Sunday, 12 February 2017

This government is lying to us about Brexit

I've given most of my attention this week to gaming what an EU FTA would look like. Theoretically you could do it in two years provided that you were basically cutting and pasting the entire stack of Swiss agreements. There would have to be a pre-negotiated agreement not to argue about the details. In order to transition to it you would need a massive task force to reconfigure UK law to accommodate it. You would also need a massive domestic public information campaign so business could prepare for it.

I can tell you straight of the bat that this is not going to happen. Not in the history of the EU has anything ever worked that well. Not forgetting you need at least a year to ratify it. I have written at length about what might be contained in such an agreement so there is no point going over old ground.

What should be noted though is that this is entirely separate to the divorce proceedings of establishing ourselves as an independent WTO entity, sorting out the financial liabilities and carving up subsidy quotas. This is also and area where we can expect to see considerable bickering and outrage. Some of it is straightforward, some of it not and some of it will be made unnecessarily complex by those who don't understand it.

This is the bit that probably can be done in two years, again on the proviso that no member states seek to use the opportunity for levering commercial advantage. That could happen. It won't be smooth sailing. Further to this I expect there will be some things emerging that have thus far fallen through the cracks which have failed to be considered by either party. There is then the question of carrying over third party deals we have via the EU and whether the EU will recognise the presumption of continuity.

I expect there will be about forty or so key policy headings on the agenda which are split into silos and farmed out to negotiating teams. Given that the UK does not yet have a fully manned negotiating team we are going to see inexperienced negotiators who are not in command of their brief fumbling around for answers from civil servants who simply do not know the subject matter. This then becomes a feeding frenzy for lawyers with any EU constitutional knowledge. Filleting EU law is not a job for amateurs. EU law has its own nomenclature but the meanings are not always constant and there will need to be referrals to the ECJ or examination of existing ECJ decisions.

At this point most of what is returned to ministers to sign off will have to be taken on trust because there is no way our politicians have the breadth of knowledge or experience to scrutinise it in any meaningful way. Ministers will likely have to take position papers from Member States and refer them back to their own ministries. This will most likely interfere with the normal operation of government functions as senior practitioners in every department will be called to give in depth testimony.

A lot of this really depends on the quality of the preparatory work which I expect is thin on the ground and generally inadequate. The civil service is dogged by incomprehension and complacency - along with internal politics.

The good news is that the divorce settlement can be agreed on without referring to back Member States as it is all bundled into the final ratification. Once agreed there is very little national assemblies can do to re-open it. More than likely there attention will be on the FTA aspect where they will seek to add in their own opt-outs and protectionist measures.

Meanwhile we do not know what will be the result of the French and German elections and what the revised positions will be. That could delay proceedings significantly and reduce negotiating time. Worse still, as each silo is agreed it has to be put through translation services and circulated for approval. Some of it could be put to broader public consultation in the member sates involving unions and trade bodies.

The government says all this can be done in two years and then we're magically out of the EU - and not half in, half out. This tells us one of two things. They are either being blindly optimistic by way of being astonishingly ignorant, or... they are lying to us and have something else in mind. Possibly both.

What troubles me is that the stock answer to any genuine question appears to be "fuck you" so we know little of what the government does actually know and we don't know if it has a plan A let alone a plan B. This really is mushroom management. All we can really do is contemplate the ifs.

As you know I am not impressed with the Brexiteers and MPs are generally under-informed. The only glimmer of understanding I have seen is from Nick Clegg and Ken Clarke - which is pretty horrifying. If they are taking select committee evidence at face value then we are up a certain creek.

I know I am prone to excessive pessimism but even being as fair as I can, I do not see that the government has a handle on this and I can see this process falling apart very quickly. We're under-resourced for it, under-equipped intellectually and the process at the best of times is bureaucratic. This kind of inertia has been overlooked. Put simply, the government is not being honest with us even if they do know what they are doing.

By now I have a good palette of expertise to draw from. There is very little expertise from the leave side as they are more concerned with the destination than the process, and from everyone else I get the impression that nobody serious thinks the government has a handle on it. I do not see this going well and I do not see anything in the government's white paper that is even remotely realistic.

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