Monday, 21 November 2016

The Brexit debate is lacking vision and direction

If you are a hack working for the FT, Guardian or Independent, each morning you surrender what few critical faculties you have and take every unnamed source from Brussels at face value. You believe everything you read and are unable to extrapolate any nuances from precisely calculated language.

You will possess no working knowledge of what the single market is and even less idea what the customs union is. Consequently you are operating on the absolute certainty that hard Brexit is a looming even though the only things that adds weight to this massive assumption is some rabble rousing rhetoric from the Conservative party conference which in political terms was an age ago.

If you are Toryboy, on the other hand, you believe that Mrs May is a secret remainer plotting to keep us in the single market and you foam at the very thought of a managed and sensible Brexit that doesn't immediately sever all ties with the continent.

But then if you're a Labourist you think Mrs May is actually the second incarnation of Mrs T who is bent on hard Brexit. The official Labour line this week is that the UK must stay in the customs union and the single market - and if you know what that actually means in terms of terminology it is an entirely intellectually incoherent point of view. It's Schrodinger's Brexit. The subtext of that is that Labour wants Brexit in name only.

All of this contributes to a cacophony of noise, none of which adds any value to the debate or the sum total of our understanding. Whipping up a panic about the WTO option at this point is to pick the least likely scenario and by so doing Labour is absenting themselves from the debate in such a way they are voluntarily surrendering any influence over it. Given how little value they can add, that is no bad thing.

All we are seeing is games within games between the lazy, the feckless and the stupid. Each have their own pet theories and hobby horses and as far as I can tell virtually nobody in the field has any interest in establishing what is actually happening and how the various mechanisms work. It seems that Brexit has become the vehicle by which each tribe imposes their own alternate reality while the government does its own thing entirely. For all the noise parliament has made over parliamentary sovereignty, they are doing nothing to deserve a place in the discussion.

The problem we have is that the meagre efforts of the middle of the road remainers is actually emboldening the Tory hard Brexiters. In the end Mrs May will ignore them but the fevered panic this creates is not at all helpful. The way to dismantle the Tory right's arguments is to start examining and selling the advantages of the EEA and demonstrate the obvious futility of leaving the single market.

The problem we have here is that Brexiteers have long since stopped doing any thinking. They decided in 1992 that the only way was out and have not updated their arguments ever since. There was a time where we could have left the single market to revert to operating in an unregulated space but since 1992 the rest of the world has caught up and is now operating to the EU standard which in many respects has become the global standard. There simply isn't the scope for sweeping deregulation that the Tory right imagines. Consequently, by leaving the single market we would be terminating all the mechanisms that allow for the freest trade possible for no commercial advantage.

In this Labour can squeal at the insanity of the proposition but theirs is no better. Theirs is to run for cover - to seek a status inside the customs union having no say in EU affairs but having none of the advantages of leaving. It lacks vision or courage and puts us in the worst position imaginable.

But then Mrs May is not daft. She knows full well that the whole point of leaving the EU is to regain the power over our own affairs including trade and that means that we most certainly will be leaving the customs union. To do otherwise would to to unleash all hell. That leaves both extremes of the debate pointlessly shouting into the abyss. Consequently it is left to the government, without a clear vision, to fumble around in the dark.

What we should be looking to do is to succeed where the EU has failed. The EU has sought through TTIP and CETA to expand the single market but with a view to retaining an iron grip over it, controlling the terms of accession and retaining exclusivity. The British mission, therefore, should be to continue working with the EU to enhance the single market, removing the unfair distortions, but also using our soft power and agility to increase participation. In so doing we build up a core of non-EU participants coalescing around the UK to the point where we can break the single market out of EU control, making it a community of equals.

In this, neither Labour's snivelling gutlessness or dinosauric Tory wrongheadedness should be tolerated. We want continued free trade and good relations with the EU but at the same time we wish to take a leading role in the world to bring about a global single market. Labour wants to run to mummy while the Tories want to shut up shop and pretend the last twenty years never happened. Both to me sounds distinctly un-British.

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