Friday, 8 April 2016

Climbing out of the swamp

By now you will all have heard every scare in the book about what could happen in the event of Brexit. But there is always a huge gulf between what could and would happen. I could at this very moment spontaneously combust - but it's not every likely. Admittedly, I'm probably a prime candidate but the risks are still small.

So we have to look at the context in which those hazards would occur. They occur in the event of the UK unilaterally withdrawing from the EU without a negotiated settlement, or if Brexit talks degenerated into acrimony and collapsed without an exit settlement. The former is not likely. It would require a European Communities Act repeal bill which would never in a billion years get through the House of Commons without a very strong motive.

The consequences of leaving without securing agreements on non-tariff barriers and the continuity of various cooperation accords would be unthinkable. Even our parliament would work this out and a repeal bill would rightly be defeated.

As to talks collapsing, there is no way the EU would let that happen. There is the letter of the law and then there is political reality. A collapse of all cooperation would cause chaos at the airports and ports. That triggers a trade crisis and a collapse of confidence in the Euro. It has costs for everyone. While the costs are less extreme for the EU, even marginal disruption could cause wider fragmentation in a political project that never enjoyed much of a mandate to begin with.

And so it is entirely reasonable to believe that we will have a negotiated exit settlement. And as we have previously discussed we would take an off the shelf solution in order to avoid talks dragging on beyond the mandated two years. Nobody wants the risks or the uncertainty. The fastest and easiest way to secure an agreement is to remove all sources of disagreement and agree to absolutely everything. That way, the day after we leave our statute book looks exactly the same as it does today.

Many on the leave side imagine it can be some other way but the political, legal and practical realities all indicate that there is no other way to do it. The way we get out of the EU is exactly the same way we came in. Gradually.

All we get on day one of Brexit is an agreement that says from that day forth, we do not have to consult Brussels on policy-making and the only limitations are those international accords we uphold as part of the exit settlement.

It is from there that we gradually go through the careful process of reforming our domestic governance. Clearly fishing and agriculture and the environment would be first up since those are the competence most constrained by EU membership. We will also be looking at a major rethink of our energy policy.

That said, the targets we have previously agreed to will be binding until such treaties and agreements naturally expire. We won't be walking away from any of our previous commitments even if the EU did sign international treaties on our behalf. We are British, we maintain our agreements and that is why we are top of the league for soft power.

So as much as the Leave campaign says we will slash and burn red tape, save money and spend it on the NHS, and somehow close the borders, we categorically won't - but by the same token, none of the Remain scares will come to fruition either. There are going to be a lot of disappointed people should we choose to leave in that it will not prove to be the panacea many expect it to be - nor the disaster the Remain side predicts.

As much as we will be constrained by legacy EU commitments, we will also be constrained by global conventions as compliance with international standards is required to export to most developed countries. In most practical terms very little changes, the single market stays in tact only and we retain close ties with our neighbours. Security cooperation stays roughly the same and so does academic cooperation.

What it does mean is that in future we will have direct access to the global bodies that make the rules than even the EU adopts. It means we can set our own trade and aid agenda and we can use the many global forums to remove technical barriers to trade rather than obsessing over trade deals. These small increments are less exciting, but in a world where tariffs are of declining relevance, far more significant. That is where our focus should be.

For the most part, Brexit will be a transitional process where we won't see any clear benefit for at least ten years. Contracts and agreements will have to expire before we can make major changes and our government and institutions will need time in finding their feet. They are going to have to rediscover what taking responsibility for governing means. We will go through a gradual metamorphosis where we will have to redesign some policy approaches from the ground up.

In that regard, Brexit may actually be a little more expensive. Change never comes without costs and disruption, but the point is the pace of change will be glacial rather than the sudden death cut off as many expect. The scares just don't hold water.

And this is to some extent agreeing with the Remain camp. Brexit will be an upheaval of sorts, it won't come without costs and it will upset the order of things. But that's actually the whole point of leaving. With all of the UK political parties bitterly divided and fragmented, with the party system in flux, with bitter disputes breaking out we can see that contemporary politics is not working and it is not producing any solutions. It's becoming toxic through the inertia. Everybody wants change yet change doesn't seem possible.

That is why we need to leave the EU. It is a matter of breaking the current deadlock, to refocus our policies and to end a long running bitter dispute over Europe. Far from being a parting of ways with Europe, Brexit just reforms the relationship we have with it. Cameron pretends we have a new relationship but the EU treaties have not changed nor are there any special provision for Britain that cannot be overruled or ignored. The promise of an end to ever closer union is undone the first time we accept another EU law on the statute book without the right of veto.

Brexit means that we are free to cooperate with the EU when we want to but it means we are free to look elsewhere for alliances when the EU is not the best vehicle for advancing our interests. As much as that's good for Britain, it's good for Europe. The EU is marked by its size but also its sluggishness. What could be better than Europe having an agile partner free to do what the EU cannot?

On the whole I see Brexit has being a healthy thing for our democracy, will revitalise political engagement and will end a forty year dispute with the Europe. We can demand that the system change all we like but establishments seldom reform themselves without a catalyst or external impetus. And without that, it will never reform itself in any real sense because it has its own sacred cows it would rather be left untouched. It is precisely those sacred cows we need to take to the slaughterhouse.

All I see for Britain if we don't leave the EU is a perpetuation of this political stalemate, with structures becoming ever more ossified and unresponsive, to the point where they retreat from any kind of public engagement, causing public frustration with government to increase. And nobody will quite realise why. What we need is a revolution in our governance and our political culture, and Brexit is that exact catalyst. Nothing else is going to do it and until we do, government will become ever more detached from the people it is supposed to serve.

Brexit isn't the answer to our prayers, but it is a step in the right direction and a gesture that says we are going our own way. That does not mean ending our relationship with Europe and it doesn't spell disaster. All it means is that when the EU seeks our cooperation we must be asked rather than told. That alone makes it worth the effort. What Brexit actually looks like thereafter is entirely up to us. What it won't be is a big bang. It will be a gradual evolution. But before we can walk tall, we must first climb out of the swamp.

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