Sunday, 1 January 2017

Brexit: evolution, not revolution

There are those who who would have it that the EEA is not an adequate transitional mechanism for Brexit. As with much else in this world, there are those who continue to cling to articles of faith rather than confront the reality of our predicament and seek any scrap of evidence that supports their flimsy position.

A great many leavers insist that we do not need the single market. That is a debate I'm not prepared to enter anymore. The respective merits of it are largely irrelevant. What concerns us is the process of leaving. The EEA agreement, while suboptimal, is at the very least a framework for cooperation with the EU which take much (not all) of the complexity out of the equation. Nobody disputes the fact that we could negotiate something separate to it but nobody has really answered the question of why bother?

The mistake is to believe that we are seeking a final settlement to close Brexit negotiations and go on our merry way. Except the likelihood of wrapping all of it up in under a decade are nil. What we need is a framework for continued Brexit negotiations being mindful of the fact that we have insufficient knowledge and resource to take everything all on at once. It's all very well pulling out of EU cooperative activities but only if you have something of equal sophistication to replace it with.

We must also consider our future relations with the EU where there will necessarily need to be a means of continued formal communication. Most lose sight of this because the ambition among leavers is that we should be all the way out as quickly as possible and pay any price to achieve this. The underlying motivation being that we then have a freer hand in designing our future relations with the rest of the world.

The problem with this approach is that our government is even less prepared for those such endeavours than it is for Brexit. There is a policy vacuum and little idea what to do with those freedoms once we have them. There is a paucity of workable ideas - and even if that were not the case, we would need time to further develop those ideas.

The purpose of the EEA solution is so that we can take on responsibilities as and when we are ready. As some have noted the EEA does not cover fishing and agriculture, which makes Brexit negotiations complex enough - and we will need transitional measures before we are ready to institute our own policies and develop the infrastructure to maintain them. Quitting the EU all in one go means that this experience must be replicated across the board in every area. That to my mind sounds like a recipe for an omnishambles for which our government is not intellectually equipped to resolve.

Adopting the EEA agreement ensures that much which would otherwise be considerably time consuming is already agreed. That can only hasten our departure. To develop anything else would be to reinvent the wheel for very little gain and for freedoms we are not yet prepared to exercise. The product of this would be a messy system of parallel agreements like Switzerland where the inherent constitutional conflicts require continued renegotiation and diplomacy with the EU. The Swiss relationship is not presently settled and isn't likely to be any time soon.

In fact, any talk of a "settlement" rather ignores the fact that in any scenario in or out of the EU, our relationship with it is a continuum and must continue to evolve over time. The EEA with its system of annexes provides a means of continued development and is effectively an interface to the EU's internal market. This gives us the option of deciding how far out we want to go.

Hardline leavers would have us sever all cooperation as soon as possible for entirely phantom benefits. It's true that the EEA places several constraints on us but in an ever interdependent and globalised world, there is no such thing as an entirely free hand. We are not leaving a regulated sphere to step into an unregulated world. Much of what applies to the EU would continue to apply to us in any respect.

What we would likely find is that any changes in tariffs would have to be selective and gradual and applied in accordance with existing agreements. There are no magic wands to reinvigorate trade. We would be looking at multiple policy interventions, many of which the EU is already engaged in.I would also note that the EU is already fairly liberalised and doesn't have much in that sphere to barter with without doing a great deal of harm to domestic markets. Namely agriculture.

If there is any progress to be made it is through multilateral innovations connecting the dots between trade and development. In many respects we were already free to do that in the EU, the EEA is no barrier and any which way you turn we are faced with some hefty compromises. The continued assertion that there is a free space where the UK can do as it pleases is one of the most depressing and enraging facets of this whole debate.

As to what is politically palatable, that should really not concern us. There is no scenario where everybody is satisfied. It will require political courage to do that which is best for the country. I would be more enthused by the alternatives if it could be demonstrated that we are sufficiently prepared with a radical agenda of our own but there is no such plan on the table. There is only disingenuous political spin geared toward aiding the hardest Brexit possible.

For me, leaving the EU is really a matter of personal preference. You either see Britain as a subordinate region to a supreme European government or you see us thriving as an independent state. In every estimation I would opt for the latter. It is an instinct. Because we made the historic mistake of joining the EU there is no doubt we will pay a heavy price for leaving it - but now we are faced with deciding how much we are prepared to pay and when.

Hard Brexiteers would have us pay all of the price all at once when this is not the time, nor is it even necessary. In the very first instance an EEA agreement takes us out of the EU and makes us an independent nation in all the technical ways that matter. Further divergence must be done carefully with adequate consideration as to the fallout - otherwise we risk burdening business with multiple changes with no clear indication as to what comes next. That is not a welcome development.

In many respects Britain will ride out the storm of Brexit particularly because it is agile and responsive. There is every reason to expect it can adapt to changes but in order to continue investing business needs a clear idea of what comes next. The EEA at least gives us a working model which has a real world reference point, and we can learn and develop that which is already in place. The EEA removes the guesswork.

There are those who assert that the EU would not allow us entry to the EEA, but it is for them to demonstrate why the EU would prefer to commit a number of years of its runtime to developing a new interface specifically for the UK when the result would be comparable with Switzerland and a continued distraction from core EU business. It strikes me that negotiations will work in our favour if we go to the table with solutions rather than problems. In any negotiation, particularly when neither side is especially well prepared, solutions carry greater favour and acting in good faith carries greater authority than petulance.

The oft repeated claim that the EEA is not full Brexit is a delusion born from remainer propaganda during the referendum. It defeats me as to why leavers would be so keen to repeat it. The concern is that the EEA would become the destination rather than a transitional phase. That though completely misses the point. The EEA is more a system than a treaty and one which can be modified and maintained. We may reach a stage where we have reached maximum divergence whereby the additional rights we gain as an independent state are enough that we do not need to leave it.

The simple truth is that our relations with the EU do not end with Brexit. For as long as the EU exists, it will, as our closest neighbour, continue to be an influential ally and it follows that we cannot have it all our own way even we did go for a hard Brexit. Those who continue to advocate a hard Brexit need to spell out what we would gain from it. If the usual leaver rhetoric is anything to go by it is far too flimsy to gamble our future on. We should not hold out for an implausible perfection when adequate will suffice. Nobody is saying the EEA is ideal but what matters is how we evolve it.

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