Thursday, 26 January 2017

Brexit: back to basics

I spend a lot of time berating the Tories these days. They have made it necessary. They don't have a handle on Brexit at all. They are out of their depth.

In voting for Brexit I voted for a completely different relationship with the EU. As messy and expensive as Brexit is I think this is an important and worthwhile process to bring power over decision making back to the people. Too much of what the EU does happens out of the public eye and it does not give us sufficient powers of veto.

Britain, economically, culturally, geographically is very different to the continent and though there are many commonalities I believe we are sufficiently different to need a legal system more suited to our country. For those on the continent, especially in the north west of Europe, crossing borders is a part of every day life. There are many frontiers and much physical commonality. It makes all the sense in the world for them to work to a uniform set of policies.

Britain isn't like that. For most Brits it is rare to leave our shores because it's not as simple as just driving to work. There is either a ship, a train or plane involved and crossing borders costs a notable chunk of the average monthly income. Consequently crossing borders is not second nature to us. For business we have one main pipeline to the continent and that's it.

It is my belief that one size fits all policies will for the most part be adequate for the EU, but Britain, with all its systemic distinctions, will always be the reluctant partner and will always be asked to make some of the most bitter compromises. So we need a different system.

Like Tory Brexiteers I voted for a relationship focussed largely on the functional trade relationship, believing the added Europe was trespassing on our democracy. We want free and open trade with the EU but collectively we consider some things to take precedence. We want more control and we are willing to pay a price to get it.

The question now is what should that price be? Where does the axe fall? The problem with the Tories is that they want a trade only relationship, which is all very well, but even a trade relationship in a modern and increasingly technical world necessarily will be comprehensive. Further to that it must be established on a set of common rules.

In addition to common rules it needs systems of administration and since we share many goals a high level of cooperation is still required. We want bio-security, safe goods and wherever possible hassle free movement of people, services and goods. It makes life better. To get that though, there must be continued diplomacy and the system must evolve in order to adapt to new threats and challenges. That means that even a basic trade relationship with the EU necessarily will be wide in scope, comprehensive and complex. There is no getting away from that fact.

Like most Brexiteers I want this taken care of quickly, I don't want to see needless delays and I would like it to be simple. But then this is the real world and we are dealing with not just one government but twenty eight. It is not realistic to expect anything will be quick or simple.

Voters have made it quite clear that they do not want to see a common EU army, tax harmonisation, or any further control to be ceded to Brussels. I accept this. I agree with it. It has gone too far for my liking and enough is enough. We should not have given up control of fishing and agriculture and I think landscapes and habitats have been damaged because of it. The mindset of central economic planning and wealth redistribution has weakened British industry and in the end has cost all of Europe. It's better if some nations are going different ways than over the cliff together.

The problem though is that there is no clear line of delineation between what is necessary for the free and fair exchange of goods and services and what is political idealism. It is difficult to tell the difference between integration for its own sake and integration that would happen naturally as a consequence of technology and globalisation.

The problem with the EU model is that it gives all of the power in deciding where that line is to the Commission and the ECJ. Countless decisions are made without any real national scrutiny and for all our politicians pay attention to it, the system might as well be on autopilot.

The symptoms of this are there for all to see. In grappling with Brexit it is clear that our politicians do not comprehend the scale of integration or even when or why it happened. We have no national institutional memory or even a record of why things are the way they are. Having given up control of critical decision making they have filled the void by confiscating ever more powers from local authorities, making our local democracy inert. The consequence of that is unresponsive and remote government and a widely despised political class. Economically, culturally, politically, we are ready for a rethink.

In this, what we most certainly do not want to do is throw the baby out with the bathwater. The single market as a model is one that has proliferated world wide and the principles form the basis of emerging compressive regional trade pacts the world over. They protect against dumping of surpluses and removes the worst externalities of trade. It at least attempts to create a level playing field in the knowledge that cooperation is in the greater good and nobody wins from tit for tat trade disputes.

What that does mean is that trade is governed by the rule of law and consequently nobody gets to do exactly as they please. You can have full sovereignty but if we break agreements we must expect that there are penalties. We cede some control because there are economic and social benefits in cooperation. In this, the general rule is that we should never sign up to anything we cannot later chose to walk away from. That is why the EU was a mistake.

Many people point to the many other global bodies like the WTO and compare them with the EU. The distinction is that the WTO are not binding in the same way that EU supranationalism. We can ignore the WTO and accept the penalties. Observance is largely voluntary and we do so because we respect the rule of law and honour our commitments. Not so with the EU. We do as we are told because we have given the EU direct authority. So much so that we cannot walk away from it without devastating consequences. We are legally intertwined in ways that are impossibly complicated.

This is why Brexit is no walk in the park. There is no factory reset button on half a century of political integration. To attempt to do it all in one go is is to inflict considerable damage on the EU and the UK. Brexit must be a careful, rational, forensic process taking into account the multiple of policy areas now under EU control. This, though, is not what is happening.

What is driving our Brexit policy is a woeful incomprehension of what is involved made worse by dogmatic idealism which has never been tested against the realities of the world as it is. Theresa May doesn't understand what is involved, the Brexiteers don't, and the remainers are not much better off either. They are engaged in opposition for its own sake, preferring the perpetual political slumber of EU membership.

This means the political establishment is entirely out of its depth, ill equipped to cope and incapable of bringing any clarity to it. Some see Brexit as an opportunity to hitch their hobby horse politics onto what really is a technocratic and legalistic process where the pursuit of perfect stands in the way of achieving the adequate.

Politically there are red lines but unless you approach Brexit in the full knowledge that there will be hefty compromises then you are setting yourself up to fail. The debate is now one of how we square the circle of unrealistic and contradictory demands of voters with the reality of our predicament.

Unless our government realises that there is no carte blanche Brexit it is on course for failure. In the pursuit of total control we stand to lose that which was worth keeping while taking on avoidable costs. Without a change of direction Brexit Britain will turn out to be everything we Brexiteers said it wouldn't be; insular, protectionist, isolated and poorer. That is not what any of us voted for.

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