Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Further down the drain


If you've debated Brexit at any point, you will have ended up crossing swords with a populist grunter who insists on trading on "WTO rules" who will most likely not have heard of the EU's Notices to Stakeholders, much less read them. Up to now they were a series of official legal positions on the standing of a third country in the event of no withdrawal agreement. They detail which markets the UK will be excluded from or will encounter regulatory barriers to participation. 

Yesterday these were updated to spell out the position in the event of an FTA or no FTA post-transition. As before they are split into sectors from air travel to medicinal products. If acknowledged they would likely dispel a great many of the misapprehension of Tory Brexiteers. Every notice carries the same health warning:
In particular, a free trade agreement does not provide for internal market concepts (in the area of goods and services) such as mutual recognition, the ‘country of origin principle’, and harmonisation. Nor does a free trade agreement remove customs formalities and controls, including those concerning the origin of goods and their input, as well as prohibitions and restrictions for imports and exports.
Were that anybody were actually interested in the details there's enough set out in these notices to do a detailed impact analysis just on the basis of what happens in law, but with Corona absorbing the entire runtime of the media and the public, the only people still with their heads in the game are the headbangers and the policy wonks who have nothing at all new to say - and in many instances have regressed. 

The upshot of that particular health warning is that the mish mash of misunderstood concepts the Tories believe are possible inside an FTA are, in fact, not possible. This is nothing at all new to anyone who was paying attention but it's good to have it spelled out in black and white. The functioning of the EU system is not up for negotiation - and certainly not to accommodate the UK. Corona has no bearing on it.

In more practical terms, so far as supply chains go, there is not a lot of functional difference between an FTA and no deal at all, and thus, if we are resigned to leaving the single market the "no deal" debate loses some of its urgency. There is also that small matter of the global pandemic. With Airbus facing a grave and possibly existential crisis, and Ford reporting slumping revenues, Brexit is looking like a sideshow. Corona's disruptive impact on supply chains is a global concern.

As regards to extending the transition, I have argued that it makes more sense to defer, but to a point, Michael Gove is quite correct. It is entirely possible to conclude a threadbare FTA in a short time, and if this government doesn't see the need for a comprehensive deal, and is determined to inflict the maximum possible disruption, then it scarcely matters. Politically it is easier to mask the effects while Corona is running hot. 

This to me is an absolutely foolish move that actually makes this Brexit worse than the original no deal in that we have a dog's dinner of a withdrawal agreement to contend with where Johnson has practically handed Northern Ireland to the EU. If there was a point in a withdrawal agreement it was to buy time to develop a working relationship with the EU but since we're rushing it through and the government has no intention of working toward a viable outcome, we might as well not have bothered at all. 

What follows will be a torrent of propaganda, probably from the IEA shop on how Corona underscored the need for absolute regulatory sovereignty, glossing over the derogations the EU has already made, largely using Corona as a smokescreen to deregulate the way they have always wanted to - still misunderstanding the utility and value of regulation. They're still caught up in their decades old "red tape" narrative. 

With so much else going on I don't see there being much in the way of political resistance. The Brexit saga was already exhausted with new twists providing only morsels of entertainment for the media whose audiences are bored stiff of it all after four years of intense and ill-natured bickering. The continuity remain campaign have even pivoted to become an anti-Boris movement, more concerned with the mismanagement of Corona - but as usual getting distracted by the trivia and having no sense of proportion. 

Beyond Corona, it is difficult to imagine what the trade landscape then looks like. The price of oil provides some easement, but trade is sure to be more political than it has been in recent years with food and biosecurity taking centre stage and economic nationalism surging back. Corona will have brought about a number of changes in consumer behaviour, some of which will be here to stay. Buying locally produced goods may just become a necessity since shipping lines are on the brink of collapse. Meanwhile, we are going to miss a lucrative export market place in our own backyard.

As it happens, there is every reason to believe we won't strike a deal with the EU. They UK red lines are too out of kilter with the EU's trade methodology. The UK is resistant to level playing field instruments, failing to comprehend that as far as the EU is concerned, a level playing field is a the whole point of FTAs which are their principal instrument of regulatory hegemony and soft power. Between that and the gulf that exists on fishing, the Tories have the pretext for a walkout that will be hugely popular. The European question, therefore, will remain unresolved. No deal cannot stay no deal. 

I would like to think that sooner or later the criminal negligence in their handling of Corona, and the botched exit from the EU will cost them later down the line. For the moment, the unpopularity of the media is giving the Tories a free ride, which they have skilfully weaponised by picking fights with A-list lobby hacks. It works for Trump and it will work here. The media is not doing itself any favours.

As regards to anything like coherent opposition, Keir Starmer brings no remedy to Labour's woes. Aside from being wooden and having all the charisma of septic tank, Labour still has an irreconcilable identity crisis to fathom while its factional infighting prevents Starmer from doing anything useful. He's no Blair and he's not even a Kinnock. But then, there is a deeper crisis in that they've forgotten how to effectively oppose. They take their agenda from the media and have no idea how to usefully exploit the mistakes made by Johnson. 

For the time being government is just something that is done to us where public consent doesn't really come into it. There is a public debate of a sort but it doesn't influence anything. We simply have to endure a feral government with no means of correction until the next general election, where, as ever, the options will be unpalatable, unedifying and fatally uninspiring. Meanwhile the media gets worse so the government remains more popular than it has any right to be.

I've been writing solidly about politics for five years now. I got into it with the hope that we could change things, arrest the decline and give government the overhaul it desperately needs. I'm starting to think it may not be possible. We are ebbing further away from democracy all the time. It;s nothing to do with Corona either. Public debate focuses on the leader and all power gravitates to the centre. The media reinforces it by making the Prime Minister the central focus - the prism through which all events must be viewed. Politics has died a death and not even Brexit managed to resurrect it while Corona just makes it more tribal than ever. 

Since Margaret Thatcher, each government has been more banal than the last as they choose to engage the public via the media. Politicians become bland sloganeers - evasive, dishonest and incurious. We have become so accustomed to manufactured scandal that real scandal no longer rates so conduct in politics declines. There is no price to pay for failure and no consequence for malfeasance. Since the public have been politically castrated they no longer care. Politics is now entertainment and they wouldn't have it any other way.

I've long felt that the public would have to feel tangible consequences for political indifference before they got angry. We were at least close to that with Brexit but with Corona being a cover all smokescreen we are even robbed of that. Government can continue to evade responsibility and people are all to happy to make excuses for it. I don't know how bad it has to get but it seems the answer is "worse than this". As if it wasn't depressing enough already. 

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