren't racist), the pretext is there for the Tories to make good on their grubby little deal with the Indians.

Being that the Tories need the Indian vote in key inner city marginals, and are only too happy to accept donations from Indian millionaires, it makes sense to put a British Indian in a position of influence. It cannot be a coincidence that it just happens to be the Home Office. While the Labour party sucks up to Muslims, the Tories are exploiting the Indian vote.

This is something has explored recently, noting that we are drifting to a point where national elections will be decided in a handful of constituencies based on the ethnic minority vote where issues such as Kashmir will have more influence on the outcome than local bus services or GP funding. A major vulnerability in our democracy.

As to Patel, the Tories love her. She is awfully useful. She's a Brexiter (insofar as she believes in anything at all, ambitious career woman that she is), but one with brown skin which is doubly useful. And then with Indians presently having it in for Pakistani Muslims, they have an agenda in common. But the enemy of the enemy (to coin a clumsy phrase) is certainly not our friend. Allowing India a proxy foothold on the inside of our government is a mistake.

As the UK starts to run with its Global Britain agenda, seeking any FTA we can get, attentions will soon turn to India. The left have been busy hyperventilating over a trade deal with the USA - which doesn't especially keep me awake at night, and probably won't happen, but the real worry is climbing into bed with India.

India is not a good country to do business with. Central to any supply chain is trust. Efficient logistics depends on eliminating customs formalities such as inspections and audits. That can happen when both parties trust each others inspectors and standards but that is unlikely given India's track record, especially in the food sector.

Food adulteration is acute. This is the process in which the quality of food is lowered either by the addition of inferior quality material to bulk out the weight, or by extraction of valuable ingredients. It includes intentional addition or substitution of the substances, but also biological and chemical contamination during growth, storage, processing, transport and distribution of food products. In India it is an epidemic.

Far worse than this is fake and adulterated medicines, often lethal, which again is a serious concern. As much as procedures are not followed and standards auditing is poor, local officials are very often easily bribed and paperwork is often forged.

Reading around the subject we have seen that Indian officials very often have fake qualifications bought off the black market so there is little possibility of recognising Indian safety systems and inspections as equal - and the lack of security at ports often means goods are substituted or simply stolen.

Meanwhile, for all that we're complaining about the EU's demands for a level playing field, that is a demand we almost certainly will ask of India. Western consumers tend to be fussy about animal welfare standards and labour conditions. We want to know that the clothes we wear are not made by child slave labourers and that workers get a fair day's pay. The UK would likely demand that India commits to the conventions set out by the International Labour Organisation. And that isn't going to happen. They may adopt them, but they won't be meaningfully enforced.

Similarly on trade in services the UK would be opening itself up to a wholesale theft of intellectual property. India is also unlikely to honour commitments on data protection. In 2017 data theft increased by 783% in India. If you speak to anyone who has ever outsourced UK software development to India, their advice is "don't". They're dishonest actors and there is no saving to be had. There is no polite way of saying it but India is a corrupt country from top to bottom. It is a caveat emptor society ever keen to exploit the unwary customer.

This is why the current trajectory on Brexit is a serious worry. Without a deal with the EU, safeguarding nearly half of our trade, we can't be too choosy about who we do deals with to make up the export shortfall. It is entirely possible that the Tories are unwittingly doing a deal with the devil by cosying up to the Indian "community". Closer ties with South Asia generally could turn out to be a security threat and a domestic liability. If Huawei was cause for a national panic then the state and industrial espionage that goes with Indian commerce, particularly in defence, is something we should be on high alert to.

There is more than a whiff of corruption between the Tories and various Indian businessmen who in all likelihood are lining up with the other vultures to cash in on a hard Brexit. I'd certainly like to have a nosey at Rees-Mogg's portfolio. Since, for obvious reasons, we will protect our own market from Indian exports, the only thing we have to trade with that India (a remittances economy) wants, is visas. Right wingers may well be cock-a-hoop that Patel is making all the right noises, but only a fool would trust the Tories. They'll drop their immigration red lines with India if they can line their own pockets. 

Something is better than nothing.

The latest announcement on measures to control immigration haven't gone down particularly well with remainers. It's an interesting insight into the psyche of liberals now bemoaning the loss of what they see as a low pay underclass that exists solely to service their grazing habits. There is a soft bigotry in assuming EU migrants are there simply to grub in the fields and wipe bottoms, and that GDP should be the overriding factor in immigration policy.

There are, however, several problems with the new approach. Without quotas and limits there is no guarantee these measures will reduce immigration, and then there is the unanswered question of enforcement and how effective it is likely to be. A points based system does not address the problem of overstays and the gaping holes in asylum policy.

Then, of course, there are always those unintended consequences. Whenever I imagine policymaking I think of a railway signal box with a row of levers, only if you pull one lever forward, the gearing shifts two other levers back. No policy lever works in isolation. In this instance, setting a wage threshold on new arrivals means natives become the low pay pool.

Personally I'm not moved by the special pleading of business who tell us they have labour shortages. For instance, I don't see that importing delivery drivers to sustain the Amazon behemoth as a welcome development, nor do I see any reason would we should have seasonal produce all year round - especially when it's underpinned by what is now termed as "modern slavery". Our services economy props up precisely the sort of consumer spending I view as actively harmful.

As it happens, if Brexit means we end up paying what we're supposed to be paying for things (on the provisio that we have managed immigration) then I'm good with it. It will force us to rethink our spending and consumption habits. There is a price to pay for a more cohesive, and hopefully less transient and frivolous society. But then I suspect we shall see a reversion to the seasonal workers visa so it won't be as bad as some imagine.

Ultimately I take the view that our first foray into serious immigration control is going to be a dog's dinner and it was never going to be any other way. We'll have to refine it over time, and deal with the consequences as and when we find them. The most vocal criticism comes from those who prefer the status quo who don't see a need for action, which simply isn't an option. GDP cannot be the overriding factor. It comes back to that fundamental question of whether this place is our home or a business park open to all comers. It can't be both.

One way or another the economy will have to adapt and it will have some welcome developments as well as some unwelcome ones, whereupon I hope to see a resurgence of union activity instead of the passive conformity we have seen in the last two decades.

But then, we have to bear in mind that nothing we see these days is ever quite real. More likely the purpose of this announcement is less to do with controlling immigration as it is promoting the belief the Tories are doing something about it when in the real world it may not make the slightest difference in which case we'll still be having the exact same debate on ten and twenty years time.

In the end we have to do something and this something may not be the answer. All policy to one extent or other is experimental. That is how the single market evolved. EU regulatory frameworks were notoriously bad in their infancy, but over the years have evolved to a workable level. The same can be said of the CAP. Britain as an emergent independent country is going to have to relearn the art of statecraft, and indeed the art of doing politics, both of which have been in deep stasis for the better part of half a century.

As a first foray into immigration control, this latest policy at least sends out the right signals. Again it reveals the economy first mindset of liberals who prefer technocracy over democracy. We can now see the values underpinning the liberal regime. Though these latest measures may be seriously flawed, they at least speak to those who think governing a country is more than massaging GDP ever upwards and that there is something here worth conserving that is worth the sacrifices required of us.

But best of all, let's suppose my thinking on this really is total crap, and in the end the consequences of these measures are just really not worth the hassle, and when faced with those consequences, the public decide that cheap coronation chicken sandwiches are the paramount concern, we can always adjust our policies accordingly without seeking permission from Brussels or anyone else. That, above all, is the point of Brexit.

Monday, 17 February 2020

A frosty reception

Boris Johnson’s negotiator David Frost gave a speech at ULB Brussels University yesterday evening on the British government’s plans for a UK-EU trade deal. Much of it is bloviation. It lacks the ruthless precision we've grown used to from Ivan Rogers. You have to get halfway down it before anything of substance appears whereupon it shifts from bloviation to bluff, casually sweeping aside facts and concepts we know to be real and true. Much of it will be demolished on Twitter by lunchtime, particularly the naive comments about non-tariff barriers and regulatory independence.

One of the more insane things he says is that the Treaty of Rome was negotiated in nine months so there is no reason why the EU-UK treaty can't be agreed by the end of the year. But, apart from the fact that the treaty took two years (from the start of the Spaak Committee), he is comparing chalk with cheese. The treaty was essentially an enabling treaty giving the Commission powers to develop policies in specific areas. The EU-UK treaty must deal with the fine detail, something the Treaty of Rome never had to do. If this is representative of Frost's intellectual level, then we are in real trouble.

The point of the speech, though, is to set out a hardline position hoping to gain concessions from the EU. The British government seems utterly incapable of realising the game in play. When two nations negotiate there is room for give and take. In this instance, though, we are not negotiating with a nation state. We are dealing with a wholly different animal. Too weak a stance with the UK could not only weaken its global standing, therefore, it could have a significant impact on its internal cohesion and what is, in reality, a rather fragile unity. Then as much as it can't break the fundamental rules of the system, it doesn't want to. There are precedents to be observed and were the EU to substantially diverge from its usual approach to trade governance then its other FTAs may soon fall apart.

As much as there is a great deal to be concerned about in terms of the cavalier attitude, of greater concern is that this government, much like May's, simply doesn't know what game it is playing and has no real understanding of what it's up against. A more optimistic appraisal would be that the government was always going to start from a hardline position just to see how much movement it can get from the EU on level playing field provisions, which may even work, to a point, but the fact we are still talking about minimal regulatory alignment with our nearest and largest market, with no discernible strategy for overall trade, ought to be a cause for concern. 

But it isn't. One rather suspects that the speech won't get much of an airing. It will keep Twitter trade wonks fed for a couple of days and it is sure to delight the Spectator reading Tory tribe, but beyond that, the media will find something else to run with, not least because it doesn't have the attention span for this sort of thing, but also because the wider public is losing interest. The central points of disagreement are nothing at all new and for all that has been written and discussed, nothing has been learned. Insofar as the negotiations will feature in general discourse, fishing will absorb a disproportionate span of runtime at the expense of more urgent concerns.

Ultimately if the government is serious about its current approach then the whole process of negotiating a deal is little more than a sham. Since much of the economic fallout comes from leaving the single market and abandoning any formal regulatory cooperation, it's difficult to see the point of a bare bones agreement. At best securing a deal serves as a decoy to temper no deal panic, but for all the difference it makes, it might as well be no deal. Perhaps that is the intent. 

Shamefully though, as usual, we are left to speculate with little to go on, where the British side of negotiations will be conducted in speeches at formal dinners. This has less to do with concealing intentions from Brussels as it is to do with concealing the true agenda from the British public. And so it now looks like we are leaving the EU the same way we joined; a feral government acting outside of its remit, seeking to avoid debate and meaningful public scrutiny. Again our relationship with the EU is something imposed on us while the media sleeps.

Beeb bashing.

The BBC has had a near total monopoly on TV politics and what has it coughed up for us? Grace Blakeley, Owen Jones, Aaron Bastani, EU supergirl, Femi, Steve Bray and Ash Sarkar. It debases public debate. It adds no value while acting as a bed blocker to anything that might.

Thanks to the BBC public debate is dominated by cranks because they're cheap, readily available and generate controversy. That's fine for commercial stations but if the BBC has abandoned its obligation to inform and wants to play in the gutter it should not enjoy special status.

It can't complain if the government wants to treat it like a commercial entity when it has decided to compete with commercial stations on their terms. If there's any point to a state broadcaster then it's to take risks private channels cant, preferably by rising above the dross.

But it's not going to do that because BBC politics producers genuinely don't see a problem. The worse they get the better they think they are. It's a basic values problem born of a contempt for ordinary people, believing them incapable of serious engagement with the issues.

Instead of exploring issues in depth the BBC gives over most of its airtime to attention seeking opinionated blowhards who don't have a basic grasp of the issues meaning the viewer is likely to be more informed than the people presuming to inform us. So what is the actual point?

It's not even as though the wastrels and blowhards they give airtime to are representative of the layman's point of view. They tend to be self-radicalised adolescents with no real world experience who live a narrow selfish existence inside a London bubble whose values are alien.

The BBC then seeks to bring "balance" by giving airtime to juveniles from Tory think tanks, spewing wildly inaccurate bilge to reinforce a tightly controlled narrative. That's not balance. It just means the debate is polluted by valueless noise while the substance is neglected.

So in fact the BBC does the public a disservice, leading the debate into triviality and irrelevance for the advancement of narcissists and parasites. And they think that deserves public funding? Worse still, they have no idea why they are so deeply detested. It's unsalvageable.

The BBC is no longer capable of informing the nation because it wouldn't know where to even look for serious sources. It has long since reduced politics to passive entertainment while seeking to be a participant rather than observer. Why should we pay for that?

BBC supporters often say the fact both sides accuse it of bias means they're doing their jobs. That just speaks to the intolerance for opposing views from each lunatic fringe. But if the sum product is a cacophony of valueless noise then the BBC is failing in its primary function.

But let's not kid ourselves. Deleting the BBC doesn't solve the problem because there is still a huge market for coprophagia. If the BBC doesn't supply it, somebody else will. The central problem is you, dear reader, who indulge it by responding to it. Physician, heal thyself.

Friday, 14 February 2020

King for a day, fool for a lifetime

We've heard Johnson saying there won't be a border down the Irish sea. Being a man who bloviates and ignores detail, we are left to wonder if there is a strategy in play or whether the man simply has no idea what's in his deal and doesn't care either. But now we have the new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, echoing the assertion.
Speaking to reporters in Belfast, ahead of his meetings at Stormont House, he said that there would be no border down the Irish Sea after the Brexit transition period. Mr Lewis said: "The United Kingdom is going to be one area and all will be able to benefit from our future global trade deals. "I appreciate what Michel Barnier says, he's a very good man trying to do a good job for the EU. "But this is also the man who said we couldn't open the Withdrawal Agreement. "Our Prime Minister got that agreement open, got a new agreement. We've got it through parliament, we've left the European Union".
And there it is. They think it's negotiable. They've paid so little attention to the process that it's escaped them that this is a done deal. The UK is bound by the withdrawal treaty to police the border. But with Tories being Tories they've believed their own bullshit that Johnson has "got rid of the backstop". They're in for a major shock. Johnson has made the backstop the front stop and he's made it permanent.

Had Johnson left well alone and gone with Theresa May's deal then it would be up for renegotiation outside of the Article 50 framework, but not now. Johnson has screwed the pooch. The whole point of the backstop was that it was a backstop - a protocol to be implemented only in the event of no deal, with a further deal committing both parties to replacing the backstop should it ever be activated.

Of course the ERG knew this. They knew full well that the backstop could be replaced, but they also knew the only viable alternative was for the whole UK to stay in the single market thereby scuppering their divergence ambitions. In effect, they've traded Northern Ireland for notional regulatory independence.

It remains to be seen if Johnson realises what he has done, but it may well have been the plan all along to sign up to the withdrawal agreement with zero intention of honouring it. If that's the case then we are in wholly new territory where the British government no longer pays any regard to the law of international treaties. If that's where we're going then our relationship with the EU moves from cooperative to antagonistic. If, though, it's the case that Johnson really believes he can reopen the withdrawal agreement after we've signed it then, put simply, we are ruled by fools. That certainly seems to be the most likely scenario.

At this point I start to wonder if our politics functions in a parallel universe. It's bad enough that the minister for NI believes it but the rest of the party probably does as well. Is the penny ever going to drop? What happens when it does? How long will they keep making excuses for Johnson?

Thursday, 13 February 2020

The Irish establishment has no room for complacency

The LSE Brexit unit reports that there is no anti-English sentiment in Ireland in the wake of Brexit.
There is no ‘anti-English’ sentiment in Ireland in the wake of Brexit. The success of Sinn Fein in the recent Irish general election was built on a deep-seated public dissatisfaction with the quality of social provision in health, housing, childcare and other ‘quality of life’ issues at a time of a booming economy. The party’s traditional nationalism is certainly an issue of concern, but it played simply no role in its electoral success, writes Ben Tonra (University College Dublin).
Course you wouldn't think that were you to go by certain Irish columnists, not least Fintan O'Toole, whose narrow-minded Brexit analysis has long since drifted into Anglophobia. According to him Britain is in the grip of a nationalistic fever, nostalgic for empire and generally xenophobic. There's no nuance. It's a deliberate sneer, wilfully refusing to contemplate the many reasons why Brits have a long standing mistrust of the EU and why, taking into account the manifest failings of the British governing class, we might have voted to leave.

We too could play that game. We could read all sorts into a Sinn Fein surge and cast aspersions on the character of the Irish. I won't because I largely accept the LSE's reading of it. Ireland has its own "left behind" who are also voting to send a message with varying motivations. 

But it's curious that the LSE would go to bat to shore up Ireland's reputation when it wouldn't do the same level of analysis regarding the UK. If anyone did get the impression that the UK is in the grip of a nationalist fever and pining for empire etc, it's because LSE and wider academia have invested considerable energies into retailing that narrative to anyone who'll listen, not least EU academics and US columnists.

Course, it's easy to see why it looks that way to the distant outsider. The boorish behaviour of the Tory party in recent months (which is apparently quite popular at the ballot box) suggests there is more than a germ of truth to the narrative weaved by remainers. 

But then the Tories aren't especially popular. They didn't win the election on their own merit. If anyone can take credit for the Tory landslide it's Jeremy Corbyn. We should also not forget that the Tory party didn't instigate Brexit. They were forced into it by Ukip. Ever since the Tories have been fighting off an insurgency on the right and have had to do a great deal to placate the eurosceptics just to stay in business. 

Part of the reason Brexit has been so cack-handed is that the execution fell to a Tory party that didn't want Brexit, didn't really understand what happened in 2016 and to large extent still doesn't. They're as out of touch as ever they were, thinking that throwing leavers the odd bone like a blue passport and ending freedom of movement is enough to stay in power and kill off any insurgency. 

This clueless blundering only really goes to reinforce remainer perceptions of leavers largely because remainers understand Brexit and leave voters even less than the Tory party does. Consequently the overwrought reaction of remainers then has leavers playing into it just to rub their noses in it. No leaver I know ever cared about a blue passport but if it pisses all the right people off then it's good for a laugh. 

Ultimately remainers, particularly in academic and media circles, have a vested interest in retailing to the world the notion that leave voters are best represented by Mark Francois - tubby, spotty little oiks who haven't got over winning World War Two. It suits their narcissism and feeds their sense of cosmopolitan superiority. 

This is partly why the LSE has gone to bat to shore up Ireland's reputation. Ireland has been held aloft as a beacon of progressivism, keeping the torch lit for enlightened values in the English speaking quarter of Europe. Ireland is also a useful stick with which to beat the English with. Their interest in Ireland is entirely utilitarian. The remain camp is so embittered by Brexit, there is nothing they would like to see more than a humbled and broken UK, with Scotland gaining independence and Ireland reunited, leaving a rump UK out on it s own, demoralised and humiliated. The self-loathing on the progressive left is palpable.

Course with hubris and vanity being what it is, Leo Varadkar has stepped into the limelight to soak up the adulation of British europhiles, and to exploit its unique positioning in the Brexit negotiations. I won't go as far as saying he has been punished for that, because such is a simplistic and self-serving narrative. But the Irish europhile establishment really need to wind their necks in. 

I say that because I don't trust what I'm looking at. I don't believe the Irish peope are as europhile as their politicians are. I think they are more like us than their politicians would care to admit. The trends that brought us to Brexit can be found in Ireland and those issues are exacerbated by a number of factors. 

Furthermore, Ireland is a little bit behind the curve. During the Blair regime when Britain was congratulating itself at the height of its liberal golden age, we were laughing at stodgy old Ireland for being far behind the times in social attitudes, still very much held prisoner to "old fashioned" catholic values. It provided much source material for Irish comedians who were well received in the UK.

So we are to believe one of two things. Either the liberal establishment in Dublin has imposed radical social changes on the whole country without any real debate or Ireland has had a near spontaneous change of values in just a few years that makes them a land of happy clappy rainbow progressives.

I very much doubt it's the latter. I think Ireland is still two decades behind the curve and now they're having their own self-congratulatory Blairish era while the fundamentals are eroding under them - which very well could be exacerbated by the UK leaving the single market and customs union. A UK recession is sure to have consequences for Ireland. 

For the time being the social consensus may well track that which we experienced here where if you had politically inconvenient views, you kept them to yourself. Not everyone in Ireland seems equally welcoming of recent societal and cultural developments, suggests research published by Behaviour & Attitudes, with two thirds believing Ireland is too politically correct.

Ireland too could also see attitudes sour on immigration. The decision to turn the Irish passport into a commodity, thereby cheapening the very idea of citizenship may well come at a price, all the while some researchers think "Ireland is “ripe” for a far-right party to emerge". Irish asylum claims are at a ten year high with applicants hailing from Syria, Georgia and Albania which is sure to bring gang violence, organised crime and racially motivated attacks to a country already blessed with it in abundance.

Essentially if the Irish establishment is anywhere near as tin eared as our own then they'll follow the same pattern of ignoring all the warning signs, choosing instead to belittle and censor inconvenient voices, then they can expect much the same outcomes witnessed here in the UK and elsewhere. Though we are told that support for EU membership is at an all time high in Ireland, these times are fickle. It wasn't so very long ago that Brexit favouring parties in the UK collectively couldn't scratch 6% between them. Irexit is not as far fetched as it may seem.

Ultimately I know very little about the dynamics of Irish politics but humans have certain universal traits. We are welcoming in times of abundance but not so in times of scarcity. We form communities and establish common conventions and interlopers who ignore them or hold them in contempt are met with intolerance and eventually violence. Ireland is no different and there is enough circumstantial evidence to paint a familiar narrative. The Irish establishment has no room for complacency.

In recent months we have seen Varadkar playing the role of international statesman, soaking up the limelight as Barnier's right hand man. His successor will likely fail to resist the temptation of doing likewise. This is not a good idea. As much as every man and his dog have been telling us about the gravity effect in trade, where the UK still does most of its trade with the EU, that basic universal rule of trade also applies to Ireland who still depend to a very large extent on trade with the UK. We are sure to bear that in mind it the future. This pettiness and arrogance will be remembered. 

If there is one constant in EU history it is that hubris is rewarded by karma. Brexit is one such instance. There is plenty of hubris on all sides and this current crop of Tories have set themselves up for a much deserved humbling, but though Ireland may gloat, they should recall that what goes around comes around. 

Back online

Flooding up the back lane.

I'm in the process of moving house and until today have been without proper broadband (hence the lack of blogging). Frankly I'm not surprised so few people are bothered about losing freedom of movement. It's cost us a pretty penny just to go a hundred miles up the A1 to a rather soggy North Yorkshire - and the bureaucracy has been head-melting. I'm not in a hurry to repeat the experience any time soon. 

I picked a good week to go offline though. I really don't think I missed anything. Until negotiations kick off, most of what we are seeing is noise. Nothing much to go on. If there is one takeaway lesson from the last four years it's that you shouldn't make predictions as regards to Brexit. I've made plenty and most of them have turned out wrong. Thinking rationally about an irrational government will lead you to all the wrong conclusions. This is especially true of now when even the most abstract thinking would not bring you any closer to understanding just what the hell the government is playing at.

We've gone from promises of having the exact same access to the single market to now erecting customs controls to incoming goods. No doubt this is an ill-conceived negotiating ploy based on the "German car makers" shtick, and nobody sane thinks it can work, but there seems to be a darker insanity at work. I just can't put my finger on it. It will become apparent in due course. Things don't get serious until March so we might as well keep the speculation to a minimum. 

Then there's this reshuffle. One group of deadbeats I barely recognise has been replaced by another set of anonymous deadbeats. I don't think it matters. The one thing that does matter is securing a viable trade relationship with the EU. There was zero chance of that yesterday and zero chance of it today. A reshuffle might give our third rate media something to do but it's not worth a nanosecond of my time.

It certainly doesn't help that the new chancellor doesn't think we need a deal and it looks like the new cabinet is an even more obsequious pack of yes men and diversity hires but since the general trajectory is towards a bare bones deal that in no way serves the national requirement, all this really does is remove all doubt. 

But then we have seen this before. Farage exchanged talent for loyalists and look where that got him. For sure we have left the EU but there is no longer an insurgent movement capable of calling the shots. The Brexit Party in the end became a dustbin at the imbecile end of the eurosceptic movement. And that now is where the Tories are headed. All the seeds are now sown for a Tory implosion the likes of which we have never seen. 

In the meantime there is nothing any of us can say or do. We are all powerless spectators just waiting for it all to fold in on itself. For sure, predictions are a mug's game but there are no indicators that any of this is going to go well. The foundations simply aren't there. This government's idea of a trade strategy is freeports and sporadic FTAs. They're just playing at it. Their comprehension is nowhere near sophisticated enough, all the while they're playing silly buggers with the EU expecting it to make concessions it simply cannot make.

At this point, anyone with a basic grounding in the mechanics of trade knows this is going to be a trainwreck. The only real debate is the pace. Sudden death or slow motion implosion. Either way, it's looking pretty grim. 

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Brexit: a debate in crisis

I was intending on keeping up pace with the blog since Brexit day but celebratory drinks with The Boiling Frog on Saturday knocked me out of action for two days. I can't handle the beer like I used to. But then I didn't miss much. We've had a wave of impenetrable noise and the usual bloviation and bluster from the PM, and this week every man and his dog has an opinion on trade. When it gets like that it's better to let the wave wash over you and attack the substance when something coherent emerges.

As I've often remarked, though, a good reason to leave the EU is to repatriate decision making on trade and put it back in the public consciousness. It's good to see that for the first time in a very long time there is a public debate about trade and government is relearning the ropes. The sad part, though, is that it isn't an informed debate particularly because the Tory apparatus and its associate propaganda vessels have gone about deliberately misinforming the Tory tribe.

This blog has often made the case that there are dozens of good reasons to leave the EU, not least the chance to build a more responsive democracy, but "free trade" really isn't one of those reasons. Yet, the ERG wing of the Tory party have made free trade their central crusade and in order to secure our exit from the EU, preferably without a deal, and have poisoned the debate with all manner of issue illiterate nonsense. All the while editors like Robert Colville of CapX uncritically republish any old tribal toss without any verification process. And then there's the malevolent Conservative Home and BrexitCentral - who have a lot to answer for.

They say a lie is halfway around the world while the truth is still lacing its boots. That is especially true in this instance since Twitter is a facilitator of echo chamber dynamics. Trade is a subject that turns on detail which is easy to get wrong (where even the experts bump into their own limitations) and it's hugely dull. It can't compete with heavily biased narratives (such as EU dumping chicken on Africa) that suit what leavers want to believe.

What makes it worse in matters of trade is that every narrative is usually carefully crafted by lobbyists employed by multinationals from all over the world. There's an awful lot of corruption involved where, if a lobbyist needs the voices of government officials or producers to add weight to their arguments, they'll splash the cash around and then send the press releases to think tanks in Washington, Brussels and London who will obligingly recycle it as news for newspapers who have long made their own investigative capabilities redundant. We see this on everything from dairy and tobacco products through to palm oil and chicken. They then press into service their own bought and paid for "experts" like Shanker Singham to spread their gospel. Nothing can be taken at face value.

The aim is to weaken the EU politically - and very often it works since these narratives are picked up by eurosceptics and anti-free trade left wing groups on the continent masquerading as NGOs. As ever there's a germ of truth in some of these narratives, but must always be taken with a pinch of salt. That, though, doesn't stop Brexiteers picking up any stick to beat the EU with regardless of where it came from. Meanwhile the EU has been poor at countering many of these bogus narratives.

That said, for all of the EU's dogma, lobbying works both ways and the EU is by no means a saint. A case can be made that Africa is a dumping ground for EU and US agricultural surpluses, and African states are rightly suspicious of signing FTAs with the EU with all the conditionality that goes with them. As to what is actually true, it's a brave man who calls it. I've done my own (limited) investigations and some of these issues are six of one and a half dozen of the other, and the verdict is inconclusive.

One such instance is the accusation that the EU's palm oil ban is more to do with protecting European rape oil producers than saving the environment, but then at the same time the palm oil business is indeed a bloody, corrupt and dirty business leading to deforestation. UN FAO statistics suggest otherwise in places like Malaysia but the Malaysian government has become quite savvy in distorting the statistics by corruptly reclassifying land after controlled burns of bush land. To get at the truth we'd need a a trustworthy independent investigation and we probably won't get any such thing from the UN. If they have been taken in they'll never admit it - which explains why so much junk climate science survives.

Of course there are some people in the game worth listening to but with academia having gone all out for remain for the last four years, nobody on the leave side will listen to them in a million years. British academia has squandered its influence and burned all trust with the wider public.

The other problem with trade is it's very possible to sound plausible without actually knowing what you're talking about. And I should know. Some of the older work on this blog could be described as total crap. I do get things wrong from time to time. The problem we have, however, is that it's difficult for people wedded to an ideology or groupthink to ever admit they're wrong and will keep on repeating the same falsehoods over and over again no matter how many times their work is debunked. There is always someone willing to believe them.

That said, the remain side of the argument isn't in much better shape. They will go out of their way not to find fault with the EU and on the whole their understanding of trade issues is no more developed than the average Brexiteer. As defenders of the status quo they have no curiosity and in their eyes "clout" is the only factor of importance. There is no discussion beyond that.

But then it's not the remainers who are on trial here. We know what the status quo looks like. It's not perfect but it's tolerable. The Brexiteer proposition has to be equal or better, and most of us know that it won't be. The Brexiteer "free trade" prospectus stands on a foundation of intellectual sand for all the reasons outlined over the course of this blog. Sooner or later, the madcap theories of Tory think tankers will be put to the test - and will fail.

In respect of that, though much fault will lie with the Tories themselves, this is also a failure of media. There has been a detailed discussion of these issues on the blogosphere and on the fringes of Twitter going back well before the referendum. This is a debate CapX, Guido, City AM, Spiked and BrexitCentral chose to ignore, instead giving houseroom to prestige opinion with no basis in fact. Not only is the media failing to inform the debate, it is acting as a barrier to it.

Nobody want to see Brexit succeed more than I, but if it is to succeed then leavers need to decide whether they are going to keep refighting the referendum or engage with uncomfortable facts and get real. They are going to have to decide if we were fighting for a better democracy or whether this is all for the greater glory of Boris Johnson and the Tory mob.

Over the coming weeks and months we are going to see all manner of issue illiterate poison pumped into the public domain by all of the usual suspects - and will be retweeted thousands of times whereas genuine seekers after the facts won't get a look in. For all the exposure we get on Twitter we might as well go and talk to the dog in the village pub - which would at least be a receptive audience.

We are told that during the referendum our fragile little minds were warped by Russian bots and sophisticated targeted advertising, but the truth is more depressing than that. People do a fairly good job of brainwashing themselves without help from outside. They select sources that tell them what they want to hear, only accepting sources aligned with their existing position. Anything from outside is treated as suspicious and anyone attacking that source is immediately branded as someone from the other side of the binary divide. It's difficult to see how we can ever have an informed democracy when all the influential actors don't care if they are misleading the public just so long as their side wins.

Britain is headed for seriously choppy waters right now. Though yesterday we took up our independent seat at the WTO, the robotic rhetoric will be measured against our approach to the Brexit negotiations. How can the UK set itself up as a champion of the multilateral rules based order when its approach to Brussels sends the signal that UK policy is going against the aims and objectives of the WTO and has little regard for its rules. The WTO is seeking globally harmonised standards and customs processes while the UK is talking about diverging and toughening up standards, thereby creating new barriers to trade.

One thing now obvious to all is that there is no coherent trade strategy and nothing like a joined up policy stemming from a well thought out philosophy. All we get is vague aspiration peppered with misplaced jargon, pomposity and bluster. Meanwhile those who should know better reinforce the narrative with evidence free assertions and fantasy. Without an informed public debate and with a media that shuns reality, there is little hope of making a success of Brexit. We won't even know what hit us.