Friday, 17 February 2017

Brexit: all at sea

If you look at any of the regional trade blocs or multilateral agreements between nations, you find that a central pillar of them is industry and market surveillance and information sharing.

In the maritime sector alone this extends to illegal fishing, drug smuggling, people trafficking, piracy, ecological monitoring and terrorism. Effective and efficient monitoring is needed in order to shape policy. Your overall national picture is only as good as your information sharing. None of this comes for free. Where you have cooperative ventures, many of them have central authorities and the longer they have been in operation the more your own domestic law gives them legal effect. Pulling out of them, as indeed Mrs May proposes means also turning your domestic law into meaningless gibberish.

In the case of the maritime sector there are a number of global agreements whereby the EU has incorporated the rules so that we don't have to. We simply refer to EU systems and our status as a signatory is assumed. To give legal effect to them we will need a complete re-write of our own laws.

The problem there is that you can't really do that until you have established whether or not you are going to continue using shared systems by way of a cooperation agreement - and what legal status that has - and whether it grants any rights to a special court like the ECJ.

Put simply, there is no way to unplug without unleashing chaos. This means we will, assuming we get permission, stay as part of the EU until such a time as we can make a seamless transition.

We have heard ministers and MPs demanding a sunset clause on any transitions but how do you even begin to put a date on such things without having an idea of cost and scope. Even if we can do it, we still have to finance it.

When you multiply this dynamic across the 57 policy systems it rather looks like we will be lingering in the EU for years. Taking back control then starts to look like an utterly meaningless mantra - not least when you international obligations look very much the same as your existing EU commitments.

This is where Mrs May is in for a series of major humiliations as this government has yet only a very shallow understanding of the issues and the whole thing will rapidly become a farce.

Part of the reason for this is that we have transferred so many areas of governance that we are institutionally under-equipped for any such undertaking and have entered into agreements which were pretty much designed to harvest powers from nation states. Taking them back is no easy feat. Harder still when in many areas there is slender justification for doing so.

For the moment, much of the debate is tied up in comparatively trivial matters centred around free movement of goods. But this doesn't even scratch the surface. All of it works on the basis of complex regulatory systems backed up by IT systems, some of which are shared, others owned entirely by the EU. You cannot pull out unilaterally without trashing the whole system and consequently the trade that goes with it.

By now it has dawned on just about everyone that there is zero chance of quitting the EU in just two years, or even agreeing a framework for leaving. We are faced with either accidental Brexit or a humiliating climbdown when the process hits the rocks.

The only system that gives legal effect to all the EU regulatory bodies and authorised agencies is the EEA. That would, at the very least, dramatically reduce the number of domestic laws that have to be rewritten. This is what the government refuses to acknowledge.

I still think the government may well be forced to maintain single market membership. The only other way to do this is to hatch a bespoke agreement which will likely take years - when all the while we remain in the EU. This will be a massive embarrassment for May who has repeatedly told us she can wrap it all up with a wave of the Brexit fairy's wand.

Whether or not she is stupid enough to walk away from the table, we do not know. We also do not know if the EU will lift a finger to stop a catastrophic Brexit. Supposing we are being generous and crediting Mrs May with half a braincell, we are still looking at a giant mess to sort out. It will soon become clear that she is out of her depth and that her Brexit ministers have utterly failed. It will get very ugly, very quickly. This is what you get when governments surrender powers that were not theirs to give away.

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